Perfection, the Enemy of Good

This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know Ann Holmes, an Ecology PhD candidate at the University of California, Davis. In this interview, she chats about a collaborative workshop organized between 500 Women Scientists and Inspiring Girls Now in Technology Evolution, her path into science, and unattainable standards of perfection. You can follow her on Twitter @planktonherder.

When did you first identify as a scientist? 

Becoming a scientist felt like a gradual process, especially since I spent time working in other fields between college and graduate school. Looking back, I think that doing research as an undergraduate was the first step to identifying as a scientist. I researched the evolutionary relationships of barnacles with Dr. Bob van Syoc at the California Academy of Sciences as part of the National Sciences Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. When I started the project, I was pretty sure that barnacles were not very interesting. But I became fascinated by them and how their morphology interacted with their habitat (substrates including rock, plants, sponges, corals, turtles, and whales). I really enjoyed researching novel questions rather than just studying for points on an exam. I continued the project as an honors thesis my senior year. The moment of realizing I was researching questions in barnacle evolution that no one else knew the answers to (yet) was thrilling. That feeling still drives my passion for science and motivates me to mentor undergraduates who are getting their first opportunity to do research.

What does your graduate research focus on? How did you find your way to it?

My research is in conservation genetics at UC Davis's Genomic Variation Laboratory. Conservation genetics research explores and compares genetic diversity within and among species. The field blends not only genetics and conservation, but also ecology, evolution, policy, and other fields. I'm interested in applied research questions that directly influence policy and management in wetlands and coastal regions. I learned about UC Davis through my MS advisor (Dr. Wim Kimmerer) at San Francisco State. I found the Genomic Variation Laboratory (and my current advisors Drs. Mandi Finger and Andrea Schreier) through a Google search of UC Davis research programs and I knew that it was where I wanted to be!


My graduate research uses two relatively new genetic methods: high-throughput genetic sequencing and environmental DNA (eDNA) detection. I just started a project using high-throughput genetic sequencing to identify bat feeding patterns in a seasonal floodplain. Bats are key predators of agricultural pests but are underrepresented in conservation plans. I hope the results of this study can help shine some light on the practical value of wild bats. I've also been developing eDNA methods for detecting fish species the San Francisco Estuary. While eDNA sampling is a promising monitoring method because it doesn't harm fish or damage their habitats, results can be difficult to interpret because estuaries are very dynamic ecosystems. Recently, in collaboration with the California Department of Water Resources, I collected eDNA samples near temporary pens of fish in the estuary. I'm currently analyzing the results to look at how tidal action affects eDNA detection. 

Back in March, you helped organize a workshop and panel with IGNITE in San Francisco. Can you talk about how the collaboration came to be? What were the major takeaways from the event?

I was introduced to 500WS and Inspiring Girls Now in Technology Evolution (IGNITE) by my friend and colleague in UC Davis Ecology, PhD student Priya Shukla. (Priya researches the effect of climate change on the ocean and writes for Forbes Science.) The purpose of the workshop was to create a space where high school girls could learn about technology, coding, and career opportunities in science in a hands-on environment. I wanted to demonstrate a technology that is used in conservation science. I chose to show a motion-activated camera, also known as a camera trap. Camera traps are used to gather important data about the health of wild populations. I showed students how to build a motion-activated camera using an inexpensive Raspberry Pi mini-computer and open source code. I would love to run another workshop where we have enough equipment for the students to build their own cameras in the workshop. I also appreciated the opportunity to meet other panelists, who were all inspiring women working in science and technology.


What's the best advice you've received over your career?

One of the best pieces of advice I've received from my mentors is that scientific research doesn't have to be perfect to be valuable. As an early career researcher,t I feel a lot of pressure to get every detail of my research exactly right. But in reality, many studies cannot be conducted exactly as planned, particularly when field collections are involved. Both in the field and in the lab, the pursuit of perfectionism can cause paralysis. This advice has helped me solve problems without sacrificing the integrity of the research. Moreover, the process of peer review exists to identify deficiencies in published research. I learned that completing a project and sharing the results is more important than continuing to strive for an unattainable and self-imposed standard of perfection.

When you're not researching or organizing events to promote women in STEM, how do you relax and unwind?

I like to unwind with physical activity, especially outdoors. As a PhD student there's pressure to be working all the time, but none of us are physically or mentally capable of that. When I started my PhD, I went through a period when I tried to cut out activities that I felt didn't directly benefited my science career. I thought I would be more successful if I focused 100% of my energy on science. I wasn't happy. Now I realize that being the best scientist I can be is about honoring my whole self, including my passions that are not science. Sports have always been a big part of my life, including 15 years of national and international competition in rowing. These days I try to make physical activity a daily part of my life. I choose activities that I enjoy so it's not yet another thing to check off my to-do list. I love running with my dog, cycling, and competing in triathlons.


Ann Holmes is a PhD candidate in Ecology at the University of California, Davis. She uses genetic methods in conservation research. Her current projects include fish monitoring in the San Francisco Estuary using trace DNA in the environment (eDNA) and analysis of bat diets using high-throughput genetic sequencing. She is active in science outreach and mentors undergraduate researchers. After finishing her PhD, Ann plans to continue a career in conservation genetics and would like to lead a research program one day. A San Francisco native, Ann has a BA in Biology from Cornell University and a MS in Biology from San Francisco State University. Connect with her on Twitter @planktonherder.