Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Mental health crisis: in the middle of the storm

By Jai Ranganathan

“I don’t deserve to be here.”

“I am the stupidest person in my lab.”

“Everyone can clearly see how idiotic my work is.”

“I am a joke.”

Does any of this sound familiar? When I was getting my doctorate in ecology, phrases like these formed the spinning center of a nonstop interior dialogue of sorrow and self-recrimination.

And, unfortunately, I wasn’t the only graduate student who felt this way. Recent research has shown something that almost everyone connected to academia knows: there is a mental health crisis among graduate students (REF 1 at bottom).

Treatment resistant depression. Anxiety disorder. Imposter syndrome. We have invented an almost endless supply of words of clinical and bloodless terms to describe the ways we can silently suffer in our own minds. But none of them can truly describe the searing experience of actually being in the middle of a mental health hurricane.

If you’re a graduate student (or anyone really) in the middle of the mental storm, it is really easy to blame yourself for being in the maelstrom to begin with. It’s really easy to think of yourself as fatally flawed, somehow intrinsically undeserving of being anywhere near academia.

But of course, none of that is true. Mental health concerns, even severe long-lasting mental health concerns, don’t have to prevent highly successful academic careers. In her book Lab Girl, ecologist Hope Jahren talks in detail about how she navigated academia even with her bipolar diagnosis. And Kay Redfield Jamison’s entire career as an extremely prominent psychologist at Johns Hopkins University has been closely tied to her own long-standing mental health issues (her book An Unquiet Mind is a classic memoir of living an academic life with mental illness as a constant companion).

Author Jai Ranganathan, of SciFund Challenge, bringing
scientists together to build a more science-engaged world.
So, if you’re in the middle of the storm, the key question is surely: how do I get out? Just speaking from my own experience in the storm (and not as a mental health professional, which I’m not), I can say for sure that the number one thing is to not ignore it. Like attempting to run a marathon while ignoring a broken leg, ignoring your own mental health issues in the middle of your graduate career is likely to turn out poorly and with lots of unnecessary suffering.

So what should you do? We all know the general advice. See a counselor. Take medication. Go to a support group. Take better care of yourself. Etc.

But here’s the thing that they don’t tell you. Many of those mental-health-improvement things won’t work in your specific case. It happens all the time. A particular medication makes all the difference in the world for a given person but yet, for another person with the exact same condition, that medication is not effective. For one person, going running daily is the key to mental health improvement, while for another going running is the sure-fire path to more misery.

Unfortunately, the solution to mental health issues for any particular individual is almost certainly going to be idiosyncratic and individual. If you are trying to get out of the mental health storm, there simply is no substitute for trying a million things out, knowing that some of them (most of them?) are going to fail. And the fact that there is a high failure rate in the things that you try to help yourself doesn’t mean you are doing it wrong - it’s just the nature of the process. It’s also just like trying to find a pair of pants that fit really well - it would be pretty unlikely that the first pair that you try on in the story truly fit. But if you just keep trying on more things, you’ll get there eventually - so long as you keep trying.

So, where do you get started? In my own particular idiosyncratic case, I have found to be particularly helpful the program known as WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan). Through WRAP, you’ll find a ton of ideas for things that you can try.

And what if it isn’t you in the storm, but instead a friend, colleague, or family member? What can can you do to help them out? The good news is that there is a lot you can do. Research indicates that social support can make a gigantic difference in mental health recovery. This is true even for conditions like schizophrenia, which in the past had been considered to be treatable chiefly through medication-only approaches (REF 2). If you are trying to figure out how to approach someone who seems to be struggling, here are two resources to check out (1, 2). If the person that you are concerned about is someone with whom you share a close connection, I would strongly recommend attending a support group meeting intended for those with mentally ill loved ones. These groups are truly lifesavers for so many and are commonly held as community meetings. If you are in the United States, you can find your closest support group via the National Alliance for Mental Health. In Canada, a great place to find a support group is through your local branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

[KC: for more on mental health issues in grad school, see this great  2-part series by Sarah Klain, Ally Thompson, Karina Benessaiah, and Verena Seufert]

1. Evans, T.M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J.B., Weiss, L.T., Vanderford, N.L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology (36) 282–284.
2. Kane, J.M., et al. (2015). Comprehensive Versus Usual Community Care for First-Episode Psychosis: 2-Year Outcomes From the NIMH RAISE Early Treatment Program. The American Journal of Psychiatry 173 (4): 362-372.

When are models too complex? What counts as independent (and representative) data for model testing?

In a Hindsight blog for Functional Ecologists, of the British Ecological Society, Kai Chan and Edward Gregr tackle some crucial questions about model building and validation. Everyone knows that you need independent and representative data to properly test a model, but what counts as 'independent' and 'representative'? How are these concepts affected by scale? If you want to keep up with evolving norms for proper model building and testing, this post may help.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

“Sleep Is for the Plane Ride Home”? NO: Let’s Stop Celebrating Sacrificing Our Health

By Kai Chan
GYA sticker, photo courtesy
of Ignacio Palomo.

I’m tired of fellow academics boasting about how little sleep they got, as if it’s some badge of honour that they’re willing to give it all for their science or scholarship. Not that it’s always boasting, mind you--sometimes, more appropriately, it’s explaining crankiness or bloodshot eyes, acknowledging procrastination or overcommitment, or just plain complaining. Those are all fair game.

But when it sounds like boasting, comments like this propagate a dangerous celebration of academic martyrdom that normalizes unhealthy habits and turns many a brilliant student away from academia. This is true even though the problem of sacrificing sleep goes well beyond academia, including law, business, medicine, etc.

“Sleep is for the plane ride home”? No, sleep is for the
This weary traveller didn’t make it to the plane--
here she’s 
sprawled over our luggage in the lounge.
I’ve definitely remarked on sleepless nights in ways that might sound like a brag. No longer.

Too many students tell me they don’t want to go on in academia, because they see how busy their professors are, and they can’t imagine that being a good life. Who can blame them? But is that really what we want for academia? A profession that weeds out those who prioritize family and health over working 60+ hour weeks? What a recipe for dysfunctional workplaces and academic communities.

Another weary traveller. My daughter was so tired from the
plane that she wouldn’t wake for a feeding (years ago now).
For me, this post was prompted when I spotted Ignacio Palomo’s Global Young Academy sticker, “Sleep Is for the Plane Ride Home”. (Ignacio was using it only to show his appreciation of GYA, not his support for the attitude it represents.) I love the GYA, and my colleague and friend who coined and popularized this phrase, meaning that one shouldn’t waste time sleeping while at GYA meetings. What’s great about the phrase is how it succinctly captures a strong commitment to the organization and GYA friends.

On this 21-hour journey to Brisbane (which started at 6pm),
I got 20 minutes of shut-eye while my 1-year old slept on my
chest. I’d just as soon boast about that as I would boast about
driving 140 km/h. (It’s just as much of a social burden given
that fatigue is a leading cause of motor accidents.)
But now that it’s on organizational stickers, let’s also acknowledge its dark side: the slogan celebrates habits that compromise our health. And it sends the signal that those who don’t want to do that (who want to get a good night’s sleep) don’t belong.

As I said, I cherish my GYA colleagues, but I didn’t want to show it by staying up until 3 AM. I had too much else going on, and I didn’t want to return to my family fried or sick because I worked myself into the ground. Plus, I'm a better person when I have good sleep: more patient, more generous, less self-absorbed.

It’s hard enough getting a good night sleep without that kind of social pressure (witness exhibit D, left).

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Ecosystem Services and NCP: There’s Room for Both in a Bigger Tent

Part of a series of posts about IPBES (the UN's Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) and an inside look at its processes.
[The following is an edited synopsis of part of our longer official response on March 12 in Science about nature's contributions to people (NCP). Re: the original article, see this IPBES news item.]
Given that the Inuit have over 50 words for snow, how does an Inuit person translate a white skier’s question, “How’s the snow?” Without a precise mapping of terms, the translation is likely to include other dimensions of meaning, including the ‘positionality’ of the questioner (a white outsider) and the underlying purpose (recreating on Inuit territory). There is no way for any outsider’s language and concepts--e.g., about ecosystem services--not to suffer the same fate: they will both lose meaning that is crucial to locals, while also accruing conceptual baggage that may alienate them. A key point of the NCP approach is to explicitly recognize the legitimacy of a context-specific understanding, which defies the predetermined categorization that is so central to the ecosystem-services approach. And thus NCP is not merely political compromise but rather a broadening of epistemologies.
The snow allegory illustrates elements of the statement that “ecosystem services are NCP”: yes, ‘ecosystem services’ represents an important subset of ways of understanding nature’s diverse contributions to people. For some—including many social scientists and humanities scholars—there is hesitation or resistance to engage with ‘ecosystem services’, since the term comes with a conceptual baggage regarding the implicit assumptions and intended purpose. Not only is there the troubling connotation in the analogy of ecosystems as service-providers like factories (Norgaard 2010), but ‘ecosystem services’ has become associated at least partly with the notion of pricing nature so as to save it (Spash 2008; Dempsey & Robertson 2012; Crouzat 2018; Castree 2017). NCP represents a response, to broaden the tent by broadening the term.
Our promotion of NCP is no battle for territory: ecosystem services researchers should keep using that term, and we will too—in appropriate contexts. It remains in IPBES’ name, our job titles, and our explanations of who we are and what we do. It is perfectly functional for some audiences, and preferable for others—but not all (Fairbank 2010). In some other contexts, we will use NCP in order to intentionally signal an approach that explicitly invites and embraces diverse conceptions of nature and our relationships with it. This conceptual broadening is especially important when stakeholders do not accept the stock-flow metaphor associated with narrowing down nature to natural capital and all of its contributions as services (Chan et al. 2016; Pollini 2016; Pascual et al. 2017).
The issue is not whether the social sciences and humanities are represented in the field, but how visible and comfortable they are, whether there could be more, and if it would be productive. There are important social-science and humanities contributions in ecosystem services, and we have all intentionally strived to make more space for these (Chan et al. 2012; Martín-López et al. 2014; Pascual et al., 2014; Díaz et al. 2015; Berbés-Blázquez et al., 2016; Stenseke & Larigauderie 2017). But many review papers have found a narrow engagement of ecosystem services research with the social sciences (Liquete et al. 2013; Haase et al. 2014; Nieto-Romero et al. 2014; Chaudhary et al. 2015; Luederitz et al. 2015; Fagerholm et al. 2016). We know of many excellent social scholars who have been turned off by the term, and some who have engaged and have contributed importantly report a persistent queasiness (Satterfield et al. 2013; Satz et al. 2013).
We favour a big tent for this party that is research on nature’s contributions, and terms aren’t one-size-fit-all. Since many scholars report continued chafing with ‘ecosystem services’, despite our efforts to stretch it, we simply intend to provide a new term to invite a broader range of scholars and knowledge holders.


Berbés-Blázquez, M., J. A. González and U. Pascual (2016). "Towards an ecosystem services approach that addresses social power relations." Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 19: 134-143.
Castree, N. (2017). "Speaking for the ‘people disciplines’: Global change science and its human dimensions." The Anthropocene Review 4(3): 160-182.
Chan, K. M. A., T. Satterfield and J. Goldstein (2012). "Rethinking ecosystem services to better address and navigate cultural values." Ecological Economics 74(February): 8-18.
Chan, K. M. A., P. Balvanera, K. Benessaiah, et al. (2016). "Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment." PNAS 113(6): 1462–1465.
Chaudhary, S., A. McGregor, D. Houston and N. Chettri (2015). "The evolution of ecosystem services: A time series and discourse-centered analysis." Environmental Science & Policy 54: 25-34.
Crouzat, E., I. Arpin, L. Brunet, M. J. Colloff, F. Turkelboom and S. Lavorel (2018). "Researchers must be aware of their roles at the interface of ecosystem services science and policy." Ambio 47(1): 97-105.
Dempsey, J. and M. M. Robertson (2012). "Ecosystem services: Tensions, impurities, and points of engagement within neoliberalism." Progress in Human Geography.
Díaz, S., S. Demissew, C. Joly, et al. (2015). "The IPBES Conceptual Framework - connecting nature and people." Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14(June): 1-16.
Fagerholm, N., M. Torralba, P. J. Burgess and T. Plieninger (2016). "A systematic map of ecosystem services assessments around European agroforestry." Ecological Indicators 62: 47-65.
Fairbank, M., Maullin, Metz and Associates, and Public Opinion Strategies (2010). National public opinion research project, The Nature Conservancy.
Haase, D., N. Larondelle, E. Andersson, et al. (2014). "A quantitative review of urban ecosystem service assessments: Concepts, models, and implementation." AMBIO 43(4): 413-433.
Liquete, C., C. Piroddi, E. G. Drakou, L. Gurney, S. Katsanevakis, A. Charef and B. Egoh (2013). "Current status and future prospects for the assessment of marine and coastal ecosystem services: A systematic review." PLoS ONE 8(7): e67737.
Luederitz, C., E. Brink, F. Gralla, et al. (2015). "A review of urban ecosystem services: six key challenges for future research." Ecosystem Services 14: 98-112.
Martín-López, B., E. Gómez-Baggethun, M. García-Llorente and C. Montes (2014). "Trade-offs across value-domains in ecosystem services assessment." Ecological Indicators 37, Part A(0): 220-228.
Nieto-Romero, M, Oteros-Rozas, E., González, J.A. and B Martín-López (2014) Exploring the knowledge landscape of ecosystem services assessments in Mediterranean agroecosystems: insights for future research. Environmental Science & Policy 37: 121-133
Norgaard, R. B. (2010). "Ecosystem services: From eye-opening metaphor to complexity blinder." Ecological Economics 69(6): 1219-1227.
Pascual, U., Phelps, J., Garmendia, E., Brown, K., Corbera, E., Martin, A., Gomez-Baggethun, E., Muradian, R. (2014). Social Equity matters in Payments for Ecosystem Services. Bioscience 64(11): 1027-1036 doi: 10.1093/biosci/biu146
Pascual, U., P. Balvanera, S. Díaz, et al. (2017). "Valuing nature’s contributions to people: the IPBES approach." Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 26–27: 7-16.
Pollini, J. (2016). Construction of nature. International Encyclopedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment and Technology. D. Richardson, N. Castree, M. F. Goodchild et al, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd: 1-7.
Satterfield, T., R. Gregory, S. Klain, M. Roberts and K. M. Chan (2013). "Culture, intangibles and metrics in environmental management." Journal of Environmental Management 117: 103-114.
Satz, D., R. K. Gould, K. M. A. Chan, et al. (2013). "The challenges of incorporating cultural ecosystem services into environmental assessment." Ambio 42(6): 675-684.
Spash, C. L. (2008). "How much is that ecosystem in the window? The one with the bio-diverse trail." Environmental Values 17(2): 259-284.
Stenseke, M. and A. Larigauderie (2017). "The role, importance and challenges of social sciences and humanities in the work of the intergovernmental science-policy platform on biodiversity and ecosystem services (IPBES)." Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research: 1-5.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Finding a balance between bibliometric and societal impact

Re-blogged from Elephant in the Lab:

An interview with Kai Chan and his strategies to seek the combination of both
kinds of impacts.
There is a tremendous difference between bibliometric and societal impact. I devoted a blog post to this when I had the honour of reaching 100 publications in the peer-reviewed literature. I didn’t feel the sense of accomplishment that I imagined I might have—and should have—felt. Although I had achieved a bibliometric feat, it didn’t mean I had achieved my desired societal impact. Indeed, the moment reminded me that I had got distracted from my core commitments. I delve into why in the post (above).
Importantly, though, bibliometric and societal impacts don’t necessarily diverge in the long run. Some of the publications that I’m proudest of are those that have done well by bibliometrics and also changed discourse and practice. But there important applied projects that generate little notice by bibliometrics, and I have well-scoring papers that arguably aren’t very useful for practice (even probably in the long run).... continued at