You are sending students to a conference. What’s the best way to pay for it?
Before I was a professor, I had heard of sabbaticals. That’s when a professor spends a year away from the university and visits a distant land to gain new skills, build new projects, and make new connections.
Then I became a professor and learned that (most) universities don’t pay for a full year of sabbatical, they only pay for one semester. They’ll let you take a year, but at half of the pay. So finding a half-year of salary from grants is needed for a full sabbatical.
Then I became eligible for a couple sabbaticals, and experienced how the travel-to-far-lands part isn’t necessarily what happens either.
Guest post by Rosie Burdon, a PhD student at Uppsala University in Amy Parachnowitsch’s lab. She is studying interactions between Penstemon digitalis and its pollinator Bombus impatiens in eastern USA. Here she shares her experiences of spanning multiple countries for a PhD and the benefits and challenges of having the USA as your long distance fieldsite. You can find her on Twitter at @RealRBurdon.
I love my job, it’s a 4-year contract asking questions about nature and ultimately answering some. Yes, it is a real job mum. Specifically, I get paid to ask questions about what plant volatiles and nectar rewards mean to bees/plant reproduction. I don’t do this in the country that employs me, or even the country I was born in. I moved from the UK to Sweden to work (where I spend most of my time) but I do my fieldwork in the US or else dwell in university of Salzburg labs.
At one point I thought about writing a post about the difficulties that academia wreaks on friendships. All that moving about means picking up, making new friends and leaving behind the old. It is tough in many respects and it is easy to see the negatives of that part of the career. Check out #academicnomad for the joys and sorrows of traveling/moving so much. Needless to say the post slipped by and I never quite got around to writing it.
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.
For a few years, I’ve harbored a very cool (at least to me) natural history idea. But it’s a big technical challenge. The required fieldwork is never going to happen by me. So, I should write a blog post about it, right?
Bullet ants (Paraponera clavata) are one of the most charismatic creatures in Neotropical rainforests. My lab has done some work with them recently. These often-seen and well-known animals are still very mysterious.
Since I began my position at Uppsala, my summers begin frantically. Although my teaching load is relatively light, the majority of it comes in the spring just when I am getting ready for my own and my PhD’s fieldwork.
I teach in a course on Ecological Methods. Students learn mainly about sampling and survey techniques for a broad range of organisms but the focus is on birds, insects and plants (for which I’m responsible). The course starts in March and runs until the first week of June (therein lies some of my problems but more on that later).
Once in a while, tropical biologists get bot flies. We sometimes find this out while were are in the field. But on five occasions, my students have returned to the US, and then discovered that they are hosting a bot. They all contacted me for advice. I told them a few things, but the most important one was:
Whatever you do, don’t go see a doctor. That could be disastrous.
Nonetheless, three of these students went to the doctor.
This has always troubled me. Without any additional context, it looks like the students just didn’t trust me, and thought that I’m stupid. At the very least, it shows that they trusted their own intuition over my recommendation based on a long history of experience. It shows that they followed the misinformed advice of family and friends over the judgment of the person who was responsible for the trip to the rainforest.
It shows that when it really really really counts, my guidance ain’t worth much at all to my own students.
I don’t give students this instruction without an explanation. I tell them that nearly every doctor in the US will want to cut the creature out. History shows that bot fly larvae are smarter than doctors. If you present yourself to a US doctor with a bot inside you, the predictable result is that you leave the doctor with your bot inside you. You will also leave without a large chunk of flesh that the doctor removed in a futile attempt to get the bot. Sometimes the bot is killed in the surgery, but not excised, which leads to a rotting carcass and infection, and the need for serious antibiotics. I tell them that, if they can’t get it out using the variety of techniques we’ve discussed, and they feel compelled to go to a medical professional, they must go to a vet and not to a doctor. (The students who did the opposite of my recommendation came to regret their choice, if you’re wondering.)
These bot fly incidents are convergent with a recurring incident in a non-majors laboratory that I have taught. The week before an exam, I hand out a review sheet that specifies the scope of the exam. I then tell the class:
Check out item number three on the review sheet. This is a straightforward question about osmosis. The answer is that the volume of water in the tubing will “increase.” The correct answer to this question is “increase.” Just circle the word “increase” and do not circle the word “decrease.” I’m letting you know the answer to this question now and I guarantee — the odds of this question being on the exam next week are 100%. I promise to you, with all of my heart, that this question will be on the exam word for word, and this one question will be worth 20% of your grade on this exam. You don’t want to get this question wrong, and I’m telling you about it right now. So, be sure to write down in your notes that this question will be on the exam and be sure to remember the correct answer when you see it.
The reason that I’m being really obvious about telling you about this question its that in the past, half of the class has gotten the answer to this question wrong. It’s a simple question, and it addresses the main point of the lab we conducted for more than two hours last week, but still, lot of people got it wrong last semester.
You should know that those students also were told in advance what would be on the exam. Just like I’m telling you right now. They knew that 20% of their exam hinged on remembering one word, “increase,” and still the majority of them got it wrong. I’m telling you this now because I don’t want you to suffer the same fate of those other students. DON’T BE LIKE THE STUDENTS FROM LAST SEMESTER WHO WERE FED THE ANSWER AND THEN GOT IT WRONG THE FOLLOWING WEEK. Just remember that “increase” is correct and the other word is not correct. I’d like you to remember the physical mechanism that explains this osmosis, but more than anything else I’d like you to demonstrate that you can be prepared for the exam and remember this small fact which I am hand-feeding to you right now. I promise to you this exact question will be on the exam Learn from your predecessors, don’t make their mistake. I’m giving you 20% of the exam for free right now, so write this down.
As I give this slightly overwrought speech, the students are paying attention. There is eye contact. They might be note-taking activity. Nobody’s on their phone, and nobody’s chitchatting.
When I administer the exam, more than half of the class circles “decrease” instead of “increase.” This has happened four times, and each time it happens a little piece of my heart dies.
As you can imagine, many of the students in our non-majors class are as disengaged as humanly possible. By no means is this a difficult course, even with low standards, but the fail rate for the corresponding lecture course is about 50%. The students who fail are clearly doing so because they aren’t even making the slightest effort. The reason that I keep giving students that same question over and over, and give them the correct answer over and over, is to give me some reassurance that the wretched performance by so many of the students is not my fault. I do this to grant myself absolution.
In these labs, each week is designed to give students the opportunity to develop their own experiments, find new information on their own, and work together to solve problems. This happens to some degree. But half of the students do not exert the tiniest amount of thought about doing what it takes to pass the exam. Why don’t they even try even the slightest, despite my best efforts to both inspire and feed them the right answers?
The students who fail these exams trust their own intuition, or some other model of behavior, instead of my own advice. If anybody is the person to tell you how to pass the exam, it should be the professor who is telling you the answers to the exam. But in this case, the students weren’t even bothering to look at their notes for five seconds before stepping into the exam. They’ve presumably heard from other people that work is not required for this class whatsoever, or perhaps they don’t care for some other reason. All I know is that no matter what I do, I can’t get these students to care about their grade on the exam. Some are excited about the labs, but not necessarily in passing.
So, what do the bot fly story and the osmosis story have in common? No matter how hard we try, sometimes our students won’t follow our recommendations. At least, not mine.
We are fancy-pants PhD professors, with highly specialized training. We’re paid to be the experts and to know better. That doesn’t mean that our words are prioritized over other words. Anything we might say just ends up in a stream of ideas, most of these ideas just flow out as easily as they flow in. It’s no accident that my teaching philosophy is “you don’t truly learn something unless you discover it on your own.” This is why I focus on creating opportunities for self-discovery in teaching. This is the only way in which people truly learn.
No matter what we professors might say or do about bot flies, or studying for exams, or anything else, other people will rely on their own judgment over our own. Even when the experts are overtly correct on the facts, even smart people often use misguided intuition when making important decisions, even when they are obviously wrong on the facts and the experts are overtly correct.
It’s easier to listen to other people than it is to heed their words. As a professor and research mentor, I’ve given up on the expectation of being heeded. I just work to speed up the process of self-discovery of important ideas. But, for the most part, I still don’t know how to do that. I think it’s an acquired skill, and a craft, and I think I still have a ways to go.
If you’ve only just started grad school, or if you’re getting ready to finish, there are a ton of great reasons to take the OTS course this summer. The Organization for Tropical Studies courses aren’t just for tropical biologists, and the experience is useful for all ecology grad students.
- Breadth of research methods — Gain experience in running experiments in a great variety of biomes, fields, and taxa. No matter your speciality, it can be useful and important to know how to mark insects, do biogeochemistry and microbial ecology, dissect flowers and do pollination experiments, mist net birds and bats, make and analyze sound recordings, and much, much more.
- Making connections — You will work very closely with a large number of faculty from universities all over the United States and elsewhere. More important, you’re in the course with a bunch of other grad students who are typically fun-loving and academically talented. The course is work hard-play hard environment and you’ll go back home with new friends and colleagues, some of whom you’ll stay in touch with for the remainder of your career. You want to emerge from grad school with a network that goes well beyond your own institution. This is a great way to make that happen.
- Experimental design — This course will have you designing and conducting experiments at many different sites in small groups. This really helps you learn how to develop the right questions, design the most appropriate experiments and that you’ve had the best analysis in mind the whole time.
- Data analysis — Because you are involved in so many experiments, you gain experience with may kinds of analysis. The course has expert faculty including well-recognized statistical gurus who communicate in common English. You’ll get training in R to give you the tools that you need.
- Science communication skills — Learn how to produce media that communicate your science with the public, by working with PhD scientists/filmmakers. Here are the tremendous results from a brief science communication project on the OTS course, from a post on the National Geographic Explorers Journal. The course runs its own blog and you have an opportunity to create podcasts and posts.
- Experience with conservation in action — You’ll have the chance to interact with land managers and conservation professionals on the sites of ongoing projects. If you’re thinking about getting into the this aspect of the ecology business, you’ll have experiences and opportunities with making connections.
- Tropical nature — If you haven’t ever spent time in the tropics, the biological diversity is stunning compared to the meager biota of the temperate zone. You get to see these biomes in the company of researchers who are experts in this environment and conduct a number of experiments. If you want to learn natural history and biodiversity, this is a chance to be in the field with the experts who can show you what you what to learn.
- Units — You get six credit hours from the University of Costa Rica that (typically) count towards the coursework requirements of your program. So, there’s that, too.
Speaking just from my own experience, the course gave me so many skills — and ideas — that have been useful in many unpredictable ways. I’ve yet to meet anybody who has taken the course who has said it is anything short of incredibly useful, and I think everybody has rated it as a spectacular experience. In the course of your graduate career, it definitely is worth your time.
Here’s a pdf flyer with more info.
Here is the link to the course for summer 2014, with its list of great faculty and remarkable sites the course visits, and instructions on how to apply. The deadline for applications is just over a week away, but then there are rolling admissions afterwards.
Academics have a wonderfully flexible job.
If my kid is sick, or has a performance at school in the afternoon, I can change my schedule. I can work from home if I’m not teaching. I can focus on a crisis, or a grant, or revisions and drop everything else if necessary. I can get new tires for my car on a weekday morning instead of the weekend.
This flexibility shouldn’t worry those who think that we somehow have it easy. It turns out that we university scientists work far, far more than the 40 hours that is contractually required of us.
The downside to our flexibility in scheduling is that we grow to depend on that flexibility. And we have the capability to schedule ourselves into traps.
Because we are accustomed to flexibility, we have the latitude to schedule things that other, more reasonable, people might not schedule. We have the capability to create untenable and inflexible schedules.
Take, for example, my schedule at the moment. I’m now somewhere remarkably far away from home for two weeks. Before this trip, I was away from home for a week and a half. So, I’m gone for almost the entire month of January.
I’m traveling for two good reasons. I’m now setting up some students with exceptional research opportunities And I also found it too tempting to turn down an opportunity to join a field course, which was fun but also an important obligation in my view.
I also have two, more important, reasons to be home. My spouse and my kid.
This is a very long time away from home, especially considering that I spend weeks away in the summer on fieldwork. At the moment, I am a delinquent parent and a delinquent spouse. While I’m away, I’m missing important events (both good ones and bad ones). I’ve put an undue and undeserved burden on my spouse, who I clearly owe big time when I get back home. I don’t want to be the oafish not-adequately-involved dad who prioritizes science and career over family. This trip, I’ve pushed that margin too far.
We agreed to all of these scheduled things in advance, but that doesn’t make the situation any better. It looks different on the calendar than when you’re actually away.
What’s the fix to the inflexibility of our own flexible schedules? How do we make sure that we don’t overcommit ourselves, just because we can? The answer is simply to say “no” once in a while. But of course it’s not that easy. If it were, I wouldn’t be in this mess, having a remarkably fun time, but far away from my family with whom I want to, and should, be with.
This is a second guest post by Amy Parachnowitsch.
Originally from the Canadian east coast, I first crossed the continent to do my undergraduate on in the west (British Columbia), moved to the middle for my masters (Ontario) and then made the big leap south to the USA (upstate New York) for my PhD (read: 5 hrs drive between where I did my masters and PhD but sometimes worlds apart). Now I am an Assistant Professor/Research Fellow in Uppsala, Sweden. My science career path has not been particularly straight or narrow geographically or otherwise, but one theme that has emerged is the opportunities that have come from changing places and outlooks.
Because it is relevant to my recent experience and my perspective on moving around, I’ll describe what I’m doing in Sweden. My position is always difficult to translate either into English (forskarassistent = research assistant, directly translated but those are actually forskningsassistent) or North American positions because there are no real equivalents. I’m either a Research Fellow or Assistant Professor (there are even internal listings where I am one or the other). As I grow more comfortable in my position, I tend towards saying I’m a non-tenured Assistant Professor because that most accurately describes what I do. The position came with a small start-up fund, guaranteed 4 years of salary, a small teaching responsibility (5-10% of my time, officially), and salary for one PhD student. There is no formal option to continue my job after the 4 years and I’ll need to find either research funds to support my salary (basically like applying to NSF or NSERC and budgeting your salary) or another job. For me, the long-term prospects of staying here are unknown. But so far being a professor in a different country has been interesting, challenging and a fabulous learning experience.
So breaking Terry’s tradition of no lists, here’s my take on the some of the benefits and challenges of taking this path:
- New ideas/ways of doing things –First and foremost, working somewhere else gives you a different perspective. I’m exposed to all kinds of differences both big and small on a daily basis. I constantly see my own assumptions and expectations exposed when they’re not met. I may have come here thinking that European PhD positions are advisor-driven, and although that can be true, I also now see the tremendous variation in PhD training. Although I had heard about the lack of social security in the US my entire life, I was shocked to learn that there really is no maternal/paternal leave in the US (its basically up to the employers). In my experience, Ivy league students are pretty similar in their abilities to the other university students I’ve taught, they just tend to have more security and confidence (sometimes to their own detriment). I could fill this post with things that I have learned and gained from being immersed in different countries and systems but it is good to remember that the benefits don’t have to be one-way. You also have something to offer others from your own contrasting experience.
- Meeting fellow scientists—One thing that has been really fun for me is that I have had the opportunity to meet with a number of people that I had only read before. Although there are always some researchers that cross the pond to go to conferences in Europe or North America, it is by far more common that people attend conferences within these regions. And even when scientists do travel to the same conferences, when they are big ones like ESA/Evolution, I get to see people’s talks and might have a chance to chat, but I find some of the most valuable networking happens when you causally go for a meal or to the pub. It seems like these causal interactions tend to happen more with people you know or they know which can mean staying within your continent. It is of course possible to cross these boundaries and some people are very skilled at this, but living in Sweden has made it more natural to get to know more European scientists. The flip side is that it has been more difficult to connect with my old network because it is now more difficult for me to travel to conferences in the USA/Canada.
- Exploring a new ecosystem—Whenever I travel, I’m often trailing behind, looking at flowers. Curiosity is really why I love my job; so seeing new ecosystems is a delight and offers a kind of understanding that you can’t get from reading papers alone. I had amazing experiences as a graduate student visiting Florida, Hawaii and especially the Rocky Mountain Biological Station, where so much of the literature I had been reading was based. Moving to Sweden has allowed me to explore a whole new place. When I first got here it I had to turn off the internal “introduced/invasive” tag that went with so many plants. This summer I’ve been playing around with a bunch of different species here in the aims of developing a local system. But living here has really given me an understanding of the place that I wouldn’t get if I just came here to visit/do research. For example, although I intellectually knew that the days were long in summer and dark in winter, living here has given me a whole different understanding. Who knew I could complain about too much light (seriously, it is tough to sleep)? And as the days get noticeably shorter I know what I’m in for (noon-day sun like dusk). But this also gives me a deeper understanding of the differences for the organisms I study.
- Learn a new language—Although I am still hopelessly inadequate in Swedish, when I think back to a few years ago I realise that I actually understand quite a bit. When I first came here, nothing made sense. These days I can get around, talk to someone at a store, and understand quite a bit of what people are saying around me. Now if I could only carve out some time to study each day I think I could actually get somewhere.
- Isolation—Perhaps one of the harder things is the feeling of isolation that can come from being an ex-pat. This can apply to daily life as much as your job. Although much of science is conducted in English, lots of informal and formal university events tend towards the native language. Here in Sweden, people tend to be ridiculously competent in English but you do miss out on some of the banter. As soon as the non-Swedes leave a room, the conversation slips quickly back to Swedish. Although my grasp of Swedish is improving, I miss jokes and think it would be really hard to make friends speaking only Swedish. It can also be tough for faculty meetings, etc when things are discussed in Swedish. There I tend to hear a lot of words you don’t commonly encounter and although I can often follow the general theme, some of the details are lost.
- An increase in the imposter syndrome—actually it is difficult to know whether I feel this any more than I would in similar position in North America. Perhaps best not to admit until I get that permanent job, but I can find myself thinking that I have no idea what I am doing. And worse still, it can be because I really don’t know what I am doing (not focusing on the science here because that part is pretty portable). The things I learned watching my mentors or from PhD experiences are often out of sync with what it happening around me. For example, teaching hasn’t been at all how I expected myself to be doing based on years of TAing. I am now involved in team-taught courses and students are only taking a single course at any given time. This means less control over the course as a whole (because I only do a part) and intensive teaching when it happens (e.g. 3hr lecture time slots). So although I can apply lots of my teaching skills to this new situation, it has been another learning curve to figure out how to be the most effective, etc. Another big difference for me is that PhD students are generally hired on specific projects here. So although I was offered salary for my PhD student as a part of my position, I fund the project and had to write an advertisement for the position. In truth, many PhDs do follow their own research here and my own student will not strictly follow the advertised position. However, I interviewed candidates for my PhD position in a completely different way than I myself had done. All these differences can definitely fuel the imposter syndrome but it also gets me talking to my peers much more than I might if I thought I had a clue about how things are done here.
- Slow start-up – Getting a lab running is not an easy or fast task for anyone and I haven’t even had to think about hiring in the way I would if I was starting a lab somewhere in NA. But starting a research group in another country has its own set of challenges: That craft store you used to buy strange things for your fieldwork? Not here. Chemical you could easily order from Sigma/Fisher? The European branch doesn’t carry it. University finances? You’ll need to figure out the reimbursement system and fill out all the forms in Swedish. Major granting agencies? Where do you start when you haven’t even heard of them? In my experience, people are incredibly helpful and willing to share information, but it does mean that I sometimes feel like I’m a step behind. After two years I am still learning but my footing is a little steadier. I’m sure that many of these issues would apply to moving to any university, anywhere but it probably wouldn’t involve talking to the industrial supplier in broken Swedish.
- Time zone differences—A huge pain when you want to contact family and friends, time zone differences can effect how you work as well. It means that I’m often out of sync with my NA collaborators, so there is definitely a time lag between emails, etc. And although skype and google hangouts are great resources to virtually meet, the time difference often mean tight scheduling. And on a personal note, when I travel for research in the USA, it is really tough to skype with my daughter but really important to do so. Somewhat easier but also challenging is talking with my graduate student when she’s in the field and I’m in Sweden. In some ways this might be good because she has more freedom to figure things out on her own but sometimes it would be convenient to not have the six hour time difference. Another drawback is that twitter conversations can be more difficult to participate in with the NA crowd; the plus is that I’m seeing a lot more from fellow Europeans.
- Not being able to read between the lines—Here’s a funny story to end with. In my first few months I travelled every couple of weeks to the department for a few days while we negotiated the move, etc. One of these trips there was a small conference for Uppsala plant folks just outside of town. There was a program with events for the two days but nowhere, and I mean nowhere, was there anything about staying overnight at the conference center. So I hop in the car with the head of my department and some new colleagues with only my laptop, etc. As the day progresses it slowly dawns on me that everyone is planning to stay the night. Here I am, no change of clothes, no toiletries, nothing. The conference center is far enough outside of town that there is no real way to get back without a car. One of my colleagues with a young child headed home that night but wasn’t coming back the following day. So I remember thinking, do I take this opportunity to go or do I stay? I had committed to being there for two days and it seemed silly to miss out for a change of clothes (how I longed for that overnight bag sitting in my room in Uppsala). So I stayed, was grateful for a single room where I didn’t have to feel stupid in front of anyone. Now I know that it would have been fine and I could have shared a good laugh. But then I didn’t know any of the people I was with. It wasn’t perfect but I’m really glad I just stepped back into my same clothes after showering that morning. In the end staying meant I started a collaboration that I likely wouldn’t have otherwise. But it just goes to show that not being a part of the culture around you means that you can miss out on things that seem so obvious to everyone else.
Despite the long list of challenges, I remain pretty positive about my experience here. Mostly the challenges have been opportunities to learn and grow. I’m excited about the collaborations I am developing here and the research we’re doing on both sides of the pond. Of course there are days that I’m tired and wonder if it wouldn’t all be easier if I could find that ideal tenure track job in Canada or the USA. I don’t know where we’ll end up in the long-term but I do know if we return to NA, I will bring with me a broadened perspective on how to be a professor.
*Full disclosure: I came to Sweden for family reasons first (Swedish husband with a job here) and searched for a job from here.
Safety is a top priority in my lab, though in the lab I’m not particularly over-concerned about safety. The only chemical typically involved with our labwork is ethanol, there are other potential hazards, but not different than those that students experience in teaching labs.
Other researchers have bigger safety issues in the lab. Not far from me across town, another professor’s lab oversaw a major lapse of safety resulting in a tragic death. The PI of the lab is now standing trial for felony counts of violating workplace safety. Is the PI responsible for the technician’s safety lapse that ended up in her death? All I know is that I’m glad I don’t have to be on that jury, being familiar with what is in the newspaper.
While those kinds of dangers are absent from my lab, I am very, very concerned about safety in the field. It’s very important to make sure that safety guidelines are followed, that no student ever violates major safety standards even once, and that everyone remains safe and healthy at all times.
My main “lab” is a Costa Rican tropical rainforest. We work at a well-equipped and well-staffed field station. This contributes to the level of safety, but also can lull students into an overinflated sense of security. With one poor decision, students could get permanently lost, bit by a highly venomous animal, or get crushed by a treefall or branchfall.
The analogy that I have used, for the last few years, is that the rainforest is perfectly safe if you follow the rules of the road. We aren’t afraid of driving on the freeway even though it could very easily be a deadly place, if you changed lanes at the wrong time or went up an offramp and drove the wrong way, against traffic. That’s deadly. If you don’t follow basic safety rules in the rainforest, it can be very dangerous.
Just like students in chemistry labs aren’t accustomed to working with chemicals that ignite in contact with air, students in my lab aren’t accustomed to spending their working hours kilometers into a rainforest. So, it’s very important that my students do everything that is necessary to keep themselves safe. This matters just not for their own safety, but also for my own protection as well as protecting the interests of other students who are or wish to be involved in this research program.
How do I make sure that my students behave safely? I short, it involves a combination of scaring the bejezzus out of them, and reassuring them. I play both good cop and bad cop. And I bring in grad students with concrete experiences with hazards (snakes, treefalls, orientation) to explain that these concerns are not just mine, but are universal for all researchers on site. They might think I’m exaggerating but when everyone else on station agrees with me, it provides additional credence.
The safety process starts back at home. First of all, I am committed to not taking a student who even shows one hint of having bad judgment or lack of sincere appreciation for authority on safety issues. If there’s even a small chance that I think a student would make a bad call about safety in the field, then I won’t take a chance.
Before we leave the US, we have orientation meetings in which I prepare them for the rainforest, which is rather vague until you get here. I lay out my three cardinal safety rules:
- Do not ever go into the forest without the required footwear (rubber boots)
- Do not ever leave the trail without a map and compass in hand
- Do not ever go into the forest or away from the station without telling others your destination
I also tell my students that if they break these rules, just once, that I’ll immediately send them home.
And I mean it.
In the past, I’ve had two students knowingly break the rules once. That was when I had an unstated two-strikes policy (in which a first time violator might be given a second chance at my discretion.) These rule-breakers never broke the rules again, as far as I know.
However, both of these rule-breakers turned out to be royal pains-in-the-ass in other ways. If they were willing to flout the cardinal safety rules even once, I learned, then they were just not good students to have around in general. I really wish, in hindsight, that I sent them home right away. They created more trouble than any possible benefit they could have added. (If this were a pseudonymous blog, I could tell some great stories, but those’ll have to wait until you buy me a beer.)
I tell my students what I just wrote — that I used to give a little slack, but that I don’t do that any more. For example, if I ever catch a student without boots in the forest, or if I hear of it, then we go straight to the computer and rebook their flight and order a 2-hour taxi ride to the airport.
I’ve had that policy for a few years and am glad that I haven’t had to implement it. I only once have sent a student home prematurely in recent years, but that wasn’t for a safety violation. It was because the student was overbearing, overconfident, and under-focused. That student might have eventually broken a safety rule from being overconfident. But nobody’s life or limb was at directly at risk in this situation, as far as I am aware.
I don’t want to terrify students unnecessarily, as I need them to function effectively and independently. I want them to have both a fear and respect for snakes, but I also want them to have the confidence that they know how to behave appropriately when they do encounter a fer-de-lance or a hog-nose viper. (And this when, not if, as they are mighty common, though cryptic.)
This is a difficult balancing act, to make sure that my students always behave in a safe manner but also are not irrationally afraid of their work environment. It’s something that you always have to have in your mind, every step you take, but also something that cannot overcome you. I imagine it’s not that different from working with a carcinogenic chemical in the lab. You follow safety guidelines, and stay calm, and everything is fine.
Now that my continued existence is more important to a couple other people than it even is to myself, I’m not going to take any personal safety risks for any reason. That means that I am consistently thinking about the safety of branches overhead and the likelihood that the patch of ground in front of me harbors a coiled-up reptile. I’m not afraid, but it’s always on my mind. How do I develop that attitude in my students? It’s taken long enough for me to come to that level of confidence and conscientiousness. So far, I just consistently talk about it calmly but sincerely, on a regular basis, and I walk the walk. My students consistently impress me in their professionalism in so many other ways, that I think they’re just fine with respect to safety.
This field season, things are going just fine with my students, as far as I can tell, just 2.5 days into their 2.5 months of research in the rainforest. I’ve got a great bunch. It also helps that 2 of the undergraduates are fathers like myself, and most of them have concerned mates back at home that are just as concerned as I am that they stay safe.
I think maintaining a safe environment starts with having mutual respect. If you communicate safety as a priority, and students truly respect you, then they should be behaving safely. If that statement isn’t true, then mutual respect at least helps grease the wheels for adherence to safety guidelines.
The United States needs to develop more scientists from underrepresented groups. This post describes an approach I’ve developed that has helped me do this more effectively.
The United States has always been, and remains, a nation of immigrants. For a variety of complex sociological reasons, our nation’s scientists are principally being drawn from one pool of historic immigrants. Now, the demographics of the country are changing more rapidly than the culture of our scientific community.
The subset of the US population from which scientists are drawn is proportionally shrinking. If our nation is going to remain (or regain) global prominence as a research powerhouse, then we need to recruit scientists from the entire population of the country. We need to make more Latino and African-American scientists, particularly women, from these groups.
The nation needs to overcome the sociocultural divisions that inhibit students from a variety of cultural backgrounds from becoming scientists.
A few generations ago, all women were excluded from most career paths, but these restrictions also applied to the men in my family because of their heritage. My Irish and Italian great grandparents living in Brooklyn were members an underrepresented ethnic and religious minority subjected to substantial discrimination (the movie Gangs of New York puts this history into context). A hundred years ago it would have been laughable that a fresh-off-the-boat McGlynn could become respected science professor in the US. Now, my ethnic background is such a part of the mainstream that I’m now considered to be a member of the privileged class.
It’s now, literally, my job to build that kind of progress for Latinos and African Americans, ethnic groups that have a longer history in the US than my own ancestors. I work in a university that gives me the opportunity of training many of these underrepresented students, and I create avenues of opportunity for those who aspire to become research scientists.
For nearly all of my students, the concept of going to graduate school to become a scientist isn’t even on their radar. Most students are oriented towards careers as technicians in the medical, biomedical or biotechnological fields. Some are broadly interested in environmental science but more about on-the-ground conservation work rather than become a research leader in the field.
Nobody new has come to me and said, “I want to go to graduate school and become a researcher.” If I were to introduce this concept to students, most would be neutral or opposed to the idea, meet resistance from their families, and would be more oriented towards finding a 9-5 job right after graduation or seeking vocational training.
Research is not an easy sell, even though I have some students who I intuitively know right off the bat that they would both excel at, and relish, a career in scientific research. How do I make this happen? There are many books and articles written about the general approach. This post describes one specific practice that can enhance recruitment efforts.
In general, researchers are created by the placement of promising students in an immersive and amazing research experience. They also are made with the provision of proximate models (e.g., not an old white married professor with a family) to show them how possible it is for them to pursue this route.
How do you get students into immersive experiences with the right role models? How I can I, at an underfunded state university with scant research activity on campus, make this happen?
One of the problems in recruiting students from underrepresented groups into scientific careers is that most of this underrepresented population goes to high school and college in environments where it sucks to do science. These urban high-need schools are so focused on raising test scores in English and math that science is merely an afterthought at best.
It’s no wonder that our underrepresented students don’t want to become scientists. They’ve never done genuine science in school, and at our university, our labs are shabby and poorly equipped, and there are no big active research labs on campus, so they don’t have any idea what it looks like to do research.
If I want to make research scientists out of my students, I’ve got to them the heck out of Dodge.
I’ve got to get them to a place where serious research happens all over the place, surrounded by a multiethnic group of students that are one step above them in experience and aspiration. There’s lots of fun tinkering in my lab, but nothing that can inspire someone to make the switch towards a life in science.
I’m not going to bring these students to local research universities like UCLA or Caltech, or to well-endowed undergraduate campuses with great undergraduate research programs like Occidental or Pomona. That could, and does, work, but I’ve got what I think is a better plan.
I’m writing this post right now on a plane. The six seats in front of me are occupied by students from my university, and when they started college they were not planning to become scientists. I’ll wager that a few years from now, about half of them will be published authors and enrolled in a great PhD program in biology. This plane is heading for Costa Rica, and they’ll be spending either 2.5 weeks, or 2.5 months, doing research on trophic ecology in a tropical rainforest. (Their work supported by the NSF International Research Experiences for Students program, also the Louis Stokes Alliance for Broadening Minority Participation administered by NSF.)
The rainforest itself isn’t what makes the students become scientists. Instead, it’s the research environment located at the edge of this massive fragment of forest, called La Selva Biological Station. There, my students interact with undergraduates, grad students, and postdocs from all over the US, Latin America and Europe. They hang out with people who are supremely excited about research, and they also see the social and ethnic diversity of scientists that is rare at most US universities. Many of my students speak Spanish at home, and at La Selva, they’re able to talk with research students from Latin America who are also native Spanish speakers. They see Latinos excelling at research, and it is inspiring.
What my students see at La Selva is something that I could never just explain to them: they can have a genuine future as a research scientist. If they love the research (and only some do), then this experience makes the avenue to success perfectly clear and obvious.
They know that it’s my job to clear the path for them, for the next few years, by bring them to conferences, making them published authors, and helping give them the skills they need. (You’ll be able to meet a bunch of them if you go to the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation meeting this summer, by the way.) They know it’s their job to deliver the goods as well, by being productive members of my research lab, primarily as the engines of data creation.
I don’t necessarily need to schlep these students to the rainforest to give them that kind of immersive research environment. I think active biological field stations are the best for this kind of experience, and there are lots of these within the US. Some universities are great for this as well, especially for those whose research orientation is focused on what happens in the lab. I bring these students to La Selva because that’s my biological home where I’ve worked for almost 20 years. I work there because my undergraduate advisor brought me there, and she remains a top mentor and model for my work with students.
Bringing the right students to the rainforest became really difficult since I came to a university filled with students from ethnicities underrepresented in the sciences (in California, you can’t call Latino a “minority” after all). When I worked at schools filled with relatively wealthy students with northern European ancestry, I had no problem finding students who wanted go down and work in the rainforest for a few weeks for a few months. They could pay for it themselves, and they enjoyed the experience, though not so many of them enjoyed it enough to become scientists.
I was surprised when I got to CSU Dominguez Hills. I posted signs up all over the (dilapidated) science building which read:
SUMMER RESEARCH IN THE RAINFOREST. ALL EXPENSES PAID PLUS $4000 STIPEND. APPLY NOW!
Who wouldn’t want to do that? It turns out, nearly everybody.
I thought I’d be overwhelmed with applications. I didn’t get enough credible applications to fill my slots. The few applicants I had were hardcore premeds who I knew (from past experience) would never be won over to research, and I didn’t want to waste NSF’s money (nor my time) that way.
I eventually filled the slots, mostly with the right students, but it took a serious recruitment effort. The most frustrating part of the experience is that there were students who I knew well, who I was confident would enjoy and succeed in the summer rainforest research experience, but I couldn’t convince them to apply. It turned out that nearly all of my best potential candidates were the ones that I couldn’t convince to come along.
In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Many of these students were closely tied to their families and had never been away from family for a week, much less two months. Also, though I could pay a full stipend, this amount couldn’t fully match the revenue they would be earning from summer employment. Third, many students were counting on taking summer school so that they could graduate in 5 or 6 years instead of 7 or 8 years (no, I’m not exaggerating. Welcome to the contemporary California State University).
I couldn’t pull a student away from home for a whole summer of paid research unless they were exceptionally untied at home and had a great degree of financial freedom, combined with an independence of vision or a particularly free spirit that would allow them to have an open mind to the future. There were students I wanted to take down for the whole summer, but I just couldn’t hook them.
So, what did I do? As the title of the post suggests, I created a new category of student researcher, which I called the “Research Recruit.”
Remember how I wrote that some of the students traveling with me joined me for just 2.5 weeks. They spend two weeks doing research at La Selva, and a few days on “cultural experiences” such as the beach, cloud forest, volcano expeditions, hot springs, museums and zip-lining before going back home. They don’t receive a stipend, but they do get all their travel expenses covered plus a little per diem. Nothing has to come out of their own pockets.
It’s not that hard to convince most students to leave for the rainforest for 2.5 weeks. They can take that much time off their jobs with enough advance warning, and even if they have overprotective family, they can escape and reassure them with video chats from abroad. Students can get someone to watch their pets for that long, if not the whole summer. While not many people apply as research recruits on their own initiative, when we seek out students who we think are a good fit and ask them to apply, then we get a large and high quality applicant pool.
The Research Recruits don’t run their own projects like the long-term students. They pitch in as research technicians on the projects run by the other students. They also are encouraged to tag along with other researchers on station, which gives them the chance to meet a variety of grad students from the U.S. and also gives them exposure to a variety of biological and research system. Exceptional ones might be invited to stay for the whole summer, if there is adequate funding and mentorship.
By hosting a short-term cohort of Research Recruits, I am able to give students a taste of field biology and a thrilling research community. We are able to entice a number of recruits to apply to, and plan for, a full summer of research abroad in the following summer. Some research recruits don’t return to the rainforest for a full summer, as they discovered that they are not field biologists, but they have emerged from the experience excited about research and some have wound up as researchers in other lab-oriented disciplines. Others have gone into careers in teaching, and their tangible research experience has enhanced their classroom teaching.
It is hard work to make a scientist out of a person whose background precludes scientific research as a genuine career option. It is a highly personalized process, and it takes building genuine personal relationships. It also takes multiple years. Not all of my “research recruits” become scientists, but some of them do. These students who wind up in grad school never would have committed to a full summer of research without having an initial taste of research. If I gave up on them because they were wary of a summer of dedicated research, then it’s likely that they never would have been turned onto scientific research as a career option.
Once our Recruits go home, then they can prepare for the next summer. They can talk to their families, arrange for someone to watch their dog, don’t mind quitting their job and get excited about the projects that they can do. The level of commitment required to leave home for the summer, for the purpose of an intangible and vague experience, is a high bar for underrepresented students. The Research Recruit experience lets students know what they would be doing for the whole summer, and gets talented students to be motivated to make the personal commitment.
Is an exceptional summer experience enough to turn a student into a lifelong scientist? It can be. The hard part is getting students to envision themselves taking part in an experience for one summer. If you bring Research Recruits into your program, you lessen the initial level of commitment and then you can identify those who will succeed in long-term experiences.
Underrepresented students are going to college at underrepresented universities, the campuses that are not actively participating in the research community. To diversify the sciences, you need to recruit students from these campuses. To do this, you’ve got to go through us – the faculty who work with these students on a day to day basis.
To bring students from these institutions into the fold, you can’t just offer amazing experiences and hope that the right students sign up. You’ve got to court them, and convince them that research is a viable avenue. You’ve got to build personal relationships.
You can’t just expect the best students to commit to full summer research experiences. Research ability and motivation may be independent from the ability to envision research as a career path. I wish every program that is trying to recruit students from ethnic minorities included a Research Recruit option, which would bring in not only more students, but also the best students who otherwise would not see research as an option in their future.
We have a high conversion rate from our Research Recruit program, and after doing this for four years, our challenge is that we have too many qualified students looking for full-summer slots. That’s not a bad position to be in, and it also helps us argue for greater levels funding for our programs.
If you don’t have enough talented students from underrepresented groups applying, consider inviting them for just two weeks. Build your research community from the ground up. There are so many amazing students from underrepresented groups at non-research universities that can be excellent scientists. Creating funded opportunities is only the start, you’ve got to court them. I humbly suggest that creating a short-term Research Recruit program is one successful tactic that is absent from most programs.
I feel a little put out when people ask me what I’m doing with my 3 month vacation. Um, what vacation are you talking about?
Does summer mean vacation for a university scientist? Heck yeah! Just not for 3 months.
Summer is when the most science gets done, but, come on, it’s glorious out and your schedule isn’t going to be more open than this. You’ve got to get away at some point.
I’m one of those vacationers, for a few weeks in July/August. I’m mentioning this because you might be interested in knowing how I arranged my vacation – it’s a home exchange.
If you live in a place that others might want to visit, then you should really think about signing onto a home exchange registry. The way this works, is that you arrange a swap so that others move into your house for a while, and you move into theirs. You can swap cars, too. (I haven’t seen this movie, but people have told me there’s one in which Kate Winslet falls in love with Jack Black, during some kind of home exchange.)
A couple years ago, we spent 2.5 weeks in Iceland, and this year, we’re spending almost three weeks in Paris. The only real cost of the vacation is getting there. No rental car, no housing expenses, a kitchen to cook in, a comfy house for an extended stay. The only challenge is that getting our abode ready for the exchange won’t be a minor tidy job. If you have questions about how home exchange works, put ’em in the comments and I can answer for everyone. I’m not a pro because I’ve only done it once so far, but it’s pretty straightforward.
Would I spend the kind of money needed for an apartment or hotel for an extended stay in a very nice place? Maybe, but it’d be painful. Nor would I want to impose on any friend for my family of three to camp out in their home for anything more than a short visit. The home exchange is the best way to go, a comfortable home away from home, with many conveniences, and you can’t beat the price. And someone to water your tomatoes while you’re gone.
When vacation time rolls around, it doesn’t help that I’m also hoping to submit a biggish grant with a deadline on the last day of this trip. But I’m committed to making this not a working vacation. In more than two months away. A lot has to happen before then.
So, off to the field! Things might be getting a little slow on the site, but I’ll check in periodically, at least a couple times per week if not more often.
I can get a little jealous of people who have research systems in their labs, or do fieldwork nearby. You can just run experiments year-round if you want. A manuscript needs a more data for the revision? Go ahead and knock that experiment out. If you want flexibility when you get to do research, then having research right at home works quite well.
Then, why is it that some of the most successful researchers that I know have research systems that are geographically far away from the university? And the people — at teaching institutions — with the most tractable, easy-to-use systems can have trouble getting stuff done? (I think there’s a whole other set of problems with model systems on small campuses, but that’s a whole other diatribe post.)
Being far away from your research system can be a recipe for success. Among people I’ve known, a marine ecologist might have to drive eight hours to the rocky coast. Some physicists have collaborative projects at big national or international labs on the far coast of the US, Europe, and Japan. Anthropologists have sites in Southeast Asia and Central and South America. Humanities researchers rely on archives that are in libraries in distant cities. Others might study ephemeral events that occur locally, with no control over the timing of the events.
There are also successful people who work locally, too. Regardless, it is very clear that having your research system on the other side of the world doesn’t preclude success, even if you’re based in a small pond. That strikes me as counterintuitive.
In my own circumstance, I think having all of my fieldwork based out of Costa Rica has been a great boon for my productivity. If I was able to do research in the local mountains or desert, I don’t think I’d really get anything done. I’d never compartmentalize the time that it takes to fully focus on the work.
I’ll consider this with a social insect analogy.
Some of the most “advanced” social insect societies (as some call them) have workers that demonstrate temporal polyethism. That is: workers are born as nurses, then are promoted to guard duty or nest maintenance, and then they spend the last phase of their lives doing the most risky task, foraging. It’s well described in a variety of species.
This temporal division of labor makes for higher productivity, as a result of higher efficiency and organization of labor. (This is at least true in large colonies with a lot going on. The jury is still out on species with small colonies.) A big ant colony would be in disarray if all individuals tried to do everything at the same time. And so would I.
If I tried to run a field research program while doing every other part of my job, I doubt I’d be able to get high quality fieldwork done. I’ve figured out, in a clearly suboptimal fashion, how to juggle writing, teaching, analysis, mentoring during the year, service, and all that stuff. I can’t imagine adding “data collection” to that list of things to juggle during the academic year.
(And, of course, my greatest responsibility and source of joy is being a parent. But this isn’t a Daddy blog, even though I wish such a genre existed. Even though I spend my time writing here about research, don’t be mistaken. I’ve already established that parenting and spousal duties are more important than everything else.)
When I finish a field experiment, it’s over. One project might build upon the other, but I work with discrete ending points, and that’s when I pull the flags from our field sites and pack things to go home. I’ve hired people to do things in my absence for bigger projects, but for most work, I don’t have the option of just returning to do more. If an editor or reviewer asks for another sample, you know what? They’re out of luck, and I’m out of luck. They can buy their own plane ticket to Costa Rica to get that additional data point, if they don’t want to publish the paper without it.
This finality of data collection helps me to get stuff done. I have no doubt when I need to start analyzing and writing the manuscript. It’s as soon as I leave the country.
I never think to myself, “Here is a little something which is missing from this project to make it complete.” Instead, I tell myself, “I have to package this as a complete project, and accept the fact that there are some missing holes.”
There’s another reason that working far away lets me get more work done. When I go to my field station, I’m in 100% data-collection mode. We’re running experiments full time, and I’m usually working my butt off. And I’m working my students’ butts off. There’s no way I could give so much focus to work like that while I’m at home, because I’d have to get home and cook dinner, and I’d choose to hang out with my kid at times. When I’m in the field, my responsibility to home is an evening video chat date, which is sometimes missed on one side or the other.
There’s also no way that I would be able to get so much dedication and effort from the students in my lab, without taking them to a kind-of-remote rainforest. When you plop people down in a place where there is nothing to do but fieldwork and labwork, and that’s mostly what you get. (If you bring the right people. I’m getting better at that over the years, but there are always flukes. Flukes, you know, are a kind of parasite.)
I’d guess that work happens by students on site about 12 hours per day, in one form or another. You don’t get that kind of consistent work at that level for an extended period at home. (I lament that the internet has gotten faster on station, because those with an internet addiction have a hard time fully dedicating themselves to their work.) So, at the end of a field season, we have a relative ton of data, much more than I’d have than if I tried to work locally or in the lab.
Some lab work does happen during the academic year, mostly dealing with samples that we collected during the summertime. However, we reserve the academic year for writing manuscripts and preparing for the next field season. Data only gets collected in intermittent bursts, and that has been more than enough for my lab. The fact that I can’t collect data except when I fly to Costa Rica forces me to spend my time writing up the results. That gives me a lot of time to write without any other research-related distraction.
If I block away time during the academic year, it’s usually not to do lab work, it’s only to analyze and to write. When I do research while abroad, it’s only to collect data, and not to write. This temporal polyethism is what allows me to get stuff done.
I imagine that when other scientists need to travel for research-related business, they file some paperwork, and then hop on a plane.
I only dream that I could do the same.
The official rule at my university is that faculty need permission one month before any work-related international travel. Period. Even if the funding is external. And even if it’s okay with your chair and doesn’t interfere with teaching.
This rule, in itself, is a massive handicap that puts my research program at a disadvantage.
During moments like these, it can feel like my own administration is the enemy of my research program. I know that they everyone is, in fact, quite supportive, at least in spirit. Nonetheless, I’ve had to grow accustomed to an administrative obstacle course.
Each year, I schedule round-trip travel for about ten people to go to Costa Rica. I’ve been doing this since I arrived at this university, and every year, weird stumbling blocks are put in front of me. Because of this rule, I’ve kept home people home who would otherwise could have joined our research trip, and I’ve spent several extra thousands of (taxpayer) dollars on airfare because of administrative dillydallying. (I’m sure my administrators see it differently, of course.)
To get travel authorization, I need signatures from a long series of administrators. Before signing, they have a series of questions about budget, insurance, and logistics that require detailed answers before a signature arrives. Sometimes this process has taken a few weeks, and that’s with our departmental admin person chasing the process diligently the whole time (for which I am eternally grateful).
There are a few reasons why these questions posed to me are unnecessary, overly silly, and frustrating. First, all of the questions they ask could be easily answered by looking at the text of the grant itself, which was already approved by administration. Second, these administrators are aware that I essentially am doing the same thing every year with the funds, and so nothing changes. If I was approved the year before, what’s wrong with this year? Third, all of these funds are administered by the fiscally independent university Foundation, which operates outside contracts and grants, and technically my administration has no control over these funds and only need to approve my time away from campus. Also, this travel happens off the clock of the academic year, so really the only branch concerned with my time and the funds should be the Foundation.
This year, I should note, the process has gone smoother than ever before. It might be because I have the same Provost for two years in a row, which is a new record for me in the past six years. (So far, he’s been a keeper.) Moreover, the Provost’s lead administrative person is the most awesome ever, who used to work in my Dean’s office. Having her there is soothing. (Apparently, she spent an hour on the phone with my equally excellent departmental admin person sorting out technicalities that she was required to attend to.) I just got the signatures last night, and bought the tickets. This time it only took a couple weeks to get permission!
I can only take so much solace in the fact that an unnecessary process is less painful than it has been in the past.
How hard is it to travel with your university? Are the international travel rules overly onerous? How much of your time have you spent dealing with paperwork that you could have spent on teaching or research?