Sunday, September 27, 2015

How to Get a Faculty Position I
Most graduate students starting at research-intensive universities state that their career goal is to become a tenured faculty member at a research-intensive university; yet the fraction that ultimately do become faculty members is very low (less than 1% by some estimates - see above figure). This transition from doe-eyed starting graduate student to hardened, one might say wizened, veteran fleeing to non-academic pursuits can be traumatic (see a particularly angst-ridden example here). One of the greatest bottlenecks in this process occurs for postdocs trying to get a faculty position, which occurs at a rate of about 10% in the Life Sciences (see graph below). In hopes of assisting the dedicated and motivated people who wish to make it through this bottleneck with the fewest possible scars and in the best possible position, I will now generate a couple of posts on “How To Get a Faculty Position.” These posts follow almost sequentially from my earlier “How To” posts.
Given that blog posts do not increase the total number of faculty positions in existence (Now that would be a really useful post), they can at best influence the particular people who make it through the bottleneck. One might cynically view this attempted help as unhelpful because, for everyone it helps (someone who might not have gotten a position without the post), it hurts someone else (someone who would have gotten a position if the other people hadn’t read the post). I prefer to view the attempt more positively: perhaps this post will help everyone cast themselves in the best possible light and thereby help the best individuals to the best possible positions. From an evolutionary perspective, perhaps we could say that this post might help to optimize the assortative pairing of individuals and positions based on merit.

My advice on “How to get a faculty position” will proceed in three posts, which I will write in the weeks/months to come. Each is quite different from the others. This first post is likely to be the most obvious one (with a few surprises), and the novel suggestions will increase through subsequent posts. Importantly, my comments apply most directly to research institutions and North America, although many of them will apply more generally.

1.  Getting the interview.
2. Succeeding in the interview
3. Guaranteeing success

Getting the interview

Your job application package will consist of (give-or-take) a cover letter, your CV, letters of recommendation, a research statement, a teaching statement, and your extra-package profile (the people you know and your internet presence). By far the most important part of this package is your CV, with (in my opinion) your extra-package profile often being second-most important.

Probably the most important aspect of your research statement is to portray a research program, rather than a list of projects or topics. Most members of a hiring committee want to see that you have the potential be the world leader in some particular area of science, which will normally require a multi-pronged approach to a single important and broad topic. Thus – to the extent possible – weave together a narrative (with subheadings) that first introduces an important research topic (cute baby!), then outlines how your past research informed that topic and how new research is critical (a werewolf!), and then describes how you have a series of projects (use subheadings) that all address those research needs (silver bullets!). Here is my post on the baby-werewolf-silver bullet approach to writing. An additional point is that your statement should be modest in length, at least in terms of text (I would guess max two pages and ideally less), but with cool images and figures that provide nice sign posts and breaks from reading. Remember that – at this first stage – search committee members are reading very quickly and you need to keep and maintain their attention.

Baby - Werewolf - Silver Bullet.
Teaching statements tend to be blah blah blah BS, and I doubt many committees at research-intensive universities weight them much – unless they show evidence of teaching excellence, such as awards. Thus, keep your teaching statement focused and simple. First describe your teaching approach. In some ways, this is just a necessary hoop to jump through as everyone says the same blah blah blah about active learning and engaging students and integrating research, etc. However, you can stand out if you cleverly highlight really unique aspects of your teaching, such as through links to videos of you teaching in a unique way (see example below) or through screen captures of webpages or twitter feeds or whatever. As an additional point, I suggest you don’t list a huge number of courses that you could potentially teach at the university you are applying to. This looks rather desperate and most research-intensive universities won’t want you to teach too much. Instead, say something like “I would be happy contributing to the core biology curriculum and field courses, and I would be excited to develop my own upper-level course on ….”

Comment from Steve Heard: You are absolutely right about the common blah-blah, but I think these are valued more than you suggest except at the biggest research universities.  For me what makes the difference is concrete experience and plans.  Everyone says they want lecturers to be dynamic.  A good statement adds "and I'll accomplish that by doing X, which I did in my course or which I saw Dr. X do in a course when I sat in to learn from her award-winning teaching".  Few statements I see do this. And you don't have to actually have teaching experience to do it; you can say something concrete you've observed and admired, and why.

An example of how you can make your teaching profile interesting: YOUTUBE
Your CV is by far the most important part of your application, and the most important part of your CV is your publications. Thus, the primary determinant of getting a job interview has nothing to do with how you write your application but rather with the work that you have already done. Previous posts in this How To series should help with bolstering your academic record. Here I will instead provide a few tips on how to convert your accomplishments into a CV that brings your best work to the fore in a situation where committee members are doing a very quick triage and then later deliberation of a “long list” of suitable candidates.

The key elements of your CV are typical: experience, awards, publications, grants, teaching, reviewing, editorial work, and so on. Here I will concentrate more on details in how you order and construct some of these elements. (1) Get your publications up front in your CV – these are the most important things for most universities (you can also have a short list of courses before the publications – course details can appear later if you like). (2) Underline your name in the author list as some committee members want to assess your first- (and sometimes last-) authored contributions and these guideposts really help them. (3) Put “in press” papers in normal chronological order (most recent first) with the rest of your publications. (4). For the above papers, I would separate “full journal papers” (or something like that) from “notes/comments/responses/reviews/book chapters” by putting the latter in a separate section after the full papers. (5) AFTER the above, put your “in review” and “in revision” papers in a separate section. (6) AFTER this last, you can put “in prep” papers in a separate section. In reality, I would only list such potential papers if don’t have many papers in the other sections. Overall, listing in prep papers just makes you look like you aren’t confident in the strength and quantity of you actual papers and, of course, committee members know that “in prep” papers are a dime a dozen, that some won’t ever be published, and that, even if they are published, it might take a long time and often won’t be in the form they are listed anyway.

The last point just made in the above paragraph was my first hint to the importance of not puffing up your CV with hot air. When you do this, it is always clear to the readers, it makes it harder for them to find the key stuff, and it makes them view you as unconfident about your own CV. An additional point along these lines will initially seem counter-intuitive: you might not want to list ALL of your papers on some applications. That is, if you have a decent number of papers, then you might want to leave off the really minor, peripheral ones unless they have particular relevance to the position or university or search committee members. Having a lot of minor papers in your CV can (1) make your good papers less obvious, (2) imply that you “waste your time” on minor papers, (3) be interpreted by some to suggest you chase “minimum publishable units”, and so on. Thus, if you have ten papers in “good” journals and two in the Open Journal of the Southwest Alabama Natural History Society, then your CV might look better without the latter. Omitting some papers isn’t misleading as nothing legally or even morally compels you to list everything you have published in your CV. (Also, all your publications will be evident online anyway.) If such omissions stress you out, you can simply title your publication section as “Relevant Publications.”

A few other points about CV presentation: (1) Just before your list of publications, perhaps include a very short executive summary listing the number of papers published, your total number of citations (Google Scholar and Web of Science), and your h-index (Google Scholar and Web of Science). For a fast-reading committee member, this summary acts like an abstract telling them they should look further. (2) Make sure to list major and prestigious awards and research grants (with dollar amounts) that you have obtained – these (if short) can go before your publications. Note that for research grants, you can list awards you wrote even if you weren’t listed as a PI (sometimes grads or postdocs write grants for PIs), although you need to make this distinction clear. Also, if you do have some prestigious awards and major grants, it is probably not helpful to list the minor ones. This advice falls into the same “hot air” category as puffing up your list of papers, with all of the same attendant problems. (3) If some papers have received particular attention (media, citations, F1000), you can note this after the paper in the list of publications. (4) Do list things like talks given, posters presented, and journals reviewed for; but these are of relatively minor importance, so put them toward the end of the CV. An exception would be any keynote addresses, which (as long as there aren’t too many) can also be listed before the publications.

If you wish to see my CV, which includes some (but not all) of these elements, you can look here. Of course it is important to remember that the elements of the CV should be tailored to the type of job you are applying for. For instance, teaching experience and awards should be given more emphasis for a teaching-focused university.

The cover letter is the one thing that, apart from your publication list, will be read by everyone (or nearly everyone) on the committee. Thus, make it a SHORT (certainly no more than one page) executive summary of the key points: state your general research area (baby-werewolf-silver bullet), state any major awards, state your number of papers and note some of the best journals) and citations and h index, give your dollar amounts for grants, and list teaching interests. Importantly, don’t give a huge list of people who you think you could collaborate with in the department. This makes you seem desperate for approval and the people you mention might read it and think “Huh, I don’t see myself collaborating with this person.” Moreover, it will again (hot air) diminish any comments you make about very clear likely collaborations within the department. Instead, say something like “I can see immediate collaborative opportunities with PROFESSOR 1 and PROFESSOR 2 and I am excited about the possibility of exploring other potential collaborations within the department and university.” Of course, cover letters can get tiresome after you write a bunch of them, which might lead you to drastic actions such as this, which led to the below.

Letters of recommendation are essentially a check on what you are asserting about yourself. Thus, their most important role is to “not fuck up your application” by saying something bad about you. By this I mean that a great letter of recommendation can move you slightly in a ranking of applicants, but a bad letter can kill you even if you have a great CV. Thus, you need to make sure you are getting good letters of recommendation, which can start by (when in doubt) asking your letter writers “would you be able to write me a good letter of recommendation”. Of course, most letter writers won’t want to say that they will write you a bad letter, so you can instead more subtly ask them who they think would be your optimal letter writers. That way, they can recommend someone else “who is more suitable” without implying they would write a bad letter. It does help to have a big-name person write the letter but some big-name people are so busy, and have seen so many good people, that they might write a very short or less-than-enthusiastic letter. Thus, only ask big-name people who you have actively collaborated with. Alternatively, you can ask for a letter of recommendation from your Mom, excerpt below.

Your extra-application profile can be very important in two main arenas. First, you can sometimes have a real champion within the search committee who knows you; someone who has seen you present something or has had a beer with you in the pub at a conference. The key point here goes back to early How To posts that commented on the value of networking. In short, talk to visiting speakers and people at conferences, give lots of talks at conferences and lab groups, collaborate with lots of people, and so on. Also blogging and tweeting and the like can really help your profile as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of your research. Second, probably every candidate who makes the long list (usually folks with a good publication record given their career state) will be scrutinized by all (or most) of the committee members for their online profile. Thus, you really want to have a good website and you really really want to have a profile on Google Scholar, which provides a completely objective summary of your contributions.

I am sure I have missed a bunch of other stuff and I am also sure that some of my suggestions won’t be optimal for all positions, including some teaching-focused universities. However, my experience on job search committees suggests that the above points can help present your application in the best light and thus increase your chances of an interview. Once you get the interview, an entirely different set of guidelines applies, and that will be the focus of the next post.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Arizona Sky Islands: a natural laboratory for studying the EvoDevo of ants

Post by Marie-Julie Favé (MJ) – PhD student at McGill in the group of Ehab Abouheif, now postdoc at Université de Montréal and the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research.

This journey that started in Tucson many years ago finally made its tortuous way into the peer-reviewed system and got published recently here [1]. We also received some nice news coverage here


One of my childhood cartoon heroes was Lucky Luke. For those who are not well versed in the franco-belgian universe of cartoons, Lucky Luke is a solitary cowboy living circa 1885 in the American Southwest "who shoots faster than his shadow", and whose life consisted of the recurring task of capturing the Dalton brothers, a pair of gangsters. 

When I was a little older, I dove into the universe of Sergio Leone and watched Once Upon a Time in The West more times than I can remember, imagining myself being Claudia Cardinale captured by the villain Hendry Fonda. I imagined immense hot plains of red dust, harmonicas, horses, dust balls... This was my sole and idyllic knowledge of the American Southwest when I abruptly landed alone in Tucson in August 2007 with my giant field bag as a fresh PhD student.

Fig 1: (A) Idyllic Southwest image of MJ’s childhood. (B) Less-than-idyllic landing of MJ in Tucson. This is a picture of the Speedway in the 70s when it won the "ugliest US highway" but believe me it hasn’t gotten any better since then.

Then I saw those mountains. You can actually see them quite well as the plane makes its approach to Tucson, flying right by the southern slope of Mont Lemmon in the Santa Catalinas range. I never imagined before that the desert would be punctuated with green, luxurious, high-altitude mountains harbouring such incredible biodiversity.

 Fig 2: The Sky Islands from the plane above Tucson, and from the top of the Santa Catalinas

The Arizona Sky Islands, also known as the Madrean archipelago, consist of ~45 mountains, the largest reaching ~3000m elevation, and are scattered across the US–Mexican border. They are surrounded by a dry, hot (45°C+), arid desert where we often spotted roadrunners (beep beep), rattlesnakes, giant scorpions, and other typical desert fauna/flora – as well as many of the amazing desert ant species that call Arizona their home, like Pheidole rhea (which also led to another of Ehab’s fascinating projects, [2]), Pogonomyrmex barbatus [3], and Myrmecocystus spp. (honey pot ants). However, being one of those cold-adapted Northern Canadians, I was more than happy to head, each morning, towards the higher, cooler elevations – wallowing in regret for having gulped down another Arizonan delicacy at Jerry’s breakfast place [4].

Fig 3: Cinnamon bun @ Jerry’s. The poor thing is trying to swim out of the ‘butter’ pool. I will help him with my fork.

From the dry, arid desert, every gain in elevation of a few hundred meters brings with it a novel landscape and different species. Junipers, agaves, and oak trees start to make their appearance around 1500m elevation, soon to be replaced by Douglas-firs and pinyon pines at the highest elevations, around 3000m for Mount Lemmon.  

Interestingly, Mount Lemmon was named after Sara Plummer Lemmon, a young, intellectual, activist Victorian lady who moved, in 1870, to the Wild West of gambling, prostitution and horse thievery... She became a dedicated botanist and convinced her husband to undergo – as a honeymoon, no less – a botanical expedition in the then-quite-wild Santa Catalinas! Her heritage includes getting the golden poppy named as the California state flower, and many books published under her husband's name that she unfortunately (and obviously) wasn’t given any credit for. Ok, enough tangents…

Fig 3: Cute Monomorium workers drinking honey

Monomorium emersoni, our focal species, is found throughout the middle and high elevations. To my great relief – because I needed a large number of colonies – this may be one of the easiest ant species to collect. Drive, find a good-looking spot, flip a good-looking rock, quickly suck up queens with your cool ant-sucking device, then suck up as many workers as possible to support the colony when it's back in the lab (Fig 4). Ehab and I quickly became masters of the highways that connect the Arizona Sky Islands. Over the years, and after countless hours of driving while listening to good old country music, we collected over 300 colonies, sampled from top to bottom along the slopes of five of the largest Sky Islands (Fig 5).

Fig 4: Surprised Monomorium emersoni colony when their home sweet home rock is flipped by a myrmecologist

Fig 5: (A) Sky Islands location, (B) Sky Island landscape (C) Monomorium winged queen (D) wingless queen, and (E) map of the 5 mountains we sampled with field sites in black.

Any fellow evolutionary / popgen biologist will understand that one of the first questions that I got totally obsessed with was “given this unique landscape, how are each of Sky Island M. emersoni populations related to one another?” Using classic population genetic tools and inference, we discovered, not surprisingly, that each Sky Island M. emersoni population is roughly isolated from the other ones, the large desert areas acting like barriers to gene flow between mountain ranges. However, gene flow within a mountain between elevations is possible, mostly driven by males.

We also found that gene flow within a mountain range is much greater between similar habitats than between different habitats, regardless of the geographic distance between them, pointing towards a mechanism of isolation-by-environment.  Furthermore, the Sky Island M. emersoni populations revealed an interesting demographic history: the Northern and Southern Sky Islands each form a distinct group within which contact was more extensive in the past (Fig 6). Hold onto that, we’ll come back to it in a minute.

Fig 6: Demographic inference of the contacts between Monomorium Sky Island Populations

Workers in ants are universally wingless, while most reproductive castes have wings. But it is especially common for Monomorium species to have the unusual peculiarity of having some queens born without any wings.  Some species within this genus have winged queens, while other species have wingless queens, and some have both. 

This evolutionary flexibility suggests a common developmental potential for producing either phenotype under the proper genetic or environmental conditions. Using the frequencies of wing/wingless queens along the slopes of each Sky Island, we found that a combination of habitat fragmentation and elevation best explains their distribution, with winged queens found mostly in continuous and low-elevation habitats.

Wings originate in queen larvae as imaginal discs, small synchronized clumps of cells that will become wings during metamorphosis (Fig 7). Although lacking wings as adults, wingless queens still produce these discs as larvae, but in an atrophied form called vestigial wing discs. We looked at the spatial distribution of some wing-related gene products in these vestigial imaginal discs, and found that many of them are produced and do form spatial patterns, while others are completely shut off.

Fig 7: Development of winged queens, wingless queens and workers. The last row shows dissected larvae with their imaginal discs stained with DAPI (blue). Six leg discs are observed. White arrows point to wing imaginal discs. Winged queens have 4 full wing imaginal discs, wingless queens have 4 vestigial imaginal discs, and workers do not have any wing imaginal discs.

Interestingly, we found that for some genes that are expressed in vestigial discs, there were differences in their expression in wingless-queen larvae coming from different Sky Islands. For example, we observed that the expression of mef2 – a key gene involved in wing muscle development – differs among wingless-queen larvae from different populations and shows a signature of the ancient demographic split: Mef2 shows expression differences between wingless queens from the northern and the southern Sky Islands.

We also found a gene, exd, for which wingless-queen larvae from each Sky Island exhibit population-specific expression patterns (Fig 8). This suggests that these differences arose following the complete isolation of the five Sky Island populations ~10,000 years BP and are therefore an indirect consequence of climatic warming since the last ice age.

Fig 8: The variation in Exd expression pattern across Sky Islands (Cartoons on the left column, actual expression images on the right column for evodevo geeks).  Exd expression covers the whole disc in wingless queens from the Pinals (2nd line) and the Chiricahuas (last line), whereas it is much more restricted in the other Sky Islands, the Catalinas (3rd line) and the Huachucas (4th line). This represents a pattern that likely has evolved independently in each Sky Island, as it does not recapitulate historical contacts between Sky Islands (Fig 5).

Once upon a time, about 20,000 years BP when glaciers covered most of North America, the climate was much cooler. Forests surrounded the Arizona Sky Islands, ecologically connecting each mountain range with the others. One can imagine the hundreds of streams coming from the glaciated mountain tops, the luxurious trees, ferns, and flowers… infinite possibilities for animals to move freely from one Sky Island to another, according to their dispersal abilities. It would have been a perfect habitat for a winged queen, continuous and of low elevation (since the mountaintops were covered with snow!).

Then came the warming, very slow at first but gradually accelerating – snow melt, warming, dry air, warming, desertification, forest fragmentation, aridity... the trees found refuges on each mountain at the higher elevations, which remained cool, but each refuge became isolated from the others by large areas of desert. Monomorium followed their forest. And then wingless queens, which are often produced as anomalies by ant colonies, started to become advantageous in those fragmented and higher elevations, and rose to higher frequencies independently on each mountain range as the desert now acted like a barrier between Sky Island populations.

Fig 9: Time replay of the warm-up in the Sky Islands and the evolution of the wingless-queen phenotype.

This independent evolution of wingless queens on each Sky Island occurred through recurrent interruptions of similar wing-patterning genes, and at the same time, induced the release of the unexpressed differences in some genes, such as mef-2, that accumulated in populations during or after the demographic split between the northern and southern Sky Islands ~80,000 years BP.

This natural experiment on Monomorium queens sheds some light on the predictability – or not – of changes during evolution, which is a long-standing debate in evolutionary biology [5]. We have discovered both repeated changes in genes (the same gene expression across replicate populations), and random changes (changes in gene expression unique to each population or groups of populations). Experiments that test the predictability of evolutionary change have brought insights into this debate (for example, the astonishing cell lines of Richard Lenski's group; see [6] for a review of many of them!), and the Monomorium system provided a test of those ideas in the wild, which is quite unique! In fact, this is to our knowledge the first study in wild populations to show that evolution following a major climate change occurs by a “mosaic” of both random and predictable changes. 

Fig 10: MJ and Ehab, the masters of the Sky Island highways. 

We also tried to highlight another phenomenon that hasn’t received much attention: the consequences attributable to organismal development during environmental changes. Scientists have built forecasting models about how species will react under climate change scenarios, which are necessary to predict how our landscapes, our agriculture, and our exposure to diseases will be influenced by global warming. However, most of these models are based on the current phenotypes and abilities of the species under study.

As in the case of Monomorium, developmental outcomes can be modified by a change in the environment and affect, for example here, the dispersal abilities of the individuals, which would greatly affect the predictions of such forecasting models. Our beautiful little Monomorium are probably facing a not-so-beautiful future, as their forested habitats will shrink even further under as global warming progresses in the American Southwest [7]. This habitat loss would likely select for more and more wingless queens, completely eliminating their capacity as a species for any long-range dispersal to more hospitable habitats.

Fig 11: The Abouheif lab, social and tight-knit!

One thing that this story has taught me (aside from the sad lesson that one should not abuse Jerry’s delicacies before running up mountains) is that doing integrative science is both a beautiful and an arduous task. We had to overcome several obstacles to get "integrative results" understandable to many reviewers of various backgrounds simultaneously. But the motivation and insights you get from performing such research is unmatched from any of its separate disciplines. It generates a synergy between results that cannot be achieved otherwise.


[1] Favé, Marie-Julie, et al. "Past climate change on Sky Islands drives novelty in a core developmental gene network and its phenotype." BMC evolutionary biology 15.1 (2015): 183.

[2] Rajakumar, Rajendhran, et al. "Ancestral developmental potential facilitates parallel evolution in ants." Science 335.6064 (2012): 79-82.
[3] Smith, Chris R., et al. "Draft genome of the red harvester ant Pogonomyrmex barbatus." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108.14 (2011): 5667-5672.
[5] Stern, David L., and Virginie Orgogozo. "Is genetic evolution predictable?."Science 323.5915 (2009): 746-751.
[6] Elena, Santiago F., and Richard E. Lenski. "Evolution experiments with microorganisms: the dynamics and genetic bases of adaptation." Nature Reviews Genetics 4.6 (2003): 457-469.
[7] Seager, Richard, et al. "Model projections of an imminent transition to a more arid climate in southwestern North America." science 316.5828 (2007): 1181-1184.

A 25-year quest for the Holy Grail of evolutionary biology

When I started my postdoc in 1998, I think it is safe to say that the Holy Grail (or maybe Rosetta Stone) for many evolutionary biologists w...