Integrating Diversity in a Palaeontology Class

Kristina here–

I’ll preface this entire post by saying that I identify as a straight, cis, white woman, and I recognize that I still have a lot of learning and work yet to do when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of my professional as personal life

I’ve been involved in diversity initiatives in my department, including organizing a speaker series aimed at addressing gender disparity in my department. In 2016, we lost our only female geology faculty member (out of a faculty of ~50 people). This meant that most of our undergraduate and graduate students would never get the chance to interact or learn from a female role model and professor during their geology degrees. In response, a group of female graduate students launched an initiative to create a speaker series (the Grace Anne Stewart Speaker Series) to bring female geoscientist experts to the department so that students still had the chance to interact with and learn from female role-models and world-class experts in geoscience. Fast forward to today, and several women have been hired as faculty in the department, and we have expanded the series to directly address representation of other groups, specifically racial, and mental or physical disabilities. It has been a rewarding and challenging experience, and I have learned so much. So when I had the opportunity to teach a class of my own in the department, recognizing I might still be one of the only female teachers they might have during their degrees, I wanted to try and incorporate some of these lessons and experiences into the classroom.

Data from Bernard and Cooperdock (2018), showing who was awarded geology PhDs in the United States since 1973.

Integrating Inclusion into the Curriculum

The class I taught was Introduction to Invertebrate Palaeontology – a required second year class for geology and palaeontology majors. For most, this class was either the first biology, or the first palaeontology class of their degrees. I already had some course materials available from the previous instructor, and our course syllabi and learning objectives had to be approved by our department. So how was I to include a new topic that wasn’t necessarily “integral” to the course goals? It was really easy! I just included diversity as a course topic and created an extra credit assignment! I also included a diversity statement in my syllabus. For a nice example of a diversity statement to include on your syllabus, see this example by Dr. Rowan Martindale (University of Texas Austin).

In terms of class time, I dedicated about 5 – 10 minutes once a week to a diversity in geoscience topic. I showed the students some recent research and statistics on diversity in geoscience, introduced some of the terminology used (e.g., representation, intersectionality, implicit bias), and shared data from a paper by Bernard and Cooperdock (2018), which gives breakdowns of the number of Ph.D.’s awarded by race and gender in the U.S since 1973, showing little progress towards achieving diversity in 40 years. Another awesome topic I was able to include by chance was showing the class a documentary that was being offered for free on International Women and Girls in Science day. The Bearded Lady Project made a 22 min doc about challenging the stereotypes of what a palaeontologist looks like. The documentary interviews female palaeontologists about their experiences and some of the discrimination they have faced in their careers or in the field. I showed the short doc in class and then gave the students a chance to discuss some of their thoughts on the documentary. The class really enjoyed it!

Showcasing Diversity with “Student Choice” Extra Credit Assignments

I created an extra credit assignment to encourage students to learn about geoscientists who have made important contributions to the field, but perhaps haven’t received the attention or recognition that others have, such as Charles Darwin, Richard Owen, or Charles Lyell. I asked students to tell me about “non-traditional” (as in, not straight white men) scientists they felt were important role models or had made important contributions to science. I tried to leave the assignments as open-ended as possible so that students could be creative with their choice of person (e.g., could be living or dead), but just asked they include 3 – 5 facts, a picture of the person or their research topic/discovery, and their references. They could turn in the assignment as a document or slide, and if they gave me permission, I would then share it with the class. I also said that each week, I would present a choice of my own if no one handed in an assignment. This was to try and encourage the students to hand in assignments earlier in the term before their choices were selected by myself or another student. It also allowed us to plan to showcase certain scientists during important relevant events, such as Black History Month, and Pride Week.

The idea of this assignment was to encourage student creativity, expose students (and myself) to new and/or important faces and discoveries in science, and allow us all the opportunity to learn something new about the history of our discipline. Importantly, I wanted this to be a student-driven list. I wanted to know the students’ perspectives on who they thought were important people in geoscience and palaeontology. For copyright and security reasons, I won’t include student names or their assignments, but I will offer the names and a bit of info on some of the people the students and I chose to highlight (in no particular order):

      1. Geerat Vermeij – Dr. Vermeij is one of the world’s leading palaeontologists and experts in malacology (the study of molluscs) and predation. He is a professor at UC Davis, and has won numerous awards for his ground-breaking research, including a MacArthur Fellow. He has published several books (in addition to hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers), including Privileged Hands, and A Natural History of Shells, which are great reads for scientists and non-scientists alike! Dr. Vermeij has been blind since the age of three, but still conducts both field and lab research. I chose Dr. Vermeij as an example for the class of the kind of scientist they might choose, as I admire Dr. Vermeij’s research.

        Dr. Geerat Vermeij. Source – geology.ucdavis.edu
      2. Mary Anning – Known as the “mother of palaeontology”, Mary Anning was a fossil hunter in 19th century Britain. Her discoveries include the first Plesiosaurus, ink sacks in belemnites (cephalopods), the first British pterosaur, and was the first to attribute coprolites as faeces. Despite all of her knowledge and contributions to the field, she was not allowed to join the Geological Society of London because she was a woman.

        Mary Anning portrait by B.J. Donne
      3. Franz NopcsaNopcsa was a 19th century Transylvanian aristocrat, palaeobiologist, explorer, and ethnographer, and was open about his homosexuality, traveling with his partner, Bajazid. He was a pioneer in the field of palaeobiology, and came up with the concept of Island Dwarfism. He was also an early supporter of plate tectonics and the evolution of birds from dinosaurs. Unfortunately, he was faced with financial difficulties and physical illness which led to him tragically killing Bajazid and himself.

        Baron Franz Nopcsa
      4. Florence Bascom – Dr. Bascom was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1893, and only the second American woman to receive a Ph.D. in geology. Dr. Bascom went on to be the first woman to work for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), first woman elected to the council for the Geological Society of America (GSA), and founded the geology department at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.

        Florence Bascom
      5. Tilly Edinger – Dr. Edinger was the founder of palaeoneurology, the study of the relationship between braincases, skulls, and the brain. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Frankfurt in 1921. Dr. Edinger achieved much during her career, and won numerous awards and recognitions for her contributions to palaeontology. She also served as the President of the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology (1963 – 1964). As a Jewish woman in Germany during WWII, she had to work in secret, and eventually fled to London, and then the U.S., where she spent the rest of her career. To learn more about Dr. Edinger’s life and legacy, please visit our Who is Tilly Edinger page, and consider donating to our Tilly Edinger Travel Grant for students and avocational scientists!

        Tilly Edinger
      6. Louis Purnell – Purnell was the first African American curator at the National Air and Space Museum. However, before working at the National Air and Space Museum, he worked as an invertebrate zoology specialist and expert in fossil cephalopods at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, but experienced a lot of racism and academic jealousy at the museum and was passed over for promotions, and he left for the National Air and Space Museum.

        Louis Purnell (Smithsonian Institution Archives)
      7. Lisa White – Dr. White is the Assistant Director (Education and Outreach) at the University of California Museum of Paleontology. She is a micropalaeontologist and geoeducation expert, and has been instrumental in directly tackling issues of racial diversity and geoscience education opportunities for minorities. Dr. White has run several programs, including SF-ROCKS which supports geoscience outreach to children and minorities communities in San Fransisco, and has won GSA’s Bromery Award for education and service work advancing minorities in science.

        Dr. Lisa White (ucmp.berkeley.edu)
      8. Bolortsetseg Minjin – A world-renowned leader and advocate for Mongolian palaeontology, Bolortsetseg Minjin has been instrumental in protecting Mongolia’s fossil heritage, addressing fossil poaching, and providing palaeontology education opportunities to Mongolians. She founded the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs, and has won numerous international awards for her work, including a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Ramond M. Alf Award.

        Bolortsetseg Minjin (Thea Boodhoo)
      9. Cameron Muskelly – I included Mr. Muskelly as an example of a young avocational scientist who is making amazing strides in palaeontology and outreach, and is an advocate for not only Black geoscientists, but those with mental disabilities and autism in science. Mr. Muskelly has accomplished much for education and outreach in geoscience and palaeontology in his home state of Georgia, and recently won the Katherine Palmer award from the Paleontological Research Institution for his outstanding contributions to the field as an avocational palaeontologist. Read more about Cam on Time Scavengers on his Meet the Scientist blog post!

        Cameron Muskelly
      10. Riley Black – Author of the books My Beloved Brontosaurus, The T. rex Handbook, and Skeleton Keys, Black is a well-known popular science and palaeontology writer. In 2019, Black came out as transgender, and has been an advocate for LGBQTIA+ voices in palaeontology, writing an article called “Queer Voices in Paleontology” for the journal Nature, which outlined the challenges faced by queer palaeontologists, as well as her personal experiences on the struggles of transitioning and fieldwork. Read more about Riley on Time Scavengers on her Meet the Scientist blog post!

        Riley Black (@TheSplash)

I’ll end by saying that I have a lot more growth I’d like to do in terms of being a better ally and advocate for diversity in science, but this was a really fun and rewarding experience that the students and I really enjoyed, and I would definitely do again. One additional resource that I have found really helpful is this recent article by Dr. Christy Visaggi: Equity, Culture, and Place in Teaching Paleontology.

Fossils of Alberta

Map of Canada.

Kristina here –

If you ever find yourself in Canada and have an interest in palaeontology (yes, we spell “paleontology” with an extra “a” up here) and the geosciences, Alberta is a treasure-trove of cool fossil sites and excellent museums. For those of you that might not be familiar with Canadian geography, Alberta is one province east of British Columbia, separated by the Rocky Mountains, and shares the Canada-U.S. border with the state of Montana. Alberta is known for its ranch lands (beef production), prairie crops, great ski hills in the Rockies, and the “oil sands” (“tar sands”) – Canada’s major oil and gas deposit which is, for better or worse, still an important part of the local economy. Oil and gas deposits are often referred to as “fossil fuels”, and as you might have guessed, Alberta also has a LOT of fossil deposits! Alberta is one of the best places in the world to find dinosaur fossils, but there are so many other amazing fossil sites too! I’m here to tell you about a few of the highlights.

Geologic map of Alberta. Image from Weides et al. (2011).

But first, some background. Why does Alberta have so many fossils? Rocks in Alberta are part of what is known as the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin (WCSB), a massive package of sedimentary rocks nestled to the west of the Canadian Shield (part of the original continent, or craton, of North America). Throughout its geologic history, Alberta has been part of various shallow seaways next to this North American craton, and at times has been above sea-level, meaning that there is a mix of shallow marine and low-land terrestrial deposits. Generally, both shallow marine and low-land terrestrial deposits have the best rock records, as eroded rock material tends to get swept easily into these environments, creating the perfect conditions for fossil formation (rapid burial of organisms is key for forming fossils). For example, during the time of the dinosaurs (Mesozoic), the Rocky Mountains were forming, meaning all of the rocks on the western side of Alberta were getting pushed up, while at the same time experiencing erosion that carried all of that sedimentary material down and towards the east, where there was a shallow seaway called the Western Interior Seaway that acted as a giant catch basin for all of that material. The result? Lots and lots of awesome fossils! Here are just a few notable sites:

The Badlands of Alberta. Image from Natulive Canada.

The Badlands

Alberta’s badlands have some pretty spectacular geologic formations. The term “badlands” refers to an area where there has been interesting erosion of large packages of clay-rich sedimentary rocks, usually caused by wind and water (rivers). Sedimentary rock layers can have different hardnesses, so the layers might erode at different rates, causing interesting erosional features like hoodoos. In southwestern Alberta, the Red Deer River has cut through these layers over time to form badlands.

Alberta’s badlands are best known for Late Cretaceous dinosaurs, but there are many important microfossil sites containing other small reptiles, fish, and mammals, as well as plants, and invertebrates too. Some of the more famous fossils to come out of the area include: Albertosaurus (a tyrannosaur that is smaller, and slightly older than T. rex), the first dinosaur found in Alberta (hence the name); a massive bonebed of Centrosaurus, a horned and frilled dinosaur (Ceratopsian); another ceratopsian called Chasmosaurus, including a beautifully preserved juvenile (baby) discovered a few years ago; and a lot of hadrosaurs (the duckbilled dinosaurs). Alberta is arguably one of the best places in the world to find duckbill dinosaurs!

Baby Chasmosaurus skeleton. Image from Currie et al. (2016).

If you love palaeontology, Alberta’s badlands would definitely be a good place to visit. The best places for the public to visit and explore are Dinosaur Provincial Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site near the town of Brooks), and the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller.

Grande Prairie Area

Most people think of the badlands when they think of fossils in Alberta, but fossils can be found just about everywhere in the province. There’s even a bonebed in the capital city of Edmonton! If you travel northwest of Edmonton to the town of Wembley (near Grande Prairie), you can visit another museum called the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum (named after famous Canadian palaeontologist Phil Currie, who helped found the Royal Tyrrell Museum, and is now a professor at the University of Alberta). The most famous fossil from the area is Pachyrhinosaurus, another of the horned and frilled (ceratopsian) dinosaurs that has one of the most heavily-built skulls of any vertebrate animal. There are also other dinosaurs found around the area, as well as other reptiles.

A Pachyrhinosaurus fossil. Image from Etemenanki 3 (Wikipedia).

Fort McMurray Area

On the northeastern side of the province, is the town of Fort McMurray. Fort McMurray is situated on the very edge of the oil sands, and its population is mostly tied to the oil and gas industry. The oil sands themselves are a very large deposit of Early Cretaceous sandstones, called the McMurray Formation. Most of the fossils within the McMurray Formation itself consist of trace fossils like Skolithos, burrows of small marine animals. The combination of these sandstones and trace fossils became a massive trap for the thick, tarry oil, known as bitumen. Because of the oil exploration in the area, crews occasionally unearth larger fossils, including an exceptionally well-preserved armoured dinosaur called Borealopelta. It was discovered in 2011, and was only recently prepared and described. I was lucky enough to see this specimen in person just last week, and it honestly took my breath away with its incredible preservation. It’s basically a mummy with the skin and armour still intact and truly does look like it was frozen in time.

The fossil of Borealopelta. Image from Etemenanki3 (Wikipedia).

Beneath the oilsands lies a large unconformity where a large piece of time/rock record is missing. The package of rocks underneath the McMurray Formation is called the Waterways Formation which is where the oil itself often comes from. The Waterways Formation is mid-late Devonian in age (about 390 million years), meaning that there is about 200 million years of time missing between the Waterways and McMurray Formations! At the time when the Waterways Formation was being deposited, Alberta was mostly underwater and near the equator, meaning that conditions were perfect for giant reefs to form. The Waterways is full of a diverse assemblage of marine invertebrates that lived either on or near this reef system, which was built mostly by a type of sponge called a stromatoporoid. There are also abundant brachiopod communities in the Waterways Formation, and they are great for studying things like functional morphology (the relationships between an organism’s shape and how it lived), biotic interactions with encrusting organisms, and community evolution. I did my undergraduate and M.Sc. projects on these brachiopod communities, and still love working on Waterways fossils.

Allberta ammolite. Image from Gregory Philips (Wikipedia).

Other Important Alberta Fossil Sites:

There are too many awesome fossil sites in Alberta to describe in detail, but other notable fossils and areas include:

Korite Mine near Lethbridge – The only mine in the world to produce ammolite, a gemstone made from the unique preservation of Cretaceous ammonites (a shelled cephalopod, relative of octopus and squid).

Insect and dinosaur feathers in amber – some of the most fossil (inclusion) rich amber in the world is found in southern Alberta and Canada.

Joffre Bridge – an amazing Late Palaeocene deposit of incredibly well-preserved fossil plants, including leaves, seeds, whole plants, and trees. Fossil flora include lycopsids, Ginko, Equisetum, Metasequoia, and many others.

Insects in amber. Image from McKellar and Engel (2013).

The Burgess Shale – technically in Yoho National Park in B.C., but people passing through Banff and the Rockies into B.C. often come from the Alberta-side. The Burgess Shale is one of the most important and oldest fossil sites in the world, containing a diverse assemblage of bizarre late Cambrian fossils, including Hallucigenia, Anomalocaris, and trilobites, and many soft-bodied organisms.

A note about fossil collecting in Canada:

Don’t. The rules in Canada are much more strict than in the United States. It is illegal to collect fossils in Canada without permits, and those can only be given to professional palaeontologists that work for the government, museums, or universities. Fossils in Canada are considered “Crown Property”, meaning that they are property of Canada and the Queen (we are part of the Commonwealth), and are protected by the Heritage Resource Act. Even palaeontologists cannot claim ownership over the fossils on which they work.

References:

Barclay K.M., Schneider C.L., Leighton, L.R. 2015. Breaking the mold: using biomechanical experiments to assess the life orientation of dorsibiconvex brachiopods. Paleobiology 41(1):122 – 133. DOI: 10.1017/pab.2014.8

Currie P.J., Holmes R.B., Ryan M.J., and Coy C. 2016. A juvenile chasmosaurine ceratopsid (Dinosauria, Ornithischia) from the Dinosaur Park Formation, Alberta, Canada. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2015.1048348.

McKellar R.C., Engel M.S. 2013. New bethylid and chrysidid wasps (Hymenoptera: Chrysidoidea) from Canadian Late Cretaceous amber. Paläontologische Zeitschrift 88(4):433-451. DOI: 10.1007/s12542-013-0208-y

Mendonca S., Barclay K.M., Schneider C.L., Molinaro D.J., Webb A.E., Forcino F.L., Leighton L.R. 2018. Analyzing trends in tropical Devonian brachiopod communities during environmental change in the Waterways Formation of northern Alberta. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. DOI: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2018.06.020

Weides S., Moeck I., Babadagli T., Bauer K. , Grobe M., Heidbach O., Huenges E., Idowu O., Majorowicz J., Rostron B., Schmitt D.,2 , Unsworth M. 2011. Geothermal technology and exploration of geothermal resources in Northern and Central Alberta. AAPG/SPE/SEG HEDBERG RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Enhanced Geothermal Systems” March 14-18, 2011 — Napa, California

Working From Home

Kristina here-

With students, faculty, and staff all switching to work from home, I thought it might be useful to share some of my experiences on what it was like to do the majority of my Ph.D. remotely. 

I live three hours from my university, so I have been working from home for the better part of three years now. In fact, I only spent two semesters on campus in my first year taking classes. Then I spent a couple of semesters abroad running an experiment at Bodega Marine Lab. Since then, other than a few short field trips, I’ve been working from my two-bedroom apartment in rural Alberta, Canada. Below are a few of the things I’ve learned working from home.

However, the most important thing to keep in mind when reading any of these sorts of posts is that everyone is different, and what worked for me might not work for you. 

Keep Your Space Clean

I am a very tidy person, and if I know I have chores to do, or things are messy, I have trouble working without feeling distracted. If mess doesn’t bother you, great. I envy you. But if you’re like me and have a tendency to “procrasti-clean”, I recommend keeping on top of your chores and cleaning so as to avoid the temptation/distraction of cleaning. I typically either end or start my workday by cleaning. Not doing a full clean, but just doing one task a day, like vacuuming a bedroom, cleaning the kitchen, doing a load of laundry, or cleaning the bathroom counter, and cycling through them regularly. Spending that 5 – 15 minutes a day keeps everything clean, so I have no excuse not to focus on work.

Your Work Space

Battlestation Gastropod – one of many work stations

This is one area where I feel like my advice might be different. I’ve never really created a work space for myself. My work space has just depended on my tasks. We have a desk and office chair set up in each of our two bedrooms, and while I often worked in the more “office-like” one, I was just as content to work from the kitchen table, couch, or even one of the beds. This was partially because my cat, who loved to hang out with me in the “office”, died unexpectedly and I found it painful to work in that space without him. But I also like the variety. I have sciatica, so switching up how I’m sitting is helpful. I also live in Canada where the days in the winter are very short, so I move with the sun to the place with the best lighting.

So, while having a dedicated office space might work for some, don’t feel bad if you like moving around. Taking advantage of sunlight and soaking up those rays (or avoiding glare) will mentally help your workflow. If you have to work around a partner or roommate (my husband has currently taken over the “office”), work together and communicate your needs clearly so that you can make a plan that is fair to everyone. If you can’t move around, have things that make you happy and calm within eyesight. For me, this is the plants and bird feeders outside our windows.

Invest in a Whiteboard

Whiteboard and colored markers are the best

I purchased a large whiteboard (~2 x 3 feet) when I started writing my dissertation, and my only regret was that I didn’t do it sooner! I also invested in a bunch of colored whiteboard markers because color coding helps me organize my thoughts. I like to think of my whiteboard as my rough notebook/sketchpad. The ability to jot down ideas or diagrams, and easily erase or modify them is so helpful. Sometimes if I am struggling with an idea, I’ll write it out again and again, erasing or modifying as necessary. Once I have it the way I want it, I’ll either write it down in my notebook, type it into a word document, or make the figure on my computer. We get so used to having access to whiteboards at a university that this was one tool I couldn’t live without.

Making a “Plan”

I use the word “plan” loosely here, because no matter what plan or tasks you set out for yourself, it’s hard to stick to those goals exactly, so flexibility here is key. Working from home is tough, and not everything will go perfectly, even for someone seasoned like myself. Mentally, not beating yourself up if everything doesn’t go how you expect is important for your productivity. Not every day will be great. But by trying to keep some of your same organizational tools, this will help you feel more normal and productive, especially in a work space that is also your home. Again, this is one of the reasons I love my whiteboard. If I have to change the plan, it’s super easy to do so, and there’s no “evidence” of the change (unlike if you wrote something down with a pen).

Write out everything you need to get done, and organize it how you see fit. I color code tasks and sort them by day of the week. I usually have fewer and fewer tasks towards the end of the week because I know stuff from the previous days with inevitably trickle over. I also tend to repeat tasks several days in a row in case I don’t get to them on one day, or they take longer than I expect. Google Calendar is another friend. If you have other organizational tools you use, keep implementing them. Having structure (but one that allows some flexibility) is really important.

Creating a “Routine”

Again, try to be flexible here because some days are going to be harder than others. But if you can keep your regular routine going, that should help. For me, it’s setting an alarm and having breakfast and coffee with my husband. He likes to watch the news, but sometimes this stresses me out, so if I know I’m not feeling the news that day, I’ll go do something else, like clean, or play with the cat. Once the breakfast dishes are done, it’s time to work!

I like to start out the day by making a “to do” list on my whiteboard, and I will prioritize those tasks. I will then always try to make myself do the most difficult task first because if I can accomplish that, it will energize me for the rest of the day because at least I did something productive! For most of us, that task is probably writing. I’ve noticed that the days where I’ve been most productive are the days where I’ve started out with an hour or two of writing and reading articles in the morning. Even if I only manage to get a paragraph written, I will be more productive with other tasks if I know I got something on the page. Forcing yourself to write daily will also help the task of manuscript/thesis/dissertation writing seem much more manageable. It doesn’t matter if the writing is “bad”, getting it on the page is the hardest part.

Studious kitty Widget

Taking regular breaks is also important. For me, I’ll work for a couple of hours, then play with my cat for a bit, work some more, and then make lunch. I like to have a hot shower as my mid-day break because 1) pajamas and housecoats in the morning are awesome, 2) I need to stop and stretch my legs to avoid sciatic issues, and 3) I usually have an idea I need to mull over by mid-day, and thinking about it in the shower/tub is helpful. Then I will work again for a couple of hours, take another break to play with the cat, and then keep working. Because I live in Canada, I didn’t really feel like going outside for walks most days during the dead of winter, but now that it is “nicer” outside (not -20º C), I will usually go for a walk in the afternoon. I also have a bike trainer that I try to use, but I will admit that when I was deep into my dissertation-writing stages, I didn’t use it as much as I should have. If you have an activity tracker, these are helpful in maintaining an active routine. I wish I’d invested in one sooner. But the important thing is to not beat yourself up if you can’t keep up with a physical routine every day. 

One other thing I’ll say about routines is that having something to take care of is really helpful. Even if it is just a houseplant or a bird feeder, having some sense of responsibility to take care of something will help. For me, it’s a cat and plants. Pets will have routines that you might be forced to follow, whether it’s taking them for walks, or just feeding and cleaning up after them. When our cat died unexpectedly, working from home suddenly became a lot harder, so my sister bought me a bunch of plants and that helped. I also make a patio garden in the summer. My husband eventually convinced me to get another cat, and while I was very resistant, I’m glad we did it. She’s very active, so we have to play with her for at least a half hour every night before bed, or she’ll keep us up. She also has natural rhythms that start to shape your day.

Put Distractions Away

Very helpful coworker May.

This is an obvious one, but easier said than done. For me, it’s my phone and email. I try to check my email only once an hour, and will leave my phone in a different room. If TV becomes a temptation, I will go and work in a different room away from the TV. Food is another easy distraction. I try to have set meals and snack breaks. I allow myself breakfast, lunch, and two snack breaks during the day. I can take these whenever I want, but I normally only get two. I try to drink lots of water, coffee, and tea throughout the day instead. I can take as many water or tea breaks as I want. If I’m having a stressful or long day, I will add a third snack break in too. I try not to be too hard on myself – writing requires fuel! Planning out groceries, especially snacky foods, is important when working from home. You’re going to need and want snacks, so make sure they are at the ready, but try to be mindful of snacks and build them into your routine.

Maintain Regular Communication and Accountability

Whether it’s your PI, boss, or a trusted mentor, maintaining a regular line of communication is really important to help you feel like you are keeping to some kind of schedule. While communication is a two-way street, your advisor might be juggling their own responsibilities, especially in such an unusual situation, so the responsibility is on you to be clear in what you need. Ultimately, it’s your degree/project. In my advisor’s lab, we had weekly lab meetings which I joined via Skype. I also talked with my advisor at least once every two weeks on the phone for a couple of hours to keep him updated, work through any problems, and talk about goals for the upcoming weeks. These meetings were something that I initiated (although he’d check in regularly). Again, it was my degree, so it was my responsibility. When you are working remotely, people can’t see what you are doing, so having a dedicated time to share and update your supervisors is important, both for them to see how you are doing, but also for you to maintain some accountability. Having regular communication is also key to avoid feelings of isolation.

Practicing Self-Care

Yoda I crocheted for my advisor – BEFORE the Mandalorian existed

Set aside time each day to relax or do something you enjoy. Again, obvious, but sometimes challenging when you work and live in the same space. For me, when my husband stops working, I do too (most of the time, anyway). We will make supper together, watch TV for a bit, and I will knit or crochet. He might go for a run and I’ll go for a walk. If I’m having a bad day, I’ll take an extra long lunch break, or do some baking. In the summer, I like to work on my patio garden and go for bike rides. I also volunteer for a couple of organizations where I write or post content for their social media platforms. I’m also trying to institute bedtime reading.

Basically, if there’s something that makes you happy, make sure to dedicate time for it each day. Build it into your routine.

If It’s Not Working, Don’t Force It

Not everything will work, so be kind to yourself. I’ve been working from home for years now, and I still have days where I feel like I get next to nothing done. If I feel like I’m having a bad day, there are a few different things I will try. The most important thing is not to force yourself to do something if it doesn’t feel like it’s working. It won’t work and you’ll just end up feeling miserable. For example, if I am struggling with writing a discussion section, I’ll try to switch to writing or editing something easier, like the methods or results. If I’m not feeling the writing at all, I will switch to an easier task, like working on some R code, data entry, or even backing up and organizing my files. Whatever makes you feel like you’re still getting something accomplished, because even backing up data is important (speaking of, have you backed up your data recently? If not, stop reading this and go do it now!).

My sad little patio garden.

If all else fails, it’s OK to take a big break, or even quit early sometimes. The grad-school/academic guilt can be tough sometimes, but if you’re feeling that lousy, you probably really need the break. And you’ll probably be more productive the next day. Put it this way: how many 12+ hour days have you put in? Probably quite a few. So if you have a day where you only get 2 or 3 hours of work done, it will all balance out in the end. After my cat died, I hardly did anything other than binge RuPaul’s Drag Race for a month. But I still defended on time, and passed with flying colors. Even if you have a lousy couple of days, or maybe even a couple of weeks, my best advice is the saying: “Be like a dog. Just kick some grass over it and move on.” Be patient with yourself. Tomorrow is a new day.

Lastly, try to enjoy it. Go to bed early. Sleep in. You don’t have to commute anymore! Cuddle pets or loved ones. Call your long-distance bestie or family member. They’re probably lonely too. And don’t forget: you will get the work done, and you get to do it in your comfy clothes!