“The role of the supervisor is to identify potential pitfalls in the research plan and gently guide the student towards them” – John Giffin (Honours supervisor 1997)
I am one of the Chief Investigators at the University of Tasmania Node. I’ve been working at the intersection of mathematics and evolutionary biology for nearly 25 years – ever since going to a lunchtime seminar on Bioinformatics in 1998 and deciding to completely change my PhD topic from vehicle transportation routing problems (Operations Research) to mathematical phylogenetics.
Plant Success isn’t the first Centre of Excellence that I have been involved with. Back in 2002 my PhD supervisors David Penny (a theoretical biologist) and Mike Hendy (a mathematician) were successful in getting funding for a Centre of Research Excellence in New Zealand. They led the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution which brought together biologists, ecologists, mathematicians, and computer scientists. During my earlier PhD with them and a subsequent postdoc working in the Allan Wilson Centre I got lots of practice at trying to do research at the intersection of math and biology. I made numerous mistakes and I would encourage all our Early Career Researchers to make some of them too!
Ineffective habit 1: Solve the problem you know how to solve
When you know how to solve a particular problem it is extremely tempting to believe that the problem you have in front of you is the one you know how to solve. This is the “have hammer, seeking nail” attitude. When I started out collaborating with Jan Schmid at Massey University we had a 15-minute conversation where I understood ~30-50% of what he was saying after which I decided that his problem of how to choose representative Candida albicans model strains for further sequencing was basically the same as the factory location problem that I knew from my Operations Research background. I went away and wrote some code to solve the problem I thought he had. We met up again some days later and I explained what the code did and he explained why that wasn’t the problem he wanted solved. From memory, we iterated this process quite a number of times before we were both happy!
Some might charitably say that I was using an Agile design philosophy, but I think it’s more likely that I was a bit arrogant and a poor listener!
Ineffective habit 2: Assume a common language
We all know that we should avoid using jargon to audiences outside our narrow area, but it can be surprisingly tricky in practice.
Sometimes different disciplines use the same words to mean totally different things, e.g. the word ‘species’ is something totally different to a biologist than a chemist; the word ‘transition’ means one thing to a stochastic modeller and something quite different to a molecular biologist.
Sometimes different disciplines use different words to mean the same thing – e.g. Unsupervised machine learning (Comp. Sci) and Classification (statistics).
Ineffective habit 3: Extrapolate wildly from your limited experience
One of the things that initially surprised me about multidisciplinary research is that people are generally quite bad at assessing if a task is easy or difficult when it is outside their own area of expertise.
Example 1: Thinking easy things are difficult
I once realised that a microbiologist colleague was going through a FASTA file with ~1000 sequences in it removing the 20bp primers at the start of each sequence by manually deleting them one at a time. I said, “why didn’t you ask someone to help you write a script to do that?” and she said, “I thought it would be very difficult and didn’t want to waste anyone’s time”. I said that generally if a task is very repetitive then it will be easy to get a computer to do it instead (indeed it took about 5 minutes). It didn’t occur to me that it wouldn’t occur to her that this was an easy task.
Example 2: Thinking difficult things are easy.
Not long after starting my PhD in phylogenetics I walked into a group meeting and asked “So, how exactly do you define a species anyway?” Someone took me aside and said “Barbara, you can’t just walk into a room full of biologists and ask a question like that – it’s an invitation to open warfare”.
Ineffective habit 4: Never interrupt, just nod and smile
When talking to people outside my area if I don’t understand something I am often tempted to just nod and smile and hope that I will be able to work it all out later (maybe with the help of google and Wikipedia). This is a habit I am trying to break by instead interrupting early and often.
Ineffective habit 5: When breaking into a new area don’t read anything
As my PhD supervisor Mike Hendy liked to say, “A day’s programming can save an hour’s thought, and an hour’s thought can save 10 minutes at the library.”
Ineffective habit 6 & 7: Over promise, under deliver
This is my way of saying that I couldn’t think of a habit 6 or 7.
Professor Barbara Holland
Chief Investigator, University of Tasmania