Conference report: SACNAS

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Here is a detailed report on my brief experience with the SACNAS meeting, aggregated as an unordered set of observations and thoughts.

Just a short while ago, I was wondering whether my students are better served attending a disciplinary meeting, or a minority-focused conference. I was given the opportunity by SACNAS to see for myself. The comments on my earlier post were helpful, and described my question as a false dichotomy. As the commenters indicated, one meeting cannot substitute the other, as they are different creatures.

I was only available to attend two-half days (on account of mountains of personal stuff, but this is not That Kind of blog). I was there long enough to get a feel for the meeting, or at least I thought so. I talked with a bunch of students and exhibitors – first time attendees and old hands – about what they put into and get out of the meeting.

The science was high quality, and the undergraduate posters in my disciplines would fit in well at a discipline-specific national conference. All kinds of science were represented, though the vast majority was biomedical. There was enough science up my alley to be able to engage about a dozen students in a meaningful way over the course of the ten or so hours I was at the conference.

People were extraordinarily friendly at SACNAS. At some meetings (like the Ecological Society of America) I’ve felt an air of anxiety among some fraction of the students: a concern about being able to meet the right people, to be acknowledged, handle the high level of academic competition, and respond effectively to critical questions. At this meeting, there was a uniform vibe of friendliness and an attitude that we are all in this together. As far as I saw, students were happy with themselves and with one another, PIs were generous with their time, and all of the scientists who attended were there with the primary goal of supporting students. This was very refreshing to see a convergence of research-oriented scientists, student-centeredness, and a deliberate focus on human diversity.

The meeting was designed for students to interact with one another and with working scientists as much as possible, and the sessions with research were equally matched with sessions about professional development. The registration included meals for students, and fun evening events designed to keep students at the meeting with one another, rather than wandering off to eat and have fun away from the conference. One colleague of mine, whose university is just over a half-hour from the convention center, still chose to book students into hotels so that they could benefit from the social environment of the conference. The students that I talked to were enthusiastic about the benefits of the meeting, moreso than I typically see from the small fraction of undergraduates at discipline-specific conferences. It is clear that this experience helps build a positive trajectory toward research careers.

There were a couple hours set aside one afternoon for “Conversations with Scientists” with shared research interests. I first showed up at the room designated for “Animal Sciences, Zoology/Entomology, General Biology & Other Biological Sciences.” There was a round table in the room with an Entomology label. I was the only entomologist there, and there were about seven undergraduates and one Master’s student, all of whom where entomologists or on their way to becoming one. It was fun, but a little daunting, to be the the only person to represent the discipline. We had what I thought was a nice conversation, and I tried my best, though acknowledged that opinions are best received when expressed from multiple sources. For example, every scientist will have a different answer to the question, “Should I do a Master’s degree first?” and I gave them my take, with an eye to the particulars of entomology.

As we approached near the end of the conversation time, I parted ways with the entomology students and headed over to the Ecology & Evolution room, as I was concerned that there would be the same situation with lots of ecology students without professional ecologists to talk to. But the situation was entirely reversed! The room was filled with more than 20 PhD-level scientists working for universities and government agencies, with just a few students in the room. I chatted mostly with a postdoc who was sent to the meeting to represent her organization, and from a quick scan of the room I am guessing that most of the ecologists at Conversation Time were at SACNAS with purpose of recruiting students, and not many (if any) were there supporting their own students in attendance at the meeting. So I experienced a bit of a mismatch, in which ecological organizations seem to be working to recruit minority students, but the entomological organizations (USDA, the military, agricultural biotech megacorporations, Departments of Entomology) haven’t seem to have discovered SACNAS yet.

I attended a 1.5 hour session about being a faculty member at a teaching-centered institution. (Of the four people I knew in the room, two were invited speakers.) The room had about 20 postdocs and PhD students in the room. About half of them had their start in community colleges, and about one-third of them were pursuing jobs at research-focused universities. (None expressed familiarity with the phrase “student learning outcomes.”) This session offered a pretty straightforward explanation of the differences between R1 institutions and non-R1 institutions. The panelists represented a a small liberal arts college, a community college, a comprehensive public university, and a Catholic university with an undergraduate emphasis (where I used to work).

The session was a mostly straightforward explanation of faculty jobs at teaching-centered institutions, and communicated the fact that every university and every department is different, and that research can be the central part of your job at a teaching centered institution. Two of the four panelists had robust research agendas, and do an amazing job mentoring their students, though they were humble enough that I don’t think the grad students and postdocs in the audience appreciated how badass they actually are. As far as I can recall, mentorship did not come up as a topic, which is one of the biggest pieces of the job for scientists of all flavors working in universities. Overall, I think it was an informative session, especially for people interested in understanding how community colleges work. I thought it was odd to lump in community colleges with 4-year universities with research expectations, but I suppose to most people from research universities, jobs like mine might not look that different from jobs at community colleges. (And that why this blog exists, to work to dispel such notions.)

I do want to take some time to dispel one notion that somwhat-emerged in the session. One of the questions from the audience was about work-life balance and how many “hard hours of work” faculty put into their jobs. The responses from the panel were were highly variable, and on point, but the clear subtext of the question wasn’t addressed: “Is the job at a teaching-centered institution less time-intensive, stressful or demanding than a job at a research university?” Since the panelists didn’t address this technically-unasked question, I’d like to answer it. It is not any easier. It’s different. It doesn’t require less time, less effort, or less stress than an R1 job. Keep in mind that even jobs at research universities don’t have to be gruesome in terms of life balance, either. I got the feeling that some of the people in the room might have been in interested in primarily-teaching institutions not because they wanted that kind of job, but because they were looking for an alternative to the fast-paced environment at a research institution. So, here I am to tell you that taking a job at a teaching-centered university isn’t downshifting to a slower pace of life. Yes, getting grants and publishing papers is hard work. And we do that at teaching institutions, on top of all of the teaching we do. The expectations of the workplace that influence your quality of life aren’t dictated so much by the type of institution, but the actual conditions in a given university and department. Some R1s have productive researchers and a laid-back environment tied to a high quality of life, and the opposite could be said of many teaching-centered departments. It’s very individualized, and this is why what you learn on a job interview is so important.

From browsing nametags, I got the impression that most students at SACNAS came from regional state universities. While minority students are typically uncommon in research institutions and liberal arts colleges, I don’t think that’s the only reason why students from regional state universities dominate at SACNAS. Students go because they get support from their own institutions. The supportive community at the meeting is needed more in universities where there is less social cohesion among research students. When very few students live on campus, and many students are working many hours in jobs off campus, it’s a lot harder to build a sense of community in which undergraduates share a common academic purpose. This meeting seems to fill that need pretty well, at least as well as you can do in a few days. It takes exceptional circumstances for undergraduate students working in a university laboratory to build tight bonds with others all over the country, and SACNAS seems to fill that role. (In my lab, that role is filled with an even higher quality experience, working at La Selva Biological Station. Which is probably why I haven’t thought much about sending my lab members to SACNAS.)

I noticed that though many of the students came from regional comprehensive universities, they often did their research projects away from their own institutions. They were involved with a summer REU, or a local research institute, or at some field site with a mentor from a different institutional affiliation. And their PIs were not at the meeting. I found this discouraging. I find it wonderful that students are able to be paired up with opportunities at other institutions, but I am despaired that these opportunities are not adequately available at our own institutions. This is no real surprise, but that doesn’t make it any less of a bummer. For instance, most of the students from my university over the years who have attended SACNAS have conducted their research in a nearby medical research center, under the supervision of PIs who don’t work for our university. Last year, I myself was pleased to hook two students up with a colleague at a research institution across the country, as our capacity to provide opportunities to students interested in ecology & evolution is maxed out. Even if we quadrupled our faculty, we wouldn’t be able to provide the opportunities that our students deserve. So it seems to me that SACNAS is filled with students who don’t have a thriving research community in their own institutions, who can benefit greatly from spending time with a welcoming group of scientists who have thrived while overcoming shared challenges.

Here’s an interesting thing that I learned from listening to talks about career trajectories, as well talking with some faculty. I met several people who landed tenure-track positions in the exact city they most wanted to live. In some of these cases, the faculty members were recruited. What this tells me — and I’m open to being shown that I am wrong — is that universities are experiencing an extremely high demand for scientists from underrepresented minorities. Much of the professional development sessions at SACNAS weren’t about how to get your foot in the door, but about what to do once your foot is in the door. I find this encouraging, because it means that talented scientists are getting their feet into the door.

The organizers of SACNAS have ribbon mania. You know how some conferences affix little ribbons to the bottom of your badge? They’ve got so many kinds. Life member. Mentor. Presenter. First-time attendee. Honoree. I stopped reading them pretty quickly. There was a poission distribution of ribbons per person, with a max of 5 or 6, and probably a mode of 2. (I had just one.) Some people bore veritable rainbows of experience and distinction. I understand that the ribbons are supposed to communicate useful information. I also imagine that for students new to the conference, they might take the number of ribbons to be a signal of importance and experience with the organization. I don’t know if this helps or hurts the mission of the meeting.

I was surprised by the huge extent of the networking meat market. People always say the meeting is “good for networking.” (I am generally uncomfortable with the notion that we should deliberately seek out relationships with people with the primary goal of using those relationships to further our own ends. I don’t ever try to “network.” I do try to build relationships, make friends, build collaborations, get to know people, and try to help students. I guess that’s what networking is, but the label has negative connections for me.) Of course, I realize, this is what careerist people do and it is one way to build a successful career. Clearly, people who know one another from SACNAS are willing to go to great lengths to support one another in their career endeavors, because of the shared affiliation with the conference. I’ve seen plenty of this within my own institution. But that’s not the networking I am referring to at SACNAS. The “networking” I’m talking about is the humongous array of exhibitors, that are out in force with a strong motivation to recruit students from underrepresented groups for their organizations. So many major research universities had booths with multiple staff, higher quality swag, and prepared to provide opportunities to talented and worthy students. If you check in with these booths, and express an interest, they take note, pass on your information, and then follow up. I imagine this could result in some serious opportunities.

In addition to universities, there was pretty much every US government agency I’ve ever heard of. (I heard that the CIA had sponsored the wireless coverage for the meeting. Hmmm.) Even though there were almost no ecology and environmental biology students at the meeting, there were organizations like NOAA, NCAR, NEON and OTS. These people were there with a genuine interest in recruiting underrepresented groups into the enterprise of science. So if you’re a PhD student or postdoc looking for a job, then man, oh man, this meeting should be filled with opportunity. If you’re applying to a grad program, then this meeting might help, if only by getting a fee waiver and maybe one or two friendly back-channel words. You still have to be good and qualified, of course, but if you’re good, qualified and a member of an underrepresented group, then it’s clear that the biggest tangible benefit of SACNAS is the exhibitor room at SACNAS. And all the free logo-emblazoned pens you could ever want. If you’re curious about whether organizations value the importance of diversity in their institutions, then you will see firsthand that they invest at least more than a slight token contribution.

If you have money to send students to just one conference, which one should it be? That’s a hard call, and depends on your circumstance. If your students don’t feel as if they belong in science as much as you feel they should, then clearly SACNAS can help create that sense of belonging. If students are seeking to connect with people who are trying hard to provide opportunities to students from underrepresented groups, then SACNAS can definitely deliver on that one. If your students want to feel as if their particular scientific interests are shared with other scientists, then SACNAS is not the best place. But that’s okay, that’s what other conventions are for.

Taxonomy vs research theme based conferences: which do you attend?

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These two weeks are allowing me to contrast two very different kinds of meetings. As a member of the Linnean Centre of Plant Biology in Uppsala, I attended our yearly meeting last week*. The centre aims to bring together the plant biologists working in Uppsala and I was lucky that it started up in the year I began my position. Uppsala has two universities, Uppsala University (where I work) and SLU. Both have plant biologists working in multiple departments and of course on a wide range of questions. Physically, UU and SLU are not close. Although I usually enjoy the bike ride to SLU when I have a meeting, we don’t causally meet people working across at the different institutions. Joining the virtual Linnean centre and meeting people through it has given me an appreciation of the breadth of people working in Uppsala and allowed me to know my plant colleagues better. There is some discussion in the centre about what future meetings will look like but thus far I’ve benefited from my contact via these meetings and have collaborations with SLU folks I likely would not have without it.

Coming up is the annual Scandinavian Association of Pollination Ecologist’s meeting.** Here the focus spans two kingdoms (and sometimes a third) with people working on pollination questions from both the plant and animal perspectives. The kinds of questions we all ask are similar or at least understandable to everyone in the room. The discussions tend towards lively and it is a really good place to test out ideas (and rope your colleagues into writing reviews with you). Even though not everyone works directly on the same taxonomic group, the common tread of studying interactions means.

Although the meetings I’m attending are unique in their own ways, the general organisation is not uncommon. You have societies and their meetings based around an organismal divide versus those with a theme like ecology or evolution or some more specific topics. When we all need to make choices about our time and money, it can be tough to know the best kind of conference to invest yours in.

These are somewhat random musings but I think every meeting you attend is an opportunity to meet new people and learn about new or new-to-you research. Guaranteed that regardless of whether you choose to go to a conference focused on your favourite taxa or topic you will sit in on a talk that you don’t know much about. And in the same vein, you could find common ground with people who your works relates to in either setting. So I’m not sure there is a clear answer to what kind of conference is better per se and it likely depends a bit on the culture of your field as well. But that said, I have benefited from attending different kinds of conferences and I think it is good to mix up the conferences you attend. Sometimes you hit on the just right kind of meeting, but it can always be good to get outside your comfort zone too.

I think these are also general themes that are struggled with in different contexts in the fields of ecology and evolution. For example, there are the Ecology/Evolution Departments vs Botany and Zoology departments (and similar). There can be pluses and minuses to the different organisations. Shared greenhouse space might be a common concern for plant biologists working on very different questions. While once you are working with DNA perhaps organismal divides are of less importance. I have heard passionate arguments for opposite ends of the spectrum, while others are much less opinionated.

I think the important feature is that generally our individual research programs can be classified in a variety of ways. Personally, I don’t want to be painted into any particular corner and meeting with groups organised around different aspects of my work probably help me from doing that. Thinking back to conferences I’ve attended they have been ranged in theme (pollination, ecology, evolution, plant-insect interactions, plant volatiles) but many fewer have been taxonomy based (botany, entomology, etc). I think I’ve been good at attending a range of meetings in the past but it occurs to me that I might benefit from being more purposeful about that in the future.

 

 

*I wrote about my first somewhat embarrassing adventure at these meetings here.

**seems I’ve also written about this conference previously here and here, maybe I need some new material

Having “The Talk” with students

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Recently, I posted on my regular blog about two separate incidents at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. One was a male allies panel gone horribly awry, and the other (which was all over the news outlets the next day) was a statement from Microsoft’s CEO about how women should trust the system and not ask for raises.

While both incidents were certainly not fun to witness, they at least served to highlight yet again some of the barriers and issues that women in tech face every day: the expectations that they will be “team players” and not speak up for themselves (and the real consequences they face when they do dare to speak up), the tone-deafness of men, the not being listened to and having their experiences discounted, etc. And both incidents sparked much-needed conversations: the wider ones when Nadella’s comments hit the mainstream media and when conference participants tweeted their reactions to the panel and the plenary; and the more intimate ones at the conference, in the hallways among conference-goers, and at a follow-up session the next day where 3 of the 4 male allies panel participants sat and listened to women tell their stories. The incidents certainly sparked some intense conversations among the students we brought to the conference as well—more on this in a minute.

Interestingly, and coincidentally, in the week or so leading up to the conference I had several conversations back at my campus with students (all CS majors, mostly women) about their summer experiences in REUs and internships. Each one of them shared roughly the same experiences: while they loved the technical work and challenges for the most part, they were a bit taken aback by some elements of the environments they found themselves in. Some of them were the only woman in their group. Some didn’t feel listened to by their peers. In some cases, they saw their male peers receive preferential or differential treatment or get more challenging assignments. None of this is news to any woman who’s worked in tech or in science more generally, but for my students, this was in most cases their first perceived experience with any sort of gender-based bias related to their work.

Now, these experiences tell me two things. One, we’ve fostered a pretty darn good, supportive environment here, or at least for this subset of students. They’re either not experiencing the thousand paper cuts, or they’re not registering the paper cuts, or not registering many of them. In my conversations with my female colleagues in other science departments at my institution, this seems to be the general experience of many women students in science here.** And two, as a result, we’re not preparing them for the moment they go out into the Real World and realize that not all science/CS departments are as supportive as we are. (Good news, bad news?) In fact, the students at the conference mentioned this second point explicitly.

When this subject came up at the conference among our students, in light of the events that happened there and various mealtime conversations about summer experiences, the students joked that maybe we faculty should have “The Talk” with them before they went off to do internships or REUs or jobs, similar to the “birds and bees” talk they all got from their parents. Even as we joked, though, we realized that there may be some merit there: that somehow we should equip our students to deal with the less supportive managers, colleagues, and cultures that they will likely encounter beyond the bubble of our institution.***

This got me thinking. Suppose we did have “The Talk” with students.

  • What would this look like? A panel discussion? A Q&A? A set of tips? Role playing?
  • What studies, or data, if any, should we present? How much should be evidence and how much should be anecdote?
  • What information should we include? Some things that come to mind immediately are implicit bias, impostor syndrome, strategies for being heard, identifying allies and mentors and sponsors, evaluating a culture on an interview. I’m sure I’m missing a lot here.
  • Is this a “safe space”, women-only discussion? If so, do we only have women faculty present, or are the voices of male faculty appropriate here? If not, how do we ensure that the presence of men doesn’t shut down valuable discussion, and on the flip side, how do we include strategies for the male students to be better allies and colleagues to their female peers?

So I’d like to ask you, readers of this blog. If you could have “The Talk” with your students, how would you do it? Have you done this? If so, how did it go over and how did you do it? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments!

 


 

** Certainly not all, and certainly not for women and men of color, I suspect. I don’t want to generalize too far and pat ourselves on the back too much, because surely we can still improve on our culture!

*** It goes without saying that yes, we should work to change the culture too, but I consider that a separate issue. We need to equip our students to work effectively within the existing structure so that they are enabled to change that culture from within.

Does your campus allow Federal Work Study awards for undergraduate research?

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I used to have Work-Study students doing research in my lab, when I was visiting faculty at Gettysburg College. Then I got a job somewhere else, and I couldn’t do that anymore.

The university where I now work does not assign Work-Study students to work with professors, just like my previous employer. There was a clear institutional policy that prohibited using Federal Work-Study awards to fill undergraduate research positions. Continue reading

The Church of High Impact Practices

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Educational fads come, and educational fads go. A dominant fad at the moment is “High Impact Practices.” Several years ago, George Kuh wrote a book about High Impact Practices that has come to dominate discussion in universities throughout the United States. If you want the nutshell version of the book, this seems to be a good summary.

I doubt anybody is actually reading the book. Continue reading

Recommended reads #37

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Continue reading

Writing a review: thoughts from the trenches.

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Somehow I’m in the middle of writing three review papers so I am gaining some perspective on writing them. The first one is basically my own fault; I started thinking a lot about nectar rewards and how they fit into my research. That thinking lead to a talk last year on some of my ideas to a bunch of like-minded folk at the Scandinavian Association of Pollination Ecologist’s meeting. Main lesson from my experience: never end a talk asking if you should write a review (and/or for interested co-authors) unless you really want to. Continue reading

When are minority-focused conferences the best choice?

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Sometimes, the title has a question mark. The body of the text usually has the answer to the question in the title. This is not one of those. I don’t have an answer to this question.

Have you heard of SACNAS or ABRCMS?* These organizations put on a big science conference somewhere in the US each year. (SACNAS is passing through my own city next week.) Continue reading

Which institutions request external review for tenure files?

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Today, I’m submitting my file for promotion. It’s crazy to think I submitted my most recent tenure file five years ago, it feels closer to yesterday. Unless I get surprised (and it wouldn’t be the first time), I’ll be a full Professor if I’m here next year. And yet, throughout this entire process, there has been zero external validation of tenure and promotion. I think this is really odd. Continue reading

Invasive species, immigrant emotions and a guilty conscience

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I have a confession to make: I live in Sweden and I have lupines in my garden.

I didn’t plant them, they were there when I moved in, but after two seasons I haven’t removed them either. In Sweden, I see escaped lupines along roadsides and although I’m not sure how much of a problem they are to native ecosystems here*, they are definitely non-native.

Seeing lupines along the roadsides is a treasured memory from my childhood. The kicker is that lupines aren’t even native where I grew up. Continue reading