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I am Adam Summers and This is How I Work

Today, I am interviewing Adam Summers for the “How I Work” series. Adam Summers grew up in New York City and the north woods of Canada. As an undergraduate he studied math and engineering and then became a SCUBA instructor in Australia. He found biology and got a masters from NYU and a PhD from UMASS before heading out to California. He was a Miller Fellow at UC Berkeley then started a comparative biomechanics and biomaterials lab at UC Irvine. After 8 years there he moved north to the University of Washington to the Friday Harbor Laboratories. His lab there is devoted to cutting edge comparative biomechanics right at the water’s edge. For many years he wrote a column in Natural History Magazine called Biomechanics, and he was the scientific consultant on Pixar’s Finding Nemo.

Current Job: Professor at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs
Current Location: A marine station in the San Juan Islands, WA, USA
Current mobile device: iPad, iPhone
Current computer: MacBook Pro 15”

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?
I am a professor at an R1 university with my lab and half my teaching responsibilities at a marine station 66 miles from the main campus in Seattle. I work in the field of comparative biomechanics and biomaterials. The evolution of mechanisms and materials is what drives my research program and I look to the sea for inspiration for new classes of biomaterials and bioinspired solutions to technical problems.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?

My lab has flow through seawater for live animal care. The drier parts of my lab are devoted to building things, testing materials, and imaging. I build things using 3-D printers, CNC mills and lathes, and a laser cutter. I actuate and program things we build at an electronics bench that includes Arduino and Raspberry Pi set ups.

For visualization I use Amira, Meshlab, MeshMixer, CT-Vox and Horos. I am now exclusively using Fusion 360 for CAD, but I have used several other programs in the past. I use RStudio and iPython for coding. Photoshop and Illustrator for images and layout and Keynote for presentation.

My material testing system is an MTS brand running TestWorks. The laser scanner is a NextEngine…running their crap. We have a JEOL tabletop scanning electron microscope running proprietary software. Our Skyscan 1173 Micro CT scanner also uses proprietary software.

What does your workspace setup look like?

I do not work at home on anything but reading. My laptop is usually in my office unless I am visiting another office. My office has a desk, a large workbench with a small 3-D printer, soldering station and parts trays, a two small bookshelves, a bookshelf that covers one wall with a rolling ladder, and a coffee table, couch and chairs. The lab has several small rooms. One has a hood and histology equipment, another has the CT scanner and SEM, a third has material testing equipment, 3-D printers, laser cutter and the laser scanner. There is a large open room in the middle with 24 sea tables and a couple of 2 meter diameter round tanks for holding fishes.

What is your best advice for productive academic work?

Deeply embrace what you do. Love the history and the current events in your field. The closer you feel to the work that has been done and will be done the easier it is to generate new, exciting insights. I believe that outsiders can make transformative contributions on first contact, but I know that the more common advances come for someone so deeply embedded in the field that fundamental contradictions or opportunities leap out at her.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
I deal with what is on fire and on what is causing me sleepless nights. I am not really a list maker and I am not good at keeping track of all that I should do. I rely on my students, post-docs and colleagues to put me back on track when I wander too far afield.

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?

I am very connected. I am rarely without some electronic tether. I use high tech gear nearly every day between CT, SEM and the printers. I don’t have techs to work the machines and I do not believe that leads in a good direction for me. I need to fly the machines myself to make advances.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?

I suppose that my training as an engineer and mathematician in college makes me unusual in biology. I think my pilots license probably sets me apart from more scientists than any personality quality. We are a small band of aerialists and I love meeting other flying scientists.

What do you listen to when you work?
I am nearly amusical. I do have a playlist for when I am having trouble concentrating on writing. it dates from grad school and is heavy with Mary Chapin Carpenter. I like ballads – rock or folk, and I have a lifelong affinity for Irish music. Oh…and I love Mark Knopfler.

What are you currently reading?
I read a few books a week in addition to science. The books are what my spouse gleefully refers to as trash. I like a broad swath of the thriller, mystery, sci-fi and fantasy genre. Right this minute I am half way through Brandon Sanderson’s new book in a new series.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?
Deeply introverted. I avoid big crowds and deal best with people in close quarters and without a lot of noise. I do not go to parties, nor do I like places where loud music happens.

What’s your sleep routine like?

I sleep 4-8 hours a night. As a rule I have no trouble falling asleep and I seldom wake in the night. I head to bed around 11:30pm and read for a while, then get up between 6am -7am.

What’s your work routine like?

I come to the lab and do the things I love to do. I am really not sure I have a routine. I am a very unscheduled person. I travel with little preparation and am almost always accompanied by one or both of my kids. My lab is usually where they spend the afternoon and I am the one who cooks dinner. I ‘work’ whenever I fit it in. I am pretty deeply in love with what I do so nearly all my hobbies and interests are in some way connected to my work.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

As a post-doc a professor took me aside and said that he heard I was headed off to an R1 job. He said they would tell me that teaching mattered to my career. I should dismiss that notion from my head. It would not make a bit of direct difference. But, he told me that he could tell I would not be willing to do a crappy job of it and therefore I had to develop a protective strategy. He said I needed to work out a way to make my teaching serve my research interests. I have worked hard to do that and feel that I have largely succeeded. My undergraduates keep me up on the literature, provide me with new areas to investigate and force me to reexamine things that I was sure were settled in my head.

Another mentor said to me that when I looked around me at a panel, committee or distinguished group of colleagues, I should do a quick head count of the number of women there. If the representation was less than half, the difference represented the number of under-qualified men in the room. I did not dismiss the advice at the time and I have found it stands up well as I age.

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