Brains and Brawn: dominant lizards are better learners too!

Dominant individuals tend to have greater monopoly over food and mates and therefore have more offspring compared to subordinate individuals. Are these successes attributed to greater cognitive ability? Or are dominant individuals just better at freeloading from their clever subordinate counterparts?

We investigated whether dominant and subordinate eastern water skinks differ in their ability to learn from one and other (social learning). Previous work has shown in this species that young skinks tend to learn from older skinks, but age and dominance status and body size are inherently confounded. In other words, the age-dependent pattern may actually reflect a dominance effect, whereby young and therefore subordinate skinks tend to learn from older, dominant lizards.

Easter Water Skinks fighitng

Two male eastern water skinks giving no quarter – Photo credit: Martin Whiting

In order to disassociate these confounding factors, we matched skinks closely in size and therefore age and allowed them to fight to determine their dominance statuses. Winners of the fight was considered ‘dominant’, while the loser was considered ‘subordinate’. We then divided our skink pairs into two treatment groups, a ‘control’ group, where a skink watched their status counterparts do nothing and a ‘social learning’ group, where a skink was able to watch their status counterpart solve a foraging task e.g. a subordinate skink was able to watch a dominant skink, while a dominant skink was able to watch a subordinate skink (Fig. 2)

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The control group watched their status counterparts do nothing. While the social learning group watched their status counterparts solve a task before receiving the task themselves

We gave the lizards two foraging tasks. In the first task, the lizards had to learn from their status counterparts how to learn to flip a blue lid to access a worm and ignore a white lid (association task). In the second task, the lizards had to unlearn the blue lid-worm association and learn to flip the white lid for the worm (reversal task). We then recorded how many trials it took for skinks to learn these tasks.Screen Shot 2017-09-02 at 9.33.44 PM

To our surprise, lizards did not seem to learn from the other lizard but instead relied on their own trial-and-error learning abilities. This was consistent for both dominant and subordinate lizards. We also found that dominant lizards learnt faster compared to subordinate lizards.

These results tell us a few neat things about social learning in the eastern water skink. Firstly, skinks were closely matched in size but they didn’t seem to learn from watching another skink. This seems to suggest that skinks may not want to learn from an individual of similar age and actually this may actually impede learning. Secondly, dominant individuals learnt faster compared to subordinate skinks implies that dominant skinks may be less prone to the stress associated with learning in the presence of another skink or they may indeed have both brains and brawn.

For more information, check out the paper published in Animal Cognition here

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The Research Pipeline – tips on productivity

Have you ever had a lull in productivity? Days where you feel like you are not achieving very much? You are not alone. In my first year of my PhD, the thing that stressed me most was not knowing whether I was productive enough. How do I track my progress? A few weeks ago, I went to a workshop on ‘A novel framework for research productivity’ run by post-doc Khandis Blake from the Sex Lab, UNSW. Inspired by Khandis’ productivity (she completed 16 studies during her PhD in 2.5 years!), I decided to blog about this and hope someone will find this helpful with their own project management as well.

Pipeline thinking
Khandis had a background of business coaching. In her workshop, she drew parallehttp://www.actioncoach.com/ls between sales pipelines (derived from Action Coach) and research projects (Fig. 1). She discussed one can increase customers, revenue and profits or in research terms – the number of completed studies, submitted manuscripts and publications by working on factors that affect these key things.

Fig. 1: The sales pipeline (left) and the research pipeline (right). By working on the things in blue that are upstream to the things in red (completed projects, the number of manuscripts and publications), you are ultimately increasing your productivity.

For example, a business can work on converting people that walk in the store (‘leads’)  into paying customers, which will ultimately increase store revenue/profits. Think store promotions or sale assistant greetings as you walk in. You can do the same with the number of completed projects by working on your leads. This can be the number of collaborations you have or own ideas you’ve identified from reading. You can focus on converting these ideas into completed projects by recruiting help with data collection (e.g. interns and student volunteers), or use a more efficient way to test your idea (e.g. theoretical models), or perhaps the data already exists and all you need to do is to put these together (e.g. meta-analyses).

Now, once a business has converted a lead to paying customer, one can increase the number transactions per sale, which will increase revenue. Think “Would you like to have fries with that?”, a line we are all too familiar with. The research equivalent of this, is the idea of publication frames i.e. number of manuscripts you can address in a single project. Can you partition your data  to test multiple hypotheses? Can you collect just a bit more data (with minimal effort) so you can address another interesting question? Depending on the of results, can you segment these to tell more than one cohesiveness story?

Finally, to ultimately increase the number of publications– your manuscripts need to be submitted. Your success rate depends on a range of factors, some of which are not in your control (e.g. time in review) but you can increase your chances by making sure the story is clear, concise and well written; stick to journal guidelines; a fast turnaround with revisions or resubmissions to another journal. But there is a catch with the research pipeline…

The lag in research
Khandis emphasised that the research pipeline is long one. The time from a conceived idea to data collection, to manuscript submission and submitted and acceptance is LONG. For example, I started the data collection in early December 2014 for a paper that was accepted earlier this month (3 year pipeline!!!). This means that there is always a lag in productivity and in order to avoid lulls, here are some tips:

  1. Khandis’ top tip is to always keep that pipeline full. Network for collaborations, read for new ideas, collect and analyse data and always be writing something. It is that uncomfortably simple.
  2. Have a mental or physical reminder of the current state of your pipeline (See mine as an example in Fig. 2).
  3. Backwards plan your tasks, e.g. if your goal is to have a study analysed, written up and submitted in 18 months, then data collection needs to start next month but you need permits which needs to be applied for this week!

    Fig. 2 My research pipeline. Huge influx from starting my PhD, still wrapping projects I worked on pre-PhD.

Research projects – especially PhDs – can be long and demanding journeys, but with a clear pipeline in mind, one can hopefully navigate this path with a bit more ease and come out on the other side with a few more papers under your belt. Good luck!

 

 

 

 

 

Writing well – some practical tips

Writing is the bread and butter to all researchers. It is the main form through which our findings are communicated to the scientific community as well as to the general public – so, its important to do it well. But how does one do that? Do researchers just have a natural flair for writing?
comic
A few weeks ago, I went to a workshop run by my supervisor, A/Prof Shinichi Nakagawa on “How to write a lot and (well)”. A/Prof Russell Boundriansky and Prof Rob Brooks were also there to contribute their tips too. Thankfully, all three academics admitted that writing is HARD, but stressed how important it is, if you want to strive in academia.
Shinichi firmly believes that there is no such thing as ‘writing talent’, which is very reassuring. He emphasised that through ‘deliberate practice’, everyone can write well. Deliberate practice in a nutshell, is about having a clear goal of what you want to improve and working towards this goal consistently with feedback and repetition. Below, I have summarised the key tips from the workshop, which form the basic ‘writer’s toolkit’ and hope this will be helpful to those that need some inspiration in their workflow. Remember – tips that work well for some, may not work well for others – but everything is worth a try!

Mindful focus

According to Shinichi, one can only deliberately practice something for no more than 4 hours. If you have trouble focussing, give Pomadoro timers a go! Do 25 minutes of completely focussed work – no emails, no distractions. Then have a 5 minute break where you can indulge in a bit of Facebook or whatever takes your fancy. Rob reckons 10 Pomadoro cycles is considered really productive day!

No reading means no writing

One of the challenges I often face is that I don’t know what to write and this is usually because I haven’t done enough reading. So it is crucial to read regularly and engage with the literature.

Tip 1. Shinichi showed us The Old Reader – an RSS subscriber that keeps ALL your alerts in one place. This is my new favourite thing! It keeps you updated to all the relevant journals and it also eliminates the ‘Table of Contents’ emails – BONUS. He recommends reading everyday, particularly influential or ‘Trends’ journals.

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Tip 2. The trick is to read efficiently. Read the abstract, the last paragraph of the introduction, the first and last paragraph of the discussion to get the sense of the paper first. Then dig deeper if you need the details.

Tip 3. Find a reference manager and become a master of it. This will organise your reading. Highlight and take notes as you read. I find the functions in Papers3 very handy for this because your notes and highlights become searchable!

Tip 4. Don’t like reading? Why not try an audiobook or podcast? You can listen faster than you read!


Mastery of mind maps and outlines 

*You need to read enough before you can make a map

Tip 5. Put your ideas/themes/questions/hypotheses/key papers/anything on a mind map. Maps will really help you organise your thoughts and actually make you think about how ideas are linked. I use VUE, it has a simple interface and a few core functions – that’s all you need! I’ve also used it to make figures for presentations/papers too.

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Tip 6. Translate this mind map into an outline. The main ‘bubbles’ basically form the major headings of a skeletal outline. ‘Sub-bubbles’ become subheadings within the major headings. This allows you to make sure ideas flow nicely, starting from broad ideas and then honing down to specifics.

Tip 7. Transfer your notes to your outline. If some headings are low on substance, you can then go back to target your reading for those sections! EFFICIENCY!

Writing clarifies thinking

Now with your outline and notes, you can begin to write. Having your ideas chopped in sections and subsections should make workflow more manageable too, because you can work in bite-size bits. The next few tips were Russell’s contribution

Tip 8. Write for a target audience. Are you targeting specialists or to the wider field? Tailor your examples and terms you use to appeal to your audience. Use this particularly in your title.

Tip 9. Keep it simple, really. Clearly written papers have the most impact. Avoid long, vague, complex sentences. Explain your idea out loud to someone out of your field and write that down.

Tip 10. Good writing is an iterative process. Re-read your writing with fresh eyes (after a week or so) and rework those paragraphs.

Tip 11. FEEDBACK FEEDBACK FEEDBACK. Ask your writing group, your lab group and supervisors. Give people enough time to review and do the same for them. Really THINK about their edits and recommendations. Don’t just click ‘Accept all changes’.

The work and effort that goes into writing a scientific article can be overwhelming. I really think, with the right sort of tools and habits and plenty of deliberate practice, everyone can improve and write well!

For more info on deliberate practice, check out the book: “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise” by Anders Ericsson – we are currently reading it as a lab!

 

Am I good enough?

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As researchers-in-training, we are faced with many problems and challenges  that we have never encountered before. Quite often, we experience feelings of anxiety, low confidence and doubt as if we somehow slipped through the system as a fraud. Imposter Syndrome has been a term that has been thrown around in academia and the more we talk about it, the more real it seems to become. Last week I was invited to be on a panel for a postgraduate class to discuss about confidence in research. There were 5 of us panelists all at various departments and stages of our candidature.

I’ve quickly compiled a list of tips/strategies we discussed and hope those who feel out of place during their research training will recognise that we have experienced feeling like an imposter in some form or another.

People are important

Imposter like feelings can be very isolating. Feeling like you don’t belong or questioning what you are doing here. It is important to establish a small ring of people you chat/rant/banter with so you can share your experiences and more importantly you can hear the experiences of others. Knowing that other people are actually feeling the same way, makes the whole ordeal a little less isolating and it may actually bring you together as a group. Why not start a writing group? Set up a coffee group with your lab group or classmates?

Don’t be so hard on yourself and remember you are a researcher IN TRAINING.

This one came up very often, we all thought there is this expectation for researchers to really know their stuff, but in reality, we are all learning. For example, I would always stress over my writing before sending it to my supervisors. I never think it’s ready and I don’t want to waste their time and send them rubbish… but once I eventually get my comments back, which are usually minor and sometimes positive – I realised how silly it was for me to get so worked up about it. Everyone will come across obstacles, but it’s important to not beat yourself over it. Research is about learning  new things, which is the most exciting part…so enjoy it! Walk away when you feel like you are not going anywhere – work on something completely different. Coming back with a fresh head (and a coffee) is usually what your brain needs.

Ask for help when you need it

I am a stubborn person and when I working on something I don’t quite understand, I refuse to ask for help because I don’t want to appear clueless. While it is good practice to try figure things out yourself first, it can be very stressful  when you truly stuck. Recognise that it is okay to ask for help… bounce ideas around with your other people. Lab groups and writing groups are great for this! Otherwise, go pick your supervisor’s brains, that is why they are there! They are suppose to be there to help you through this process and show you how research is done!

Keep a folder of positive feedback or memories (warm fuzzies)

This was my tip. As I have discussed before, I am not very confident with my writing and have always stressed about the quality of my work. To help combat this anxiety, I have kept screenshots of positive feedback that I have received from my supervisors/examiners/reviewers. These little warm fuzzies will remind you that you are awesome and that you have done this before and can provide you with a little confidence boost to keep you going. Celebrate your successes!

Know what works for you

Work habits are hard develop, especially when there is quite a bit of flexibility in research. One panelist talked about how well she works at night and procrastinates a lot during the day. Moral of the story, if you work better at night, then do it. No point working unproductively. My habits a slightly different, I work better in the morning at the office. I work in bursts, 1- 2 hours and I will need a quick break. Towards the end of my Masters, I was so stressed and tired, I needed to nap for about 10 mins in the late afternoon in order for me to keep going for a few more hours. It’s hard to know what “works for you”, but take the time to reflect on productive and nonproductive days. What did you do? What was happening? What was it about the environment that helped you focus? Slowly you will notice patterns in what, when, how you are doing things to enable you to work at your optimum

Work life balance

This is hard one to develop! I personally am not very good at this. I moved to Australia to do my Masters and I barely did any travelling because I was freaking out about how much I had to get done. However, once I handed in and was working as a research assistant, I was able to develop some balance. I made a routine to go to the gym in the mornings before I started work. This made huge improvements to my stress levels and it made me work a lot more efficiently because there are fewer hours left in the day. Again, make time in advance to catch up with friends! This is important and it gives you time to talk about your work/something else and surprisingly, it can really help you unwind!

Remember: you are amazing and that must have been doing something right to get this far. Keep being awesome and never stop doing what you love.