By Marko J. Spasojevic
In our second instalment of This Is How I Work I interviewed Meghan Barrett a PhD student at Drexel University studying the neuroanatomy and behavior of Centris pallida. She earned her B.S. in Biology and English/Creative Writing at SUNY Geneseo in Upstate New York.
Location: Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA
Current Position: 2nd Year Graduate Student
One word that best describes how you work: Energized
Current Mobile Device: Samsung Note 5
Current Computer: Lenovo Yoga – Touchscreen Capable
Current Statistics Program: R or SPSS
Current Reference Management Software: Mendeley
First of all, tell us about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I’m a second-year graduate student at Drexel University working on my PhD in Biology and MS in STEM Education. I currently work mostly on insect neuroanatomy but also dabble in thermoregulation and animal behavior. I enjoy a spot of science communication over at my blog: meghan-barrett.com, where I’m working on a series about native bees in North America called ‘Bee Bytes’.
When I went to undergrad, I planned on becoming a neurosurgeon; a well-timed interruption in Dr. Apple’s ‘ant lab’ at Geneseo totally changed my mind and I fell in love with insects! I combined my love of brains and insects and now work in the lab of Dr. Sean O’Donnell where I am finishing my second year.
What’s your workspace setup like?
At home, I do most of my work on the couch. There’s ample space to spread out and it helps me relax while still getting stuff done. If it’s crunch time, I’ll move to the kitchen table for a more structured and solitary environment.
At work, my desk contains stacks of folders with papers in them, organized by ‘project’, and their associated lab notebooks on one side. My appointment book off to the side to keep me on track with the tasks I should be accomplishing each hour.
What is your best time saving short-cut?
Mendeley for citations – nothing is better than not having to type out a 50+ citation bibliography at the end of a paper! I love the automatic bibliography section it allows you to generate.
How do you manage your to-do list?
I’m a big fan of the idea that the organizational strategy should meet the demands of what you’re trying to organize – this means that the strategy employed by each person, at each stage of their career, will differ.
I try to organize my life on quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily timescales (it’s not as scary as it sounds, promise!). At the beginning of each three-month quarter, I identify three big professional goals that I can achieve in that time frame. I use a Powerpoint to keep track of all the big lab projects; this is a living document where I easily can add new ideas without having them bog down my current to-do lists or mental memory space. I prioritize all the projects as ‘high’ to ‘low’, take notes about them, and also move them around based on deadlines (i.e. a note that says: ‘Low, but move to High in June’).
After ascertaining priorities, I map out when I want big action items finished for each goal, and mark those on a monthly-spread calendar. I mark down any big meetings, finals week, events, conferences, etc that may take up extra time to make sure my deadlines are realistic.
The next level of organization happens on a weekly basis; each Sunday, I map out a weekly ‘priority list’ for personal and work tasks. There can be two big, five medium, and ten small tasks and they can be assigned to top, mid, or bottom priority. This prevents me from being overzealous about how many things I can do per week and generally leaves me with flexibility to add additional, last-minute things as well.
After making this priority list, I go through and plan each day of the week from Mon – Thurs, consulting my appointment book to see how much free time I have per day, and thus how likely I am to have time to do particular tasks. I schedule time periods for each task and make daily to-do lists, but leave Friday blank – for all the stuff that doesn’t get done M-R due to emails, spontaneous meetings, etc.
This means that each Monday, I head to work with a solid understanding of my big goals, what my priority projects are, and also a plan for M-R of what I’ll be doing to make sure I’m on target to reach my quarterly goals.
What apps, software, or tools do you use (if any)?
Google calendar is an excellent appointment book for people who don’t like paper schedules. I also use my google calendar as a reminder for one-time, irregular tasks (‘take slides out of the oven’) so they don’t clutter my scheduler.
In the past, I have used Habitica.com extensively – it turns your to-do lists and habits into a game (for free)! This worked really well for me in undergrad, though now I find the ‘habit’ and ‘dailies’ functions of Habitica most useful as my to-do lists are very large.
How do you balance multiple projects/demands (teaching/research/service/etc.)?
I’m a paid on a teaching assistantship so teaching tasks are my top priorities and I never skimp in these areas. Research work gets done post-required teaching time, so research tasks get added to the schedule after I figure out what my teaching load will look like for the week. Service gets speckled in outside of that, with most of my service eating away at my free time and thus happening on weekends and late in the evenings (luckily, it’s also very rewarding).
What’s your biggest struggle in the workplace?
Impostor syndrome is a huge issue for me. I’m trying not to compare my progress to others but instead view this as my own journey. Science is very competitive, and I am very competitive – but I’m learning that there are multiple paths to success, and multiple ways that success can look.
What do you listen to while you work?
If I’m doing relatively tedious/repetitive lab work, I listen to League of Legends esports games – particularly the EULCS (because Fanatic is my favorite team!) and the NALCS (because it is my region). The casters for these regions (people who announce what is happening in the game and provide background information) are really fun to listen too; I’ve been listening to LoL games while doing research for nearly two years and the months between seasons are torture.
If I’m writing a paper or doing something that requires intense focus, I listen to epic movie soundtracks with no words, like The Avengers, and game soundtracks, like Legend of Zelda.
What is the most interesting journal article you read recently?
Grüter et al (2017). Repeated evolution of soldier sub-castes suggests parasitism drives social complexity in stingless bees. Published in Nature communications.
How do you recharge?
My fiancé and I are big gamers, so my recharging time often involves playing support (I’m a Soraka main) in League of Legends or enjoying a nice game of Civilization V. I also love reading and writing – I read most everything except horror/mystery, but I particularly enjoy high fantasy, science plays, and historical romance. I write ecological poetry, science plays, creative nonfiction, and high fantasy game apps, but I’m much more of a hobby writer than anything else because of the time commitment involved in writing a complete work. I’m pretty introverted, so nights in are more fun for me than nights out!
What is your routine like? Early-riser, or night owl?
I want to be an early riser because it always seemed the more responsible option, but realistically I’m a night owl. I don’t tend to get up too early or stay up too late most nights (I really value my sleep) but I will sometimes get into a zone and work or read papers until all hours.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Grad school is a marathon, not a sprint” – Dr. Kaitlin Baudier, a grad student from my lab, now a post-doc, who defended at the end of my first year. This piece of advice has really helped me reframe how I approach grad school and science. I tended to work in huge bursts, getting tremendous amounts of work done and then backing off for a few weeks because I burned out. Now I realize that grad school requires a more measured, sustained pace because the projects are so long and slow.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I think we just about covered it!
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see Dr. Justin Schmidt, author of Sting of the Wild, answer these same questions.