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Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Long-term members of the laboratory are on a first-name basis while newcomers use "Dr. Crews" as a form of address. What should I do?
A: I asked a very similar question of Judy Stern, now professor of Psychology at Rutgers University, when I was a new graduate student at the Institute of Animal Behavior. My question concerned how I should address Daniel S. Lehrman, the Director of the Institute: Dr. Lehrman or Danny? Her answer was that at some point I would feel that I had established myself in his eyes and would feel comfortable with the personal form of address.

Q: What makes an experiment elegant?
A: Simplicity and strong inference. Simplicity in that the study should be straight-forward with relatively few comparisons. Strong inference in that the alternative outcomes are few and each one of them meaningful; meaningful in the sense that the outcomes are mutually exclusive yet together they are totally inclusive.

Q: How is authorship on studies decided?
A: Authorship on professional articles is based on participation in the conception, design, conduct, analysis, and writing stages of a study. As I am involved in most, if not all, stages at some level, it is appropriate that I be included as an author on publications that result from research done in this laboratory. Senior authorship is based on both the degree of involvement and the amount of effort the individual contributes to the project. I expect senior authors to be self-motivated and disciplined. Such individuals take initiative in assuming the primary responsibility in preparing the experimental protocol, conducting the study in its various aspects, analyzing the data, and preparing drafts of the final manuscript.

Responsibilities are assigned by me at the beginning of a study. It is assumed that if you are the designated principal investigator, you will perform the duties expected to warrant senior authorship. Keep in mind that senior authorship is earned and not a right. If conflicts do arise between individuals regarding authorship, the final decision rests with me.

Finally, keep in mind that a study cannot be considered as completed until it has appeared in print. Simply designing and running an experiment, doing the statistics and graphs ultimately means nothing in terms of a contribution to science if the work never appears in print. The "gold" standard was set by Juli Wade who had submitted ALL of her thesis research for publication by the time she left the lab.

Now, a word about publications and reputations. The norm when starting out is to emphasize in quantity, and when established, to emphasize quality. This certainly was true in my case. There can be a price to be paid, however. It was told to me early that it is better to have no reputation, than to have a bad reputation. The easiest way to acquire a bad reputation is to submit weak papers to first-tier journals. Your rationale is that it may get accepted, i.e., it is a "long shot". I had to learn by experience that this strategy is not in your best interest. This is how it works. The editors of first-tier journals are recognized as leaders in their fields. They in turn consult leading researchers as to review manuscripts submitted to the journal for consideration for publication. Thus, a weak manuscript is seen by at least three prominent people in the area you are working in. Even if you are an established investigator, they will remember the paper because it was 1) sloppily prepared, 2) poorly thought out, or 3) weak data. This will disappoint them and cause them to both question their opinion of your work and view your future work with these doubts in mind. It can take years to overcome this impression.

Q: How do I get credit for ideas that I feel are mine?
A: This is an interactive laboratory and it is often difficult to decide who actually had the original idea versus who developed the idea into a research question. My feeling, and one that is shared by many scientists such as Ernst Mayr, is that there are few truly original ideas in science. Rather, it is what is done with the idea that counts. You will often find in your literature research on a particular question that someone else formulated the basic problem many years ago. I urge you to read the "classic" literature for insight into the central issues in the problem you have chosen (e.g., my PhD research can be traced directly to statements made by FHA Marshall in 1935 and GK Noble in 1938).

This does not mean that there is no such thing as original contributions. The discoveries being made every day in science are testaments to this. But the great advances come from interdisciplinary research. My opinion is that in multidisciplinary research projects where many fields are joined, it is best to share credit as much as possible as the discoveries actually hinge on a number of individuals. Thus, in talks such as job seminars and presentations to annual meetings as well as in publications, there often is a fine line between crediting every piece of work (as the audience will wonder what is your contribution) and not giving any credit to others (so that the audience assumes it is all your doing). You will have done serious damage to your reputation if anyone believes that you have not given proper credit, or worse, taken credit for something that is not yours. It is often a delicate judgment call and a good rule is that it is better to err on the side of generosity.

Q: Should I talk about research in the laboratory that I am not directly involved in?
A: Discussing research that is incomplete or preliminary outside of the laboratory is never a good practice; this is particularly true if you are not the PI in the study. Often times the final answer will be different than the original interpretation and early pronouncements can be embarrassing. A good rule to follow is that you should never talk about research that you are not directly involved in unless invited to do so by the PI. Even if you are the PI, it is usually helpful to clear with me first the extent to which results of ongoing projects should be discussed outside of the laboratory.

Q: What freedom do I have in collaborative research inside or outside of the laboratory? What if someone approaches me about collaborating on a project?
A: As a member of this laboratory, your primary responsibilities are to your project and duties in the laboratory. Any activity that might take you away from these responsibilities would be detrimental to you and to the laboratory. However, this is a well-known laboratory and it will not be unusual if you are approached about possible collaboration. If you feel that you have sufficient spare time, you should speak with me before entering into any agreement regarding collaborative research. Under no conditions are you to commit laboratory resources or materials to a project outside of this laboratory without my express permission. This pertains also to agreements undertaken between members of the laboratory.

Q: Can I continue to work on the same animal after I leave the laboratory?
A: First, the word "can" should be replaced with the word "should." The way the science world appears to operate is that an individual receiving the Ph.D. from a well-known laboratory will automatically be considered to have had substantial help in the development and execution of their thesis problem. This also is true for an individual entering into a faculty position following postdoctoral research. Whether this is right or wrong is beside the point.

So it is necessary for each of you to re-establish your independence and identity as a researcher after you leave the laboratory. The fastest and most effective way of doing this is to begin a research program with an animal that you have not worked with before or that you worked with before coming to the laboratory. I will never say that you cannot work on the animal that you worked on in this laboratory (as if I had that right anyway). However, your research problem and your research animal does not become exclusively yours when you leave. If you do continue to work on the same research animal, you should be aware that you may be in direct competition with this laboratory. It will not only be difficult to compete with this laboratory, but it will also place me in a predicament regarding comments of originality in letters of reference and recommendation.

Q: How do I find out what has and what has not been done in the lab?
A: I advise that you get an up-to-date copy of the publications list from my vita (ask me for one) and then read the papers that deal with the question you are interested in in their order of appearance. This will give you an idea of both the development of specific projects and the breadth of projects. There are no reprints available for many of the papers, but there is a xerox of all of the published work of the lab on file in the Main Lab. After you have an idea of what has been done in the area you are particularly interested in, ask me about the unpublished experiments. Knowing what has been tried already will save you an enormous amount of time and effort.

Q: The lab seems to be very large. How will I get the personal training that is needed for my research?
A: First, you should ask the other members of the laboratory whether they think they are receiving the necessary attention. I think that you will find that the consensus is that I try to keep abreast with all developments of the laboratory and provide larger contexts in which to interpret them. Because there are a number of ongoing projects in the laboratory, you may find that in discussions with me you will have to begin with your previous findings (i.e., repeat what you told me about previously), but I get up to speed quickly. Second, I make a strong effort to provide all the time you need without erring on the side of "always looking over your shoulder."

Q: Science today is a very competitive field. How do I know if the training I receive will make me marketable?
A: The only way this can be judged is to look at the track records of previous graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The following is a listing that is current, but of course is always being updated.

M. A. Students

  • Gregory Lopreato, 1993 M.A., University of Texas at Austin. Ph.D., 2000, University of Texas at Austin.
  • Deborah L. Flores, 1994 M.A., University of Texas at Austin. Present Position: Resident in Psychiatry, University of California Medical School at San Francisco.
  • Amador R. Cantú, 1995 M.A. not completed, leaving for medical school, graduating in 1999.
  • C. Todd Osborn, 1999 M.A., University of Texas at Austin. Present Position: Director of Sales, Advanced Digital Solutions.
  • Emily Willingham, 2000 M.A., University of Texas at Austin. Present Position: University of Texas at Austin.
  • Kimberly Hillsman, 2005 M.A., University of Texas at Austin. Present Position: English language instructor.

Ph.D. Students

  • William R. Garstka, 1983 Ph.D., Harvard University. Present position: Professor, University of Alabama at Huntsville.
  • Joan M. Whittier, 1986 Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin. Present Position: Senior Lecturer, University of Queensland, Australia.
  • Robert T. Mason, 1987 Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin. Present Position: Associate Professor, Oregon State University.
  • Jonathan Lindzey, 1990 Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin. Present Position: Assistant Professor, University of South Florida.
  • Juli Wade, 1992 Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin. Present Position: Associate Professor, Michigan State University.
  • Alan J. Tousignant, 1993 Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin. Present Position: Curator of Research , Trevor Zoo, New York.
  • Larry J. Young, 1994 Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin. Present Position: Associate Professor, Emory University.
  • Patricia Coomber, 1995 Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin. Present Position: Lt. Col., USAF, AFTAC/TNB, Patrick Air Force Base.
  • Judith M. Bergeron, 1997 Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin. Present Position: Postdoctoral Fellow, Marine Sciences Institute of the University of Texas.
  • Kira Wennstrom, 1997 Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin. Present Position: Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Washington, Seattle.
  • Lainy Day, 1999 Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin. Present Position: Postdoctoral Fellow, University of California, Santa Barbara.
  • Steven M. Phelps , 1999 Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin. Co-sponsored with W. Wilczynski . Final thesis project supervisor: M. J. Ryan. Present Position: Assistant Professor, University of Florida.
  • Alice Fleming, 2000 Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin. Present Position: Postdoctoral Fellow, Stanford University.
  • Turk Rhen, 2000 Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin. Present Position: Assistant Professor, University of North Dakota. (Individual NIH NRSA Predoctoral Fellow)
  • Jon T. Sakata, 2001 Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin. Present Position: Postdoctoral Fellow, University of California, San Francisco. (NSF Predoctoral Fellow)
  • Sarah Woolley, 2002 Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin. Present Position: Postdoctoral Fellow, University of California, San Francisco. (Individual NIH NRSA Predoctoral Fellow)
Postdoctoral Fellows
  • Richard R. Tokarz. Present Position: Professor, University of Miami.
  • Michael C. Moore. Present Position: Professor, Arizona State University.
  • Janet E. Joy. Present Position: Research Associate, National Institutes of Health.
  • Mark Grassman. Present Position: Advanced MicroDevices, Austin.
  • Randolph W. Krohmer. Present Position: Associate Professor, St. Xavier College, Illinois.
  • Ethan Allen. Present Position: Exhibit Planner, the Chicago Museum of Science and Technology.
  • Mary T. Mendonça. Present Position: Associate Professor, Auburn University.
  • Manfred Gahr. Present Position: Professor, Vrije University, Amsterdam.
  • Thane Wibbels. Present Position: Associate Professor, University of Alabama at Birmingham.
  • Ellen Prediger. Present Position: Research Scientist, Ambion.
  • Matthew Rand. Present Position: Associate Professor, Carleton University.
  • John Godwin. Present Position: Assistant Professor, North Carolina State University.
  • Cynthia Gill. Present Position: Assistant Professor, Hampshire College.
  • Oliver Putz. Present Position: Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley.

Q: Every laboratory has its own lore. This is not the published papers by the laboratory but rather the social and political aspects of the laboratory over the years. Because the individuals involved change over the years, it is possible present-day students have no understanding of past events that were critical in the perspective portrayed immediately prior to their time period. Is this handed down "word of mouth", or is there a place where we can find it?
A: The major animal subjects of the laboratory fortunately have been very topical. In Greg Myers book, Writing Biology, some of the history of the whiptail lizard research and garter snake research is documented. There also is a notebook, started in 1992, that contains the papers used during laboratory meetings. These papers, as well as those listed at the back of this guide, should be read by all. Also in the lab notebook are press clippings that have appeared over the years. Finally, lab lore is not written down so much as passed on across lab generations; the great flood of 20 January, 1984, the genesis and near demise of Sergeant York would be examples. Another piece of lab lore would be my obsession with information (not control) about what is being done when and by whom.

Q: How do I select a thesis topic and will I be allowed to do what I want to do?
A: This is a question that is always close to mind: yours and mine. A topic that will implement equipment and techniques already in use is most likely to succeed. The most important ingredients are the significance and originality of the experiments and the soundness of the research plan (both large and small scale items). These are the same criteria that will be used by the granting agencies. Any topic that deals with reproduction, behavior, and animal models that have been used already (this aspect is to impress upon you the difficulty of establishing a new animal model for laboratory use) is fair game, but remember that it should be something I know at least something about (otherwise I will not be able to properly evaluate it and give advice). Finally, I do not assign topics, but I will advise you, adhering to the same criteria.

Q: Teaching Assistant vs Graduate Assistantship/NIH NRSA Support/NSF Predoc Fellowship?
A: Depending on the grant situation, I support two levels of graduate research assistantships. One level is equivalent to the 9 month TA salary scale for graduate students. The second level is via self-secured grants such as the NIH Individual NRSA, NSF, and Howard Hughes Predoctoral Fellowships. All graduate students in the laboratory will be expected to apply for these awards as part of their training in grantsmanship. The amounts of the various awards vary. For example, the established NIH NRSA stipend has a $3,000 allowance for a predoctoral award. My policy in the past for NRSA postdoctoal Awardees has been to expect one-half of the allowance to be used for laboratory expenses. This is justified in that the actual cost of the trainee's research far exceeds that amount and so the remainder is borne by my research grants. That leaves $1,500 to be used for insurance and whatever else the investigator wished. NIH NRSA predoctoral fellows have total control of the $3,000 allowance which can be used for insurance and travel.

NIH assumes, as do I, that the freedom provided by an Award allowing full-time research, and the prestige of having obtained such a highly competitive Award, is desirable. The only pay increases (e.g., cost of living) while on the award are mandated by Congress. Federal law specifically disallows federal funds being used to supplement salaries of holders of a NRSA. Therefore, any supplementation of salary must be within the guidelines of the NRSA regulations, but is not expressly forbidden. In other words, you can get additional salary from a job outside of the lab so long as you do not violate the letter or intent of the Award and it does not interfere with your research.

At this time tuition is waived for TAs. Holders of NRSAs or fellowships generally also have allowances for tuition. For GRAs tuition comes from the lab grants, so my ability to pay for tuition is constrained by this fact. In the past this has not been a problem and I do not expect it to be a problem in the future.

If you are being paid as a GRA, TA, or by a fellowship, you are expected to work full-time as a graduate student in the lab. Any outside employment, including work in the university in another capacity (e.g. an appointment as a grader or a tutor; a supplemental TAship) must be approved by me in advance. I am not in favor of any outside employment except in the most extenuating circumstances, and only when I am confident that it will not interfere with your progress or lab work. I will likely exercise the right of veto of any such employment.

Q: How much vacation should I take?
A: Please refer back to number 8 under Lab Policies above.