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  • Name: Urszula Marcinkowska
  • Number of lab members or colleagues (excluding PI): 1 (I do not coordinate a lab at the moment, I coordinate multiple research groups that are constructed around different projects we conduct).
  • Location: Cracow, Poland
  • Graduation Date: June 2014, Ph.D.
    1. H index: 13
    2. Grants: 2
    3. Twitter followers: 215

Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

Hello! I am Ula and I work on different topics related to human behaviour and reproduction. I look at it from an evolutionary lens, in multiple cultural contexts when possible.

I did my Masters in Cracow in 2003-2008, in the Biology Department of Jagiellonian University. I kind of always knew I wanted to be a biologist, but I didn’t know I would work with humans and their behaviours. I completed a Ph.D. training in Human Evolutionary Biology/Evolutionary Psychology in 2014 at the University of Turku in Finland. I came to Finland for the first time in 2004 and discovered I loved it there and wanted to move there. Then I met my future supervisor, Markus Rantala, who said he would be willing to coordinate my Ph.D. studies within the realm of human sexual selection and variation of human sexual preferences. Although my Ph.D. training was a bit unorganised, I learnt a lot and managed to conduct multiple studies (“sky is the limit” became my motto:)).

Since my Ph.D. I have worked mainly on two universities: Jagiellonian University in Cracow, and Yale University in New Haven, USA. I have focused mainly on the intersection of hormones, behaviour, reproduction and cognition. My biggest project so far was a post-doc project I applied for while finishing my Ph.D., where for 4 years I have worked on endocrinological bases of women’s sexual behaviour and preferences variation throughout the menstrual cycle.

Examples of visual stimuli used in one of my sexual preferences studies:
less masculine face (A), more masculine face (B), less symmetrical face (C), 
and more symmetrical face (D).

What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I came up with the idea of the post doc project (the first one I realised immediately after my Ph.D.) while talking to my future supervisor at Jagiellonian University, Medical College Grazyna Jasienska. She was very supportive and inspirational and provided me with needed information as to what could be potentially innovative and interesting. I found her by accident, by coming up to her colleague at a scientific meeting, and saying that I was searching for a supervisor in Poland within my field. He sent my CV to her and she contacted me. And here I am, 7 years later, back to her faculty as an Associate Professor, full-time researcher.

The university I work at is quite supportive with hurdles related to bureaucracy, so frequently I could find a section within the administration that would help me out with different types of paperwork, ethical committees etc. Other than that, I learn by experience 🙂

Since the beginning of my Ph.D. I was encouraged to publish. The plus side of it is that I gained my Ph.D. title when having 6 published articles. The negative aspect is that I started publishing without actually knowing exactly how to do it – it was a steep learning curve. I hope that the quality of my articles increases with each year that passes, as I try to allocate some hours each week for learning how to write better and communicate science better.

Please describe the process of launching the project

I think the most important thing, is being interested in the topic of your project. Imagine, working on a project that you are not interested in. Luckily I never had to, and I hope that in the future it will remain like this.

The first step is actually being interested in something, and then the next steps would involve analyzing the feasibility of the project.

For example, if you need a laboratory, you would need to secure funds. But often, you can make studies, especially when you are studying human behavior, where you actually don’t need many funds because you can base it on questionnaires. So it’s only the hours you spend on the work, meeting participants, designing a survey, etc. that will sometimes let you accomplish your project without funding. A number of my projects have managed to get away with not having external funds.

Some of my peers who work in more ‘hard sciences’ are a bit jealous because for me it’s easier to produce articles. Often it’s more about the idea you have and your dedication to it. I have friends working in microbiology who have been doing research for two years and they have managed to publish one article. So, the impact could actually be much higher in molecular projects or topics, but in my field it depends much more on what I do and on my own dedication.

In any case, I had to secure acceptance from the ethical board, and this would be another step that can be limiting because it can prolong the process of developing the project. But on the other hand, it’s a very needed step and you can actually get valuable responses and suggestions from them on how to improve your research.

Another thing I’d like to mention is the importance of the internet. Depending on the design of your project using the internet can save a lot of time. For example, we had a quite big cross-cultural project where we had ten thousand participants. It would have been almost impossible for me to interview each of them personally, so instead of doing that, I set up an online platform and collected a decent amount of data to conduct the study.

Since launch, what has worked to make your project grow/successful?

My own dedication to the project and effectiveness at work has been the key I think. As a PI and main facilitator of the post-doc I was in charge of most of the duties. When it comes to writing articles and conducting statistical analyses, I have a net of collaborators who proved many times to be not only timely and effective, but also eager to work with me on many scientific hypotheses I had. Having your own database (I have one from my Ph.D. and one from my post doc) is a great luxury, as the only limit you have is the hours of work you want to spend on analyses/writing papers.

How is everything going nowadays, and what are your plans for the future?

I think I am very lucky because I have a lot of data from my Ph.D. and my post-doc that I can keep on publishing. There are a lot of hypotheses that I still didn’t analyze or test yet. I reckon I could feed my publication record for around three more years.

So there’s a plus side to having this drawer of unused data- that all the scientists have. Because you have all these ideas you are going to use in the future and you never actually do use them, well, this might be a perfect time to start, since the pandemic has freed a lot of research time.

Another strategy in place right now for me is to digitalize, and virtualize our ongoing projects. We lost some of the hypotheses we wanted to test, i.e. by analyzing biological material. Now we have to focus on biological material that participants can gather at home and then send to us. We had to adapt our methods.

However, thanks to the great advances in the methodology of the industry we can still, for example, measure cortisol in hair and nails. Everyone can collect it and it doesn’t need to be frozen. In any case, we haven’t finished collecting all of this data yet, as we want to recruit more participants from Poland.

Through your science, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I think that a good take-home message is that young scientists shouldn’t be afraid of outreach. Regardless if it’s writing an email, or approaching someone at a conference, or just going to a public lecture and then approaching the main speaker.

That’s a problem I had. I was really scared of approaching others, especially senior scientists, but I tried to work through it. At the beginning it was hard, and really intimidating, when I was trying to push myself out of my comfort zone. I started sending emails to people who I admired and it turned out that most of them responded and were really nice. I would say that only one in ten weren’t that nice or polite, and still, even if it didn’t turn out so well, it wouldn’t have a big negative repercussions on my life. So I’d conclude that you actually don’t lose anything in approaching people.

This had been an extremely important lesson for me because I learned that there’s this whole pool of projects and ideas where you can try to get invited to, or propose a collaboration with someone else totally unrelated to your field. And sometimes, these people are the people you approach casually, or you just tell them from the beginning “Hey! I know your work! Can we collaborate in the future?”, and that really worked.

I started this cross-cultural network of collaborators when I was in the second year of my Ph.D., and I really began thinking “the sky is the limit”. My supervisor was very understanding, and he accepted all of my crazy ideas. I just started writing emails to people and then I ended up with this list of collaborators from the whole world, with whom I am still working. It has been eight years and whenever I have an idea or when I want to organize a new study, I reach out to them and we keep on publishing together.

We’d like to know more about you, could you please let us know what is your morning routine like?

Life makes me efficient 🙂 Having to prepare two small kids to daycare leaves little space for being lazy. I get up at 6 am, make porridge, prepare our backpacks for the day, wake up the kids, and then we leave the house before 7 a.m. Luckily there is my lovely partner, who is equally active in child-rearing as I am. Without him, I would never be able to realize all my goals. Starting from leaving our house each morning, ending on obtaining a professor title (tenure equivalent) when 35 years old :).

I usually reach the office at 8 a.m. and then have breakfast myself while checking my inbox and making a plan for the day. Luckily, I’ve always been a lark, so the intense morning routine is not a great burden for me.

I gave up coffee some time ago. But I love a good tea and I drink liters of it daily.

I do my exercises in the evenings. If I don’t bike to daycares/work I sometimes take my jogging gear with me and jog from daycares to work. Sometimes 🙂

And how does a typical day look for you?

There are no fixed routines in my day. I juggle multiple duties in research, some teaching, mentoring and administrative work. In one week I always try to fit in time for: writing articles, pushing forward different research project, self-educating (webinars, seminars, conferences online – taking advantage of the pandemic virtual world), keeping up with published articles, meeting with colleagues and students, self-managing (updating twitter, CV, reporting different aspects of my work, writing down lists of things to do, etc).

My aim is to work around 7 hours a day. Because of that, when I am at work I ban myself from all social media, news, etc. I noticed that forcing myself to plan an 8 hour long work day is definitely not efficient for me. I feel brain dead after 7 hours of efficient work.

I very rarely work in the evening or during weekends. Due to the family-work life balance (partly chosen by me, partly forced by having progeny :)) I really do my best to fit all duties in the office hours.

What does your workstation look like?

I need space on my desk. Too many objects distract me. Having things in order makes me calmer and makes me feel more organized.

I listen to music when I work (hence speakers).

I love the Moomins (hence the Hattifatteners figurine on my screen), and plants (hence the small succulent plant that survived with me
the last 7 years).

I drink A LOT of tea (hence the mug, always there).

I really like and enjoy using desk planners (with weekly schedules rather than daily ones).

I always try to carry a notebook with me, as my memory isn’t great, and I am noting everything down (research ideas, tasks to do, etc.). I
also have a weekly planner, on my desk, where I note down almost
everything.

Oh, and I work barefoot in the office. It might be my inner Finn, but I
simply hate wearing shoes inside 🙂

What platform/tools do you use for your professional life?

Slack, Miro, Microsoft Teams.

What secondary software and apps do you use daily?

More and more each day (due to the virtual character of scientific work in the current pandemic world). I mainly use Gmail and Google Calendar, and for University work we use MS Teams. For scheduling meetings in research teams I use Doodle. For keeping up with multiple research topics (often conducted with the same collaborators) I use Slack. Sometimes we also add mind maps done in Miro. Finally, Spotify to listen music to.

How do you stay up to date on News and resources?

I am afraid I don’t 🙂 I use Google Scholar citation alerts, and visit Web of Science often.

What have been the most influential podcasts, or other resources?

David Michael Buss’ Evolutionary Psychology was the first book I read when I decided I want to construct my career in this topic (or rather try to construct it around it:))

Then, there have been many books which I loved! “On Fertile Grounds” by Peter Ellisson, “In Your Face” by David Perrett, “Fragile Wisdom” by Grazyna Jasienska or “How Men Age?” by Richard Bribiescas to name a few.

What tools do you use in your personal life? Cook? Self Care? Hobbies?

I try to do yoga 3 times a week. Usually, I am only capable of doing short sessions. I noticed that by not promising myself to dedicate 90 min in a row to a sport, I do it more often! A 20-minute session is an activity I can almost always squeeze in somewhere. I love hiking (and this is also a great sport to do with kids). I cycle each day (but I treat it rather as a means of transportation rather than a sport. I try to jog once a week (again, keeping my expectations low:)).

I love cooking. My family eats little animal products and we try to buy most of our food locally, without packaging – hence cooking is much easier than eating out. Also my partner likes to cook (and doesn’t mind washing the dishes!), so I am very lucky 🙂 I like watching documentaries on people who live a minimalist life and explore living alternatives. Especially those who do it with children. Being a less wasting, minimalistic person became a part of my identity, so it is nice to see that I am not alone in being like this 🙂

Advice for other scientists who want to get started or are just starting out?

For me it was very useful to find some kind of role model or mentor, to share things with. And these were things not necessarily related with science as such, but with scientific life.

For example, right now I have a more “normal haircut”, but before I didn’t and I was working in the university where it’s still quite rare for people to have piercings or tattoos or looks in a “strange” way. But then my supervisors or mentors, who are very successful in science encouraged me to not adjust the way I look in order to conform to some supposed social norm.

This is a good period of time, in my opinion, for the acceptance for these type of things is higher, and I also think that in my generation there is more people than there was in the previous generation who look “strange” (like the typical colored haircut). I also think that people who are younger than me are also more and more diverse, and diversity is a key to success in everything.

For me, it was very helpful to have this encouragement, these mentors along with my career. I think that could be the most important advice I can give to scientists who are just getting started – find a supportive mentor.

Oh, and the last piece of advice I could give is about the famous “impostor syndrome”. I think almost all of us scientists have it at some point. For me, it was very helpful to see people who I admired a lot, that still had this syndrome. That made me feel like it’s normal to sometimes feel not good enough, and that many people feel that way. It’s not something we should give much importance to. I think there should be a healthy dose of being realistic about both your own shortcomings and assets.

Thank you very much for your time, Ula. Where can we go to learn more?

Twitter: Ula Marcinkowska @urszulammarcin1

Facebook: Urszula Marcinkowska

Webpage: https://evoecogroup.wordpress.com/urszula-marcinkowska/

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