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

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

Constructing a summer

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For those of us on trimester or quarter systems, the summer is just beginning. (Graduation at my institution was this past Saturday, for instance.) My two undergrad research students started work officially on Monday, although both have been working with me for months now. I’m finally easing out of academic year mode and into summer mode, where my focus turns mainly to research, research, research. Continue reading

Huge problems during research are totally normal

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At the moment, I have the great pleasure of working with a bunch of students at my field site in Costa Rica. Which means that I’m really busy — especially during the World Cup too! — but I’m squirreling away a bit of time before lunch to write about this perennial fact that permeates each field season.

We are used to stuff working. When you try to start your car, it turns on. When we set alarms to wake us up, they typically wake us up. You take a class, work hard and study, and earn a decent grade. Usually these things things happen. And when they don’t happen, it’s a malfunction and a sign of something wrong. Continue reading

How much do you let students design projects?

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Now is the time of year when we work with students on designing summer research projects. How do you decide exactly what their project is, and how the experimental design is structured? This is something I struggle with.

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Image by T.McGlynn

In theory, quality mentorship (involving time, patience and skill) can lead a student towards working very independently and still have a successful project. Oftentimes, though, the time constraints involved in a summer project don’t allow for a comprehensive mentoring scheme that facilitates a high level of student independence. Should the goal of a student research project be training of an independently-thinking scientist or the production of publishable research? I think you can have both, but when push comes to shove, which way do you have to lean? I’ve written about this already. (Shorter: without the pubs, my lab would run out of dough and then no students would have any experiences. As is said, your mileage may vary.)

A well-designed project will require a familiarity with prior literature, experimental design, relevant statistical approaches and the ability to anticipate the objections that reviewers will have once the final product goes out for review. Undergraduates are typically lacking in most, if not all, of these traits. Sometimes you just gotta tell the student what will work and what will not, and what is important to the scientific community and what is not. And sometimes you can’t send the student home to read fifteen papers before reconsidering a certain technique or hypothesis.

When students in the lab are particularly excited about a project beyond my mentorable expertise, or beyond the realm of publishability, I don’t hesitate to advise a new course. I let them know what I hope students get out a summer research experience:

  • a diverse social network of biologists from many subfields and universities

  • experience designing and running an experiment

  • a pub

All three of those things take different kinds of effort, but all three are within reach, and I make decisions with an effort to maximize these three things for the students. Which means that, what happens in my lab inhabits the right side of the continuum, sometimes on the edge of the ‘zone of no mentorship’ if I take on too many students.

You might notice one thing is missing from my list: conceive an experiment and develop the hypotheses being tested.

Students can do that in grad school if they want. Or in the lab of a different PI. I would rather have a students design experiments on hypotheses connected to my lab that I am confident can be converted into papers, rather than work on an experiments of the students’ own personal interest. (Most of my students become enamored of their experimental subnets pretty quickly, though.)

This approach is in the interest of myself to maintain a productive lab, but I also think that being handed a menu of hypotheses instead of a blank slate is also in the long-term interest of most students. I’m not keen on mentoring a gaggle of students who design their own projects when these projects are only for their edification, and not for sharing with the scientific community. That kind of thing is wonderful for the curriculum, but not for my research lab.

Other people have other approaches, and that is a Good Thing. We need many kinds of PIs, including those that give students so much latitude that they will have an opportunity to learn from failure. And also those that take on 1-2 students at a time and work with them very carefully. I like the idea of thinking about my approach to avoid falling into a default mode of mentorship. Does this scheme make sense, and if it does, where do you fit in and how have you made your choices? I would imagine the nature of your institution and the nature of your subfield — and how much funding is available — structures these choices.

The field ecology of a gut microbe inside bullet ants

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The bullet ant Paraponera clavata. Image by Alex Wild.

The bullet ant Paraponera clavata. Image by Alex Wild.

This is the latest paper from my lab, which I’m really excited about. When we designed the project, several people told us that it would be useless. “It’s pointless to study the ecology of a symbiotic microbe in the wild when we have yet to specify its function inside the host.” It was only two days ago that Meg Duffy said that the microbiome is the most important recent conceptual advance in ecology, and I agree with her. That’s one of the reasons we did this project, to look at the ecology of gut microbe in the wild, which appears to be a true frontier.

There are plenty of advances that are yet to be made in the field biology of microbes, and these discoveries do not have an a priori requirement understanding of the comprehensive biology of an organism before understanding its ecology.

The microbial contents the guts of bullet ants are remarkably heterogeneous. In some colonies of bullet ants, we found oodles of a particular Bartonella microbe, closely related to those that facilitate N cycling in other animals. And most closely related (as far as we know) to other Bartonella inside ants on other distant continents. But, many bullet ant colonies lack this microbe. Perhaps not by accident, bullet ants have a remarkably varied diet, and some colonies eat more insects than anything else, and other colonies are functional herbivores. Perhaps the presence of this N-cycling microbe might be associated with – or even respond to – the trophic position of the ants?

Aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves by studying how diet affects microbes in the wild, when we don’t know what the microbes do? I say, phooey. Most of the ants that we study in tropical rainforest are just as mysterious as microbes. We don’t even know what most species of ants even eat! Nobody tells me I can’t study the ecology of ants without doing a comprehensive study of their diets and relationships to other organisms in the ecosystem. So, why do we need to know exactly what the role of microbe is in the gut of an animal before working to understand its distribution and ecology?

Working out the function of these microbes is mighty damn hard, if not impossible at the moment. But we can understand the distribution of these critters among colonies of ants an understand the environmental factors that shape its occurrence, as well as doing experiments to see how we can make incidence increase or decrease.

So, we ran an experiment that gave the ant colonies supplemental carbohydrates, or supplemental protein. (This was not easy at all, though you might think it would be. A post on this is forthcoming.) And we checked to see if how the microbes responded. It turns out that when you feed colonies sugar, this microbe becomes more prevalent. Moreover, the results from the manipulation recapitulate the ambient relationship between diet and microbial prevalence. Some colonies consistently collect more sugary nectar from the canopy than other colonies. (Learning this involved going out into the forest in the middle of the night, for an entire summer, to measure bullet ant colony diets.) The colonies that collect more nectar are more likely to have this microbe. So, we can clearly conclude that a sugary diet is predictive of the incidence of this particular Bartonella inside bullet ants.

And the stable isotopes tell an interesting story, too.

So what does this mean? While most ant species that forage in rainforest canopies are functionally herbivorous, bullet ants are true omnivores. They also don’t have the specialized obligate N-cycling microbes that the more herbivores canopy ants have. We found that the close bullet ant diets get to their competitors in the canopy, the more likely they have this facultative N-cycling microbe. If we’re trying to understand how the evolution of obligate sugar-feeding evolved among the dominant ants of rainforest canopies, then I suggest that understanding the ecology of the facultative bullet ant/Bartonella association is to get a window into the evolution this form of dietary specialization.

How this project happened inside a teaching institution

This was the Master’s thesis project of Hannah Larson. Hannah came to my lab with a specific interest in doing field ecology. Based on preliminary finds predating her arrival, Hannah and I developed this project in collaboration with Shana Goffredi, our microbial ecology collaborator. After taking courses for a semester, Hannah headed to the rainforest for eight months to conduct this project at La Selva Biological Station. Hannah found, marked and measured over a hundred bullet ant colonies (which became the start of a long-term monitoring project), and overcame a series of challenges in getting the molecular work done in a rainforest field station (with substantial help from our collaborating lab at the University of Costa Rica). Undergraduate Erica Parra is the one who (by her own choice I should point out) spent long nights in the pitch black of the rainforest at the base of actively foraging bullet ant colonies. The work was funded by an NSF-IRES grant OISE-1130156, though we scrambled for additional funds for reagents that were not in the project budget.

Reference:

Larson, H.K., S.K. Goffredi, E.L. Parra, O. Vargas, A. Pinto, T.P. McGlynn. 2014. Distribution and dietary regulation of an associated facultative Rhizobiales-related bacterium in the omnivorous Giant Tropical Ant, Paraponera clavata. Naturwissenschaften. DOI: 10.1007/s00114-014-1168-0

You can find a copy of this paper on my lab’s website.

Today is Taxonomist Appreciation Day!

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Many fields of science are important, and many fields of science are appreciated.

The field with the greatest importance : appreciation ratio is taxonomy.

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BuzzHootRoar made this!

Taxonomy is critical for almost everything we do in biology, but few demonstrate appreciation for the hard work and expertise that is required for useful taxonomy to happen. Let’s change that!

We are deep in a taxonomic crisis. Our own species created the planet’s sixth major extinction event and we are lacking the expertise to understand what we are rapidly losing. Taxonomic work is the foundation for understanding how to save what we can and make plans for the future. Any fix to the taxonomic crisis requires a recognition of the essential nature of the work of taxonomists and systematists, and the value of museum collections and those who use them to explain our world. We must show taxonomists how much they’re worth to us. We need to back this up with the necessary resources, of course, but we all need to be showing them a lotta love too.

I’d like to write a bit about the taxonomist that’s made my work possible.

As an ecologist, most of what I do is only possible because because of the unfathomably detailed and dedicated work of one systematist and all-around-great guy, Jack Longino. I don’t even know where to begin with the awesomeness of Jack, and of what he’s done. En route to a bevy of discoveries in evolution and ecology, he’s provided a comprehensive picture of ant biology throughout Costa Rica, as well as Mesoamerica and beyond. Of course there’s always more work to do, and a lot of that is only possible because of the foundation of his natural history and systematic work.

Jack Longino worked on the ants of La Selva Biological Station under the umbrella of the ambitious Alas Project: The Arthropods of La SelvaWhile heading up (in part) this huge project funded by a series of four NSF grants, he focused on ants. In the process, he made the most comprehensive and easy-to-use guide to identifying ants to species for anywhere in the tropics, perhaps the world. In fact, it is easier for me to train a student to identify an ant in the rainforest of Costa Rica than in my home in California, because the tools that Jack created are just so perfect to get ants to species. And when you get to a species page, you get detailed natural history notes of the biology of the species, including the rare ones. (For great examples, check out his notes on Gnamptogenys banski and one of my favorite critters, the gypsy ant Aphaenogaster araneoides.) In recent years, he’s ported over to the globally comprehensive site Antweb, and expanded his range throughout Mesoamerica and northern South America. Which is much cause for rejoicing among myrmecologists in these areas. And NPR, too.

And, a spectacular part of all this is that he did this while serving on the faculty of The Evergreen State College. I’ve seen him in the field with students on several occasions, and he’s a thoughtful, attentive, realistic and enterprising mentor. (He’s recently moved to the University of Utah.) And whenever I have questions for him, he’s prompt, detailed and doesn’t even seem to mind. I don’t know how to make a taxonomy pun out of this, but he’s 100% class.

So when he went on an expedition sampling ants throughout remote areas of Mesoamerica, he took a bunch of undergraduates. Some of whom made this wonderful animation showing what an ant sampling field expedition looks like:

Acknowledgments: This year’s pun contest by BuzzHootRoar generated some great art and new attention to the importance of taxonomy for ALL of us scientists. I came up with the idea for Taxonomist Appreciation Day on a half-whim last year, but I’m serious about it. It’s an idea whose time has come. And I am so thankful for the people who’ve helped picked up the idea and shared it, including BuzzHootRoar, the NSF Division of Environmental Biology, and Alex Wild, and hopefully many more of you today. (If you’re a twitter person, #loveyourtaxonomist is the not-so-secret handshake.) The Smithsonian Department of Invert Zoology came up with an aptly timed post (beware: contains comic sans). Next year, let’s have a bigger and better Taxonomist Appreciation Day! I’m open to all kinds of ideas, in addition to the great ones of DEBrief.

Ant science: Ants try to eat protein beverages like solid food

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Collectively, ants are efficient, and you might even call them smart. But individual ants are so dumb that they don’t even know how to feed themselves, as we show in the latest paper to come out of my lab. You could say that these ants have a drinking problem.

A bullet ant with a bubble of sugar solution in its mandibles. Image by Alex Wild

A bullet ant with a bubble of sugar solution in its mandibles. No scale bar is needed; this ant is about the size of your pinky finger, unless you have a small hand. Image by Alex Wild.

If you’re given a protein smoothie, you drink it. But if you give bullet ants a protein drink, they chomp and pull at it. If they knew how to use a fork, they’d probably try that, too.

The bullet ant Paraponera clavata has a boring diet: workers mostly collect sugar water from the rainforest canopy, supplemented with chunky prey items, like other ants and pieces of caterpillars. When they eat carbs, it’s in the form of a liquid which they gather in a droplet held by their mandibles. When they get protein, it’s in the form of a solid which they chomp and bite.

While attempting to do an experiment, we discovered that these ants are absolutely hopeless at drinking a liquid, if it’s a protein solution.

What does it look like when ants try to drink something and when they try to chomp at solid food? Here are two very short videos taken by Jenny Jandt:

We asked: what sensory cues do the ants use to decide whether to drink a fluid or to grasp at it as if it were a solid? We ran a field experiment with factorial combinations of various sugar (sucrose) concentrations and various protein (casein) concentrations, and used ethograms to measure behavioral responses. We replicated this across a bunch of colonies, randomized the order of presentation, and did other good stuff to make sure the experimental design wasn’t messed up. (We’re pros, you know.)

We mostly didn’t get stung while running the experiment. This matters because they are called “bullet ants” for good reason.

We found that the higher the concentration of sugar, the more likely the ants were to drink. If there was a little protein and no sugar at all, the ants would most likely grasp.  Once protein concentrations got near 1 micromolar concentration, however, the concentration of sugar did not affect the grasping response to protein.

So, if these ants are thinking, then this is what they’re thinking to themselves: “If I taste protein, it must be food. So I’ll chomp at it, even though it’s a liquid.” But, it doesn’t look like they’re thinking much at all.

We found that the ants demonstrate a fixed action pattern of feeding behavior in response to assessing the nutritional content of food. This operationally works for them in nature, because texture and nutritional content are coupled. When we experimentally decoupled texture and nutritional content, then we were able to identify the cues that the ants used to make their food handling decision. They decide to drink when they detect carbohydrates and they decide to chomp when they detect protein, and texture has little to do with the decision.

How this project happened in a teaching-centered institution

In the first half of 2011, Hannah Larson (a Master’s student in my lab) was spending several months at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, working with a microbial symbiont of bullet ants. She discovered the phenomenon of bullet ants chomping at protein solutions when she tried to experimentally feed colonies a protein solution, and the colonies opted to dismember the plastic pipets instead of drinking from them. She worked out other ways of delivering protein for her experiments, but we wanted to document and further understand this discovery.

That summer, I paired up my colleague Dr. Jenny Jandt up to mentor a student from my university on a totally different project. We all found this protein-chomping behavior so cool, and Jenny made the time for a second trip to Costa Rica after I helped her flesh the project out. My undergrad Peter Tellez was her wingman, and they did the experiment using the template of the many colonies that Hannah established for her thesis work. In late 2011, I drove out to visit Jenny in Tucson for a couple days, to work on this and another manuscript, in which the bulk of the paper was put together. Jenny put the finishing touches on this paper with just a bit of help from myself, Hannah and Peter. As it was a side project for all of us, it lingered a bit but Jenny persisted and she’s pretty much everything I could ask for in a collaborator and mentor to our students.

Where are they now? Jenny took a postdoc in the rockin’ lab of Amy Toth at Iowa State. Hannah is now in her second year of the DPT program at the Univ. of Washington and Peter is now a PhD student in the lab of Sunshine Van Bael at Tulane.)

In short, this cool paper came together because I was able to talk my postdoc buddy Jenny into coming down to the rainforest to work with my students for about a month. She is otherwise a wasp and bee behavior person, and I was glad to give her an avenue to work with ants and tropical rainforests, and my students greatly benefited from her careful mentorship and expertise in individual and collective behaviors of social insect colonies.

Reference: Jandt, J., H.K. Larson, P. Tellez, and T.P. McGlynn 2013. To drink or grasp? How bullet ants (Paraponera clavata) differentiate between sugars and proteins in liquids. Naturwissenschaften. DOI: 10.1007/s00114-013-1109-3

A copy of this paper is available on my lab website here.

This work was conducted under support of the National Science Foundation (OISE-0854259 and OISE-1130156).

Why I don’t take high school students into my lab

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Once in a while, I am approached about taking on a high school student over the summer. I always say no, for the same reason that I turn away most premeds: they want research “experience.”

Bungee jumping is an experience. Discovering that you’re allergic to seafood is an experience. Going backpacking in Europe is an experience. I don’t provide research “experiences” for students; I train scientists. I’m a scientist and a university instructor, not an unpaid private tutor.

High school students want to look awesome so that they can get into a fancy university. That has nothing to do with why I am paid to work for the State of California, so I’ll take a pass. But I don’t let the high school students off with a simple “No, thank you.”

The primary purposes of my research lab are to get research done and to train scientists. My lab doesn’t have room for tourists having an “experience,” because there is only space for researchers. I turn away high school students because they take resources (time, space, roles) away from the students who really need it and deserve the opportunity. These students that want to join my lab are the kind that end up winning science fairs because of privileged access to university resources.

I have another reason for turning away the high school students that come to me in search of a research experience.

The high school students who have sought research experiences have two common denominators: The first is that they’re wealthy. They attend either an expensive prep school, or attend public school in a district with million-dollar homes and a well-endowed foundation supplementing the inadequate funding provided by the State of California. These high school students think it’s perfectly normal – perhaps even laudable – to seek out research experiences at the local university that trains undergraduates.

The second common denominator among the high school students who ask to volunteer in my lab is they never, ever, will even consider attending my university, CSU Dominguez Hills.

When high school students ask me for a slot in my lab, the first thing I do is ask them about their college plans. They name schools with pricetags that would clean out the bulk of my salary. I then give these students some umbrage:

Do you think it’s acceptable for me to spend taxpayer dollars giving you free research training?

If getting research experience in my lab is good enough for you as a high school student, then why isn’t it good enough for you in college?

Why do you think that you might deserve a space in my lab over students who are enrolled at Dominguez Hills? Presumably you’re hard-working and smart, but how does that entitle you to special opportunities over the hard-working and smart students who have chosen to come to Dominguez Hills?

If this campus not good enough for you in two years, how is it good enough for you now? Why don’t you want to come to this university?

I have scant tolerance for people who think that prep school students can slum around my low-income university to get free research credentials, as a way to further their access to elite institutions that my students are unable to access. Moreover, these people wanting a spot in my lab expect that it’s somehow part of my job to provide this training for free to students who have already chosen to opt out of the state university system.

This particular form of entitlement is offensive to my values and to my students. Even asking for the opportunity to join my lab as a high school student, while simultaneously ruling out the possibility joining as an undergraduate, shows how little these students and their families value education as a public good. I refuse to be their tool.

While not in my lab, in labs all around the country, wealthy high school students are getting high quality research training at universities while the majority of the nation’s public school children are now living in poverty and qualify for subsidized school meals. If I were to use my lab at CSU Dominguez Hills to provide research opportunities to the 1%, I’d only worsen this tragic failure of our nation.

I’m not inherently opposed to taking on a high school student, but I’ll be damned if I take an opportunity away from an low-income student who truly needs it and transfer it to one who comes from a position of privilege.

I’m not going to be an instrument of the upper class by perpetuating the heritability of educational and economic disparities.

Of course, if some parents of a high school student pony up the $2 million for an endowed chair at my university, I’d be pleased to reopen a conversation on the topic.

Collected observations from travels among universities

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Invited seminars and job interviews offer a unique opportunity to learn (and remember) what grad school is like and how universities work. You get to have a lot of intentional sit-down conversations on a wide variety of topics. Spending time meeting new people and learning new stuff rocks. And when you chat with other people about themselves, and their work, labs and universities, you have a chance to put your own way of doing things in perspective.

I’ve had a few such opportunities in the past month. There were a number of recurring conversational themes and undercurrents. During these visits, you get to have conversations to learn not just about all kinds of research, but about how people chose the directions that led to their current trajectories. And, you often learn about how personal lives shape our research directions and priorities, both by design and by hap.

Here are some of the highlights. None of these observations are shocking news by any measure. But I was struck by the obviousness of these ideas and the frequency with which they emerged, even when I wasn’t looking for them:

  • Research universities are no longer primarily oriented towards training excellent scientists. They are now primarily oriented towards teaching students how to publish and to get grants. If a grad student develops the desire to become an excellent practitioner of science, this is probably going to emerge from the undergraduate experience.
  • Anybody currently building a future in the quantitative sciences needs to learn how to write code to promote their own research success. Being able to manage and analyze super-duper huge datasets (bioinformatics) is really useful.
  • High quantity data will never be a substitute for high quality data.
  • People need to get off their goddamn phones.
  • Genomics is now at the point when all flavors of biologists are in a practical position to figure out heritable mechanisms accounting for phenomena involving organisms in nature. For many kinds of questions, any species can now be a model system.
  • Most ecological theories are ephemeral, and are either myopic or wrong. The parenting of popular, ephemeral and myopic theories is the prevailing route to success.
  • It’s difficult to maintain the presence of mind to recognize the power of one’s own authority.
  • In ecology and evolutionary biology, women fall out of academic careers most heavily in the transition phase between from Ph.D. to faculty. Lots of parties are at fault, but the ones that seem to be the most significant are some senior faculty (of both genders) and some spouses. Deans have many opportunities to proactively make positive changes, but that rarely happens.
  • The number of students who want to do serious, long-term, field biology in the service of contemporary research questions has sharply declined. This limits our potential to answer some major wide open questions in biology.
  • Universities that maintain a strong faculty actively keep their professors from going on the market in search of greener pastures. Universities would not lose valued faculty members as often as they do, if they actually supported faculty commensurate with the degree to which they are valued. Once someone is driven to look for a new faculty job on the market, then it’s impossible to not take a great offer seriously, even when there are many good reasons to not move.
  • The beauty of life – both in biodiversity and our relations with fellow humans – is immense beyond words. Humanity might be ugly, but people are gorgeous.

How a research institution can mentor undergrads better than an undergraduate institution

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More doctoral students emerge from small liberal arts colleges than from the undergraduate populace of research institutions.

This is a point of pride held by liberal arts colleges, that market themselves as the best place to go if you want to become a scientist receiving a Ph.D. from a big-name research institution. Demographically, they’re correct.

Are small teaching schools better equipped to train undergraduate researchers better than big research institutions? I don’t think so.

In practice, liberal arts schools are far better at producing high quality researchers, but it’s not because of any inherent property of liberal arts schools. Some could argue that the curriculum itself might matter – that’s a discussion for another time – I’ll spend the rest of this post thinking about the single reason that people identify about what makes liberal arts schools a special place for budding researchers.

Here is the standard reasoning: Teaching schools provide students with the opportunity to have close professional interactions with their professors. Students in labs in small teaching institutions benefit from direct mentorship from the PI, which will more likely result in a higher quality research experience, better insights into how to do research, and greater opportunities to own their own research projects, enabling them to present at major venues and eventual publication as undergraduates.

How true is the preceding paragraph? It’s a straight-up fact that students at small teaching campuses are more likely to do more original research of their own working with their PI. And, if an undergraduate arbitrarily selects a research lab to join, then they’d probably end up getting a better experience at a teaching institution.

But, though this trend is real, research institutions have tremendous potential for training undergraduates. Without providing any additional resources, any research institution can be a top-notch training ground for undergraduates. After all, there is nothing inherent about teaching institutions that makes them better at training researchers.

There is nothing magical about having the PI as your direct mentor that will make you a better researcher and help you get into a better grad school. Looking closely at what supposedly makes a teaching institution better for training undergraduate researchers – close involvement with the PI – I see a massive handicap.

All of the literature on research mentorship says that the relationship is most successful when the mentor is just a little above the mentee in research experience. Even though the PI is a better academic expert and has mentored more, the Ph.D. student and the postdoc are in a position to be more effective as mentors.

The best mentoring arrangement is a multi-level team, in which the early undergrad works with a senior undergraduate, who then works with a Ph.D. student, who works with a postdoc as well as the PI. The PI knows everyone personally, and spends some time with the undergrads, but the graduate students are the better formal mentors. (A colleague of mine at a research institution recently tried to kick one of her own undergrad researchers out of the lab, because she didn’t recognize her. That’s not good.)

I suppose a young PI can connect more easily with students, but as we get older, then the nature of the relationship evolves. Add on a few years, and the gap between the PI and the student grows. Even if the PI is affable, and might truly understand the perspectives and thoughts of the students, it would be silly to ignore the fact that our students can’t relate to us and that we can’t relate to our students, even if we were once in their position. No matter how much time I spend with my students, now matter how similar our backgrounds are, the fact of who I am limits my ability to serve as a model. I can do all the right things in the mentoring process, but if a grad student did all of the right things, it would be even better. (And for my students from underrepresented groups, having a mentor from the same group is particularly powerful.)

I really like most of my students. I enjoy their company, and over time some have become good friends of mine. But, let’s face it, there’s a big gap. I’m older, have a kid and am married, and we don’t have that many overlapping interests. While I try hard to be transparent, I recognize that I seem like an enigma in a bunch of ways. (For example, earlier this summer one of my students was totally surprised that I use torrents to watch a couple TV shows. He just thought this was outside my realm for some reason.) I didn’t go to grad school in the middle ages, but things have changed since I’ve been there, and this is true for anybody who is at least halfway to tenure. If I try to discuss grad school with my students, I’m not nearly as credible or powerful as the same information coming from a current graduate student.

My position of authority makes me a less influential mentor.

I don’t want to overgeneralize from my experience, but I doubt that I’m alone.

You might be thinking, “Do your students really have to relate to their mentor to have an excellent research experience, and move their career to the next level?” Not necessarily. But I think it really helps. Especially for students who aren’t able to visualize themselves as capable of excelling in graduate school, a proximate model is an essential part of the mentoring process. Having seen my undergrads interact with doctoral students on a regular basis, it’s clear to me that without this kind of opportunity, that my students would missing out, big time.

Having a student know that the path has been blazed in front of them by other students, like them, matters. If students see other students throw themselves into research with great passion, they are more likely to allow themselves to get that excited. Of course, the same was true for me. But now, I’m an old bald dude with kids, and I get really excited about research, but in a different way. I can’t serve as a model for my students, even if I tried.

While grad students might not have the same authority and skill set as the PI, they can offer things that the PI can’t. This is exactly why a multi-level mentoring scheme is the way to go. The PI can choose to become involved when it is wise, and step back and focus on other things when the grad student has things under control.

Research institutions have grad students, but this doesn’t mean that they deliver great research experiences for undergraduates. While the personnel are available for a multi-level mentoring system, in many labs the system is nonfunctional because undergrads are often treated as serfs. I know many R1 labs that that are exceptional for undergraduates who work with graduate student mentors. However, I’m aware of far more labs that do not focus on making sure that undergraduates have their own research experience and are able to focus on building their own academic identity. In general, undergraduates in research institutions that receive their own project (as a piece of their mentor’s work) are the exception rather than the norm.

As for the mass production of Ph.D. students from small liberal arts colleges, I would bet that the outcome is a done deal even before the students enroll in college. The social and economic class that produces doctoral students is the same caste that is able to send students to fancy private liberal arts schools. Yes, there are scholarships and financial aid. But even if you look at small liberal arts colleges that heavily emphasize economic and ethnic diversity, they simply can’t match the diversity of the nation’s populace because, simply, most people can’t afford it. As long as the average cost of a liberal arts college is more than average cost of research universities, of course a higher proportion of doctoral students will emerge from liberal arts colleges.

How do I get my own students a multi-level mentored experience? Well, I don’t have that happen inside my lab on a day-to-day basis. I may have Master’s students around, but I usually have undergrads that are more seasoned than my grad students. That experience helps, but the way I really bring in graduate student and postdoc mentors is by having my students conduct their research in a hub of collaborative activity during the summer at a field station: La Selva Biological Station, in Costa Rica. There, my students build strong relationships with scientists from all over with different levels of experience, and these bonds typically stay tight after they leave the field station. Sometimes their projects become collaborations with grad students and postdocs at other institutions. I like that a lot, for a bunch of reasons.

If multi-level mentoring is important for the success of undergraduates, then what does this mean for you?

If you’re in a research institution: Postdocs and grad students should become genuine mentors and give undergraduates the time and resources to have their own students, and supervise them properly.  Faculty at research institutions should support their lab members, not just in the process of research but also in the process of mentorship. Don’t exploit undergraduates as trained monkeys. If you want someone to be an unthinking data-generating machine, then hire a technician. If you take an undergraduate to do “research,” then do actual research with them. Your own research agenda is easily split up into several smaller questions. Hand one of those questions to your undergraduate researcher, and learn how to mentor them. Give them the same support that you expect to receive from your own research advisor. Yeah, it’s not easy, but it will pay off for both of you in the long run.

If you’re at a teaching institution: Seek routes for multi-level mentoring in the lab. At a minimum, the undergraduates with more than two years of experience in the lab should be given the chance to actively supervise new students. Ideally, you can develop relationships with colleagues in other institutions with graduate students and postdocs. Find a way for your undergrads to become friends with doctoral students. I don’t know how to make this happen, and it varies with institutional context and geography, but from where I sit, it’s an ingredient that really promotes success. (For starters, you can bring students to smaller national meetings where they can build relationships with the students of your colleagues.)

I don’t have a big specific solution to the problem, but recognizing the fact that we as faculty are inherently flawed mentors is a start, and recognizing that the lack of graduate students at teaching institutions isn’t a strength, but a weakness, of the mentorship process.

Taking a chance on the premed

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This is a repost, from a while ago, and particularly apt at the beginning of the semester as we may be recruiting new students into our labs.

What criteria do you have for bringing in premeds to do research in your lab?

There are so many reasons to keep away from premeds. For starters, premeds are more prone to:

  1. want research “experience” but don’t want to do actual research
  2. drop lab duties at the drop of a hat whenever an A- might happen
  3. walk away as soon as they think their stellar recommendation letter is a lock

Of course it’s unfair to apply these stereotypes to actual human beings. Even if they are premeds.

It’s difficult to filter unmotivated students, because I have known so many premeds that have been quick to feign interest. But you can’t do research for long if you don’t love it. The bottom line is that if I’m going to invest into a student, I want them to stick around. When you take on a premed, you’re taking a bigger chance that the investment won’t pay off in terms of data productivity. There are enough non-premeds in my midst that I can wholly avoid premeds, when properly identified. But I still accept them on occasion.

I can think of only one good reason to take on a premed. But it’s a really good reason. You can convert them. It’s tempting. After all, most premeds don’t go to med school, and their premed experience is a big mistake. You can rescue these students early on. You can show that a becoming a scientist is a real option. It gives you the opportunity to make a genuine difference in someone’s life.

Early on, I got burned plenty of times. But I had some successes, and now I have a better spidey sense when a premed is looking for a route off the path that they (or their families) have created. My main motivation is karmic. In retrospect, I still have no idea why I was a premed environmental biology major. The professor who took the chance on me is still an excellent mentor to me, and I like to think that it’s my duty to pass the favor along to her academic grandkids.

Supervising students from afar

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Note: Heads up, the site is going to stay a little quiet for the next few weeks, during some vacation. Posts will continue, at 2-3 week, though I won’t be able to respond to comments or moderate. Come mid-August, things will pick up.

With students in the lab and the field during the summer, there are plenty of times when undergrads are working and their PIs are not working alongside them.

It’s typical for a PhD student to go off to do one’s own research out in some remote place, like Andean glaciers.  Undergrads, however, probably shouldn’t venture off on their own, if their project is going to be tremendously successful. And they probably don’t even work in the lab for extended periods without regular check-ins.

We can’t work alongside our students all the time. Our academic lives in the summer can’t principally consist of labwork and fieldwork. We have writing, conferences, and vacation.

As my lab is primarily built around field experiments, my students spend the summer in the field. The field, however, is several thousand miles away from home. This normally could be a problem with an undergraduate field crew, but I base the lab’s work out of an active field station. This site hosts a full community of other researchers, as well as great infrastructure that helps ensures that the resources for research are available, as well as meeting needs with respect to health and safety.

Am I concerned that the science might not work out as well as it might if I were there all of the time. A little bit, but not much. I have some rockin’ students, and I have full confidence that things are working out. Not only do my students know what they’re doing, but they also are good at diagnosing when they have doubts.

They know that I am easily contacted to deal with problems as they crop up. Except when I’m not available. I’m just returned from teaching a field course in a place that lacks cell coverage. I had wifi, but I wasn’t checking it every minute. Now that I’m heading on v

This is where I remind myself, this isn’t only my research; the students own the project as well. If they didn’t have the opportunity to make independent decisions, and have them be genuinely independent, then they wouldn’t be getting as much out of it. And, I’ve learned that when great students are making the calls things are often better than when I am in charge.

How much distance do you create/tolerate from the day-to-day work of your undergraduate research projects? What level of engagement leads to the greatest level of success?

A method to develop scientists from underrepresented groups: Research Recruits

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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.

How to run a summer undergraduate research lab

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That title should indicate a question rather than a set of instructions.

How do you run a research lab in the summertime?

We’re approaching that time when campuses get really quiet, except for us scientists who are working year-round.

Many of us have undergrads funded (through a variety of internal and external funds) to work in our labs in the summer. What does it take to make sure that get work gets done on schedule, in high volume, and with the proper level of quality control? What can you do to make sure that the students have the best research experience? Are those two things wholly compatible?

What policies and procedures do you have, if any? Do you use a timecard with fidelity? How often do students report on their work formally, and how much time do you actually work alongside your students? How much is expected of the students in terms of hours per week, research product, or both? Do you have students write up much their work in the summer, save all it for the fall, or do they just hand over data to you and you write it up?

Please share your favorite practices, and ones you know that don’t work, in the comments. We’ve got lots to learn from one another.

I imagine that marital and reproductive status affect how you run the lab over the summer, too.

I tell my undergrads that I have three priorities for summer research:

  1. Everybody is safe
  2. Everybody has a fun time
  3. Everybody is collecting genuine data that is designed to be part of a publication

I explain that all three are mutually compatible. We are doing real science, not a make-work research “experience.”

That said, I have almost no experience with personally mentoring undergraduates in the lab throughout the summer.  Students working with me in the summer head to a large rainforest field station with me for a few weeks. And then I leave them behind to continue their projects, typically in the hands of capable peers or mentors. As my wife has described my field site, both the atmosphere and physical environment resembles the hybrid of a college campus and a summer camp. I’ll be sharing plenty more about this while I’m on site, just a few weeks away. (Gaaah! Not ready!)

If there’s a meltdown in my absence, or if a hole pops up in my schedule, then I might return back to the forest before the summer ends. But otherwise, much of my mentorship is conducted via skype and email. Which is no small task. I don’t supervise my students doing their field projects as closely as I could, but I have found that giving students with great judgment latitude to make decisions works out really well. I don’t allow students with less-than-great judgment to work independently in the rainforest. I’ve gotten pretty good at picking out the right students in advance, with the help of my colleagues, but I also intentionally occasionally take chances on students who I think might be deserving of a the opportunity. I’ve gotten burned occasionally, including last summer when I had to send a student home after just a few days.

I don’t think I could or would want to spend my summer in my lab. It’s glorious outside, and I want to travel, often in the guise of science, and I also want to spend lots of time with my family. So, when I’m not at my field station, I’m often working at home. There’s no shortage of writing projects that need my attention. If I were in the lab with students all summer, when would I be able to write?

Research in community colleges?

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The base teaching load at community colleges is typically five lecture courses per semester. They teach nearly as much as K-12 teachers (who have the most challenging and most important job ever).

Faculty in community colleges aren’t expected to do research.

That doesn’t stop some community college faculty members from doing some research. Heck, there’s a book about it that you can read online.

As a “best practice” in undergraduate education, engaging students in research in the context of the curriculum is thought to be a very effective teaching tool. It’s much better than assigning a term paper, or doing a cookbook lab, or having a classroom discussion. Having students engage in original investigations to learn something new about the world actually helps them learn more of the information that they’re supposed to learn in their courses.

Some community college faculty have moved into the job sideways even though they were pursuing job at a 4-year campus that includes research. I know a number of faculty members that, after a postdoc, and then years of adjuncting as freeway flyers from one teaching gig to another, took a full-time position at a community college. They did this for financial and personal stability, and (I surely hope) because they like teaching. But they didn’t give up research by choice. They just wanted a steady gig and were tired of the postdoc/adjunct turntable. So, it makes sense that they’d pick up a permanent teaching slot, so if they could, especially if it was beneficial for the students.

While some research-interested faculty end up at community college, most in this profession actively chose it as a passion. These folks, if they do research within the curriculum, have the primary purpose of enhancing student learning, I would think.

I’m thrilled about the idea, if only because we get so many transfers to my university from excellent community colleges. I’d love for students to be exposed to research before arriving to us, to help us identify the ones to work with more closely.

Here’s something else to chew on. The teaching load at community colleges is a 5/5. On my campus, it’s a 4/4. That’s not really that different from a community college. This makes you wonder how our university can reasonably expect substantial scholarship from its faculty if they’re teaching nearly as much as faculty who have no such expectations of them at schools just next door. (And those campuses have more technicians running things, with bigger budgets, too.) Are public comprehensives with a 4/4 load not that different from community colleges? Well, with respect to teaching loads, sure, that does seem to be the case. The philosophy, approach, facilities and acceptability of research might vary, and these differences might make or break research programs in the long run.

Ant science: Thievery persists in a world of plenty

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I can forgive people for overlooking the fascinating behaviors of the thieving ant Ectatomma ruidum. There are so many ants with peculiar and amazing features (like agricultural ants, and those with rampaging armies). Some just fly under the radar.

Here’s the latest from my lab.

A few decades ago, Mike Breed and his students were studying behavior, and one part of the work involved using baits to feed ants. He noticed that sometimes, when a colony brought a good piece of bait underground, a different ant took it out of the colony, and carried it in a straight line to a neighboring colony. With a set of careful observations, excavations, labeling workers and some nestmate recognition chemistry, he described a unique phenomenon.

The sneaky thief

The sneaky thief

Colonies of E. ruidum steal from one another, all the time. They have a caste of specialized thieves that spend their time hiding out in a particular neighboring colony. When some good food comes along, they bring it back to their own colony. The best food items move around from one colony to another like uneaten Christmas fruitcake, only everybody wants it instead of passing it off.  The behavior of the thieving has been worked out well by the Breed lab, in a great set of papers. (And, I’m biased, because Mike Breed was my own PhD advisor, the best one I could have had.)

I wanted to understand how this thieving can persist, with everybody stealing from everyone else. This phenomenon makes a jumble of most game theoretical models, because everyone seems to be cheating, all of the time. What makes thieving happen? If they have plenty of food, do they stop thieving?

We ran an experiment in which we gave the colonies as much food as they ever could have wanted. It turns out that the rate of thieving did slow down.

The surprising result was that they kept continuing to steal from their neighbors, even when they had everything they could ever want.

This raises many more questions about the function, evolution and maintenance of thievery. We’re actively working on that, with some work finished and more in the works, and I’ll share more as it comes out.

How this project happened in my teaching institution

I’ve long wanted to work on the ecology of thieving, ever since I helped out on a project with these ants. However, I never had the time to set aside.

In 2008, a friend of mine had a PhD student who was working on poneromorph ants, who was interested in getting some time in the tropics. I was down in Costa Rica with a group of undergrads at the field station, and Benoit Guénard joined us a few weeks. He was a tremendous influence on my students with his enthusiasm, natural history talent, and the most robust work ethic I’ve ever seen. Seriously. We knocked out this project together, with Benoit taking the lead.

So, it took 4 years to get this paper out. In that time, Benoit completed his dissertation on the invasion of the Giant Needle Ant and also has done some top notch work on the macroecology of ant diversity patterns. Once his dissertation was out of the way, he focused on writing up this thieving experiment that we started early on in his dissertation. (I also have a few other collaborations with grad students, and former grad students, that are also awaiting a writeup. We’ll get to them, eventually. There are worse things than a backlog of papers that need to be written.)

Mentorship = Training?

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When I was an undergraduate in the early ’90s, I didn’t do much research. But when the students in my midst were doing research, they weren’t being “mentored.” They were getting “research training” or doing “undergraduate research.”

Nowadays, we “mentor.”

Is there any difference in what we are doing now compared to what people used to do, or is it just an evolution of nomenclature?

Here’s exhibit A. On Dynamic Ecology and elsewhere, they were having fun comparing historical trends with Google’s n-grams. I couldn’t resist cooking my own up:

Google n-gram of the use of the terms "undergraduate research," "research training" and "mentorship" in books

Google n-gram of the use of the terms “undergraduate research,” “research training” and “mentorship” in books over time

Oddly enough, the rise and fall of “undergraduate research” corresponds well with the use of that dated term to refer to female college students, “coed”:

ugrescoed

The way I read this, there was a steady climb in “research training” after World War II. On the other hand, the popularity of the term “undergraduate research” tracks disco on the airwaves, or the push for the Equal Rights Amendment. “Mentorship,” though, has steadily climbed since the 1980s, following the wake of “undergraduate research.” I won’t tell the people at CUR if you don’t tell them.

I think what we are doing, on a day to day basis in our labs with our students, hasn’t substantially changed ever since the term “undergraduate research” was popularized.

The term “mentorship” is broadly applied to many circumstances. It’s not just used for undergraduate research. (In 30 Rock, Jack Donaghy was Liz Lemon’s “mentor.”). However, the rise of the term in general does seem to have displaced “undergraduate research” off the radar.

I have to admit that I’m partial to the notion that “mentorship” is different in philosophy than “training.” In the context of training Master K-12 science teachers to help new teachers being inducted into the profession, I’ve gotten some exposure to training in a formalized program that shows people how to mentor, called “Cognitive Coaching.” I bet the Cognitive Coaching people will disagree with me, but this is mostly about learning how to mentor, by learning how to truly listen well and coach someone through a learning process or challenge. I was skeptical of the whole concept at first, but let me tell you that every person I know who has gone through the training is very positive about it and says it was helpful, and these are people who don’t like to have their time wasted.

I can train someone. Mentorship is more difficult, because it takes more patience. Mentorship requires that you help someone figure it out for themselves when they can. Training is just showing someone how to do it and make sure they copy well.

I aspire to the practice of mentorship. I’m not a patient person, but I try. Let’s hope the change in language reflects a change in practice. However, I wouldn’t recommend that the Council for Undergraduate Research change its name to feature the role of Undergraduate Mentorship more prominently.

Undergraduate research offices: what makes one work well?

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Many universities – of all conformations and sizes – have a special center or office dedicated to undergraduate research. It’s a nice idea.

On some campuses, they are tremendously helpful. On others, I’ve seen or heard that they’re more of a hindrance than a help. Some campuses don’t have one. That’s a good thing if the office would be unhelpful, or a bad thing if the nonexistent office would be successful.

The scopes of these undergraduate offices vary, depending on how well they’re funded, and what level of buy-in they have from the administration and faculty. I actually haven’t had the benefit of having the services of any one of these offices yet, though I’ve worked with colleagues at many universities who have talked to me about their experiences. (I also have mentored students from schools with these offices.)

On the whole, I’ve heard more complaints than praise, but considering that our species is wont to complain, I imagine that by the existence of praise, a lot of these offices are doing fine. A colleague of mine once got a great bottle of wine for just submitting a grant that included undergraduate research. She didn’t complain.

Here is a partial list of things that the office can do:

  • Track data and progress on undergraduate research projects
  • Provide support for undergraduates, with respect to writing, test preparation, workshops
  • Coordinate lecture series
  • Promote and facilitate grant-writing to support undergraduate research.
  • Facilitate and advertise selection of students applying for undergraduate research programs (REU, MBRS, IRES, RISE, McNair)
  • Provide support to PIs of grants involving undergraduate research
  • Support (financially and otherwise) faculty mentoring undergraduates
  • Coordinate an undergraduate research-related events (like a poster session)
  • Direct an program that funds undergraduate research projects with internal funds
  • Provide space for research students to gather
  • Provide administrative support for project coordination

Sometimes these offices are run out of, or in coordination with, the offices of sponsored programs on campus. sometimes they’re separate entities that are run with distinct budget lines. I think the latter might allow for more latitude for the center to focus on its mission. What is that mission, though?

Often, what these offices do is murky and there is disagreement about the best use of the resources of the offices. I think that these conflicts arise from fundamental differences in the purpose of undergraduate research on campuses. Sometimes, there is a disagreement about what constitutes research itself.

It is mostly established that undergraduate research enhances the educational enterprise, and coursework that includes genuine and novel inquiry results in better learning. Some administrators and faculty have this as a primary goal, as a way of increasing retention, decreasing time to graduation, and promoting “best practices.” Some, on the other hand, see undergraduate research as an enterprise to prepare students for graduate school, and as having inherent value regardless of its effect on other aspects of academic life on campus. Others see undergraduate research as a mechanism for conducting a research program, and if a the campus is full of undergraduates, then “undergraduate research” just means “research.” On some research campuses, the office might even protect undergraduates from being the serfs of their labs.

I don’t think we all can agree on a definition of undergraduate research, though such definitions do exist. I say that research means that original scholarship is being conducted. If students are involved in research projects that are not intended to make new discoveries, then these in fact are not research projects. They’re merely learning exercises.

Moreover, scholarship itself is only useful if shared with the academic community. If a student develops new knowledge but that knowledge isn’t disseminated to the community of researchers in that field, then the research project was not a success. In my view — and I recognize that this is a minority view on teaching campuses — if a student research project doesn’t eventually make it to press, then it is not clear if it was genuine research.  It was clearly research training. Keep in mind that pilots can go through stages of flight training without ever leaving the ground, and we go through earthquake safety training without having an earthquake.

So, are undergraduate research centers supposed to promote undergraduate research training, or undergraduate research itself? This is not idle discussion because it affects the decisions about how resources get allocated.

This distinction is tied to the heart of the notion of what happens on a teaching-centered institution. Is faculty research just there to keep the teaching instrument sharp, or are faculty expected to be active scholars? If it is the latter, then faculty are doing students a disservice if they’re not fully engaging them in opportunities for genuine research that are already taking place.

So how do you know if undergraduate research centers are successful? Many institutions use vague accounting, listing the number of students reported to participate in projects. More concretely, other metrics include the number of publications with undergraduate authors, the number of students employed to do research in the summer full-time and part-time during the academic year, or the long-term professional outcomes of the students. Others will count the number of dollars spent on student research; some administrators will be counting indirect cost recovery. The best metrics depend on the mission.

So, perhaps when building such an undergraduate research center, focusing on the mission is a critical starting point. You can’t get everyone to agree, but you need to clarify what the center is doing, and also why it is doing it. Consensus is always good, when possible.

If you have an undergraduate research center, could you remark on what you think works and doesn’t work? If you were in charge (or, if you are) what would you do if you could, and what would you not do?

Training vs. productivity. What’s your currency?

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In a big lab, research gets done through the training of grad students and postdocs. The lab simultaneously fulfills its research mission and meets the “broader effect” agenda of developing the scientific workforce. Training and productivity are mutually compatible.

Granted, some PIs – often those that have the most effective training programs – do lots of independent work and their research happens separate from their students. Regardless, the training of students and the production of research aren’t in conflict.

Theoretically, this statement applies to labs in teaching schools. However, it’s not necessarily the case in practice.

I suspect science faculty – at least senior faculty at teaching schools – can be sorted into three pools:

  • Those who think that their main research responsibility is to mentor student researchers and provide them with high quality experiences to further their careers. The publication of research is an important and useful product of the research experience.
  • Those who think that their main research responsibility is to conduct and publish research and be a part of the scientific community. The mentorship of students and their future success as scientists is an important and useful product of the research experience.
  • Those who think that research distracts from quality teaching. If you can find the time for it, that’s okay as long as it doesn’t harm the students.

Is this an overgeneralization? It might be.

In an attempt to pin a theory on this (overgeneralized) concept, perhaps these perspectives form the axes of a triangular continuum (in ecology, like CSR theory or Holdrige life zones), “productivity,” “training” and “emphasis on the classroom.”

When new faculty start their jobs, maybe they start near the middle of the continuum space, or wherever the departmental culture requires for tenure. As they gain experience and a string of successes and failures of various kinds, they may gravitate to one of the corners. (I should add that an emphasis on training, research, or the classroom doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is better at that particular thing. For example, someone who says that student training is paramount might not necessarily serve their students well.)

Another theoretical framework could be taken from optimal foraging theory. Faculty members can have different currencies for their decisions. For example, when a bird is foraging, is it trying to collect the highest energy food, or trying to collect the most nutrients? Or is it trying to maximize net energy gain (and thus balance food collection with calories spent foraging)? Or is it trying to minimize predation risk? These are all different possible currencies that an  individual could select when making decisions.

Faculty members have different currencies when pursuing their research agenda. Some will seek to maximize grant money or publications, others will seek to increase the quality of student training, or the number of students heading to graduate school. Some will be seeking to maximize scientific discovery, and others are trying to have the most fun possible. Some might be trying to maximize their free time to go play with their pets.

With respect to how research happens in the lab, I think there are two common currencies that undergraduate faculty mentors choose: One is Research Productivity (a composite of publication quantity and quality) and the other is Student Training (a composite of the number of trained students and their entry into top labs in grad school).

The choice of this currency isn’t made because people love productivity or student outcomes per se. Instead, they may love the exhilaration of research and all that it entails (in my case, ants in the rainforest and all their amazing little quirks), and they may love working with their students on a day to day basis and watching them grow and succeed (which cam be spectacular in a way that words fail to describe).

To put it a different way: do you want to do research for the sake of doing the research and all that it entails, or are you doing it as an avenue for training students to be an effective educator and improve student outcomes? These two priorities, of course, are mutually compatible. However, when making decisions on a day to day basis, what is your currency?

Both perspectives, in my view, are valid and useful for the missions of most schools. I posit that a department might work best when it has faculty with diversity of currencies, with mutual respect of each others’ differing choices. A successful department might not require maximal diversity, but needs at least adequate representation of the major functional roles. When you don’t have that functional diversity in a department, things don’t work as well.

To illustrate this principle, here’s a story, slightly modified to protect the innocent: At a field station, I once shared a bottle of rum with a colleague. (This has happened plenty, but only once did it lead to this particular story from at least 10 years ago.) He was mostly a research-for-research’s sake kind of guy, and he was working in a small college in which others focused on research as a vehicle for student training. He would have to have been a top-notch scholar on his campus, I imagine. He told me how he had trouble getting promoted to full professor, because his department didn’t approve of how he conducted his research program. He eventually received promotion, accompanied with a reprimand. Apparently, he needed to involve more students in his research. The odd thing is that he actually did include students in his research, quite a bit.

This probably seems like an odd story if you haven’t taught in a teaching institution. Similar toxic situations can evolve when newly hired research-active faculty may raise the bar on unproductive faculty, or in a department focused heavily on productivity, and some scientists take care to mentor a small number of students with lots of attention, at the cost of productivity. (And, of course, at research institutions, departments focused on productivity don’t appreciate faculty who want to focus more heavily on classroom teaching.)

Behavioral ecologists have found that animals may switch currencies, depending on the environmental context.

In a low research environment such as my campus, resources cannot be acquired without a moderate to high level of productivity. Frankly, since my campus doesn’t provide me with the resources (time, space, funds) to do any student research training whatsoever, it would be very difficult to accomplish this task unless it’s built on a backbone of productivity. Moreover, successes in student training are not specifically valued or rewarded by the institution (even if it is an explicitly stated priority), whereas bringing in grants is given high priority. So, I don’t have the option to focus primarily on student training, because if I did that too much, I would not have resources to support my students. Though I’m at an undergraduate institution, I need to run my lab like at a big university if I am to get anything done, because we don’t have any other way to support our students.

My own currency, then, is productivity, though this does seem to maximize student training, at least in my current low-resource environment. In an environment where faculty are provided resources to mentor student researchers (time for mentorship, modest supply funds, and a stipend or salary for student research), then a currency switch might make sense. This might explain why small liberal arts schools are known for placing so many students into top graduate programs, not just in relative frequency but in absolute numbers. There, an emphasis on a high quality research experience might serve the students best.

Perhaps the best environment for a budding undergraduate researcher is to be mentored by a graduate student in a big research lab. You will have access to fancy resources and that important pedigree, plus quality time with someone more experienced than you, and lots of feedback and an opportunity to learn. (So far, two of my former undergraduate mentees have moved on to faculty positions at universities, both of whom coauthored a piece of my dissertation. That’s a stronger record than with I’ve had since becoming a professor whose job it has been to mentor undergraduates.)

Perhaps NSF and NIH should include salary for an undergraduate mentee for every graduate student on a project? That might be the best, and a very cheap, way to make more scientists.

Undergraduate first authorship?

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When undergraduates are conducting their own research projects in your lab, should first authorship be one of the main goals of mentorship?

This isn’t common, but it happens. (I’ve met several such undergrads at conferences.) If you work in a research institution, the event would be fun thing to lightly celebrate.

At teaching schools, this would be ultimate evidence of a top-notch operation. It probably would look better for your undergrad to be first author than to be sole author yourself, or better than having several undergrads as coauthors. It could potentially seal the deal on the scholarship expectations for tenure or promotion, especially in an institution that only expects one or a few papers before tenure. Off campus it wouldn’t look like much, but on campus it would be a big frickin’ deal.

Here is the rub: It takes much more of the mentor’s time for the student to be first author than if the mentor just wrote the paper on one’s own. It requires frequent individual meetings, revision of draft after draft, lots of advising about literature review, reading and placing the work in context. Even if the mentor does the final analyses and results and makes the figures (which wouldn’t preclude first authorship in my view), the rest of it is probably a long slog, even if the student is talented and motivated. Some manuscripts are long slogs even without undergrads doing the writing. It could be a joyful process, but simultaneously time-intensive.

I’ve never known an undergraduate to expect first authorship unless the mentor is the one who generates, and reiterates, the expectation. I regularly express this expectation among my students who clearly own their projects. I create a specific set of tiered expectations, first with lots of reading, then generating a set of specific questions for the manuscript and an introduction leading towards it.  Then, well, then… umm…. I’ve never gotten any further than that.

I admittedly set the initial bar high. It takes persistence for anybody to write their first manuscript, especially as an undergrad. I don’t want to have the process drag on for months and years only for a student to drop the ball. So, if the student is up to the first task with gusto, then we proceed. This limits an unnecessary investment.

I would love it if one of my students wrote their own paper and became first author. I’d be over the moon. (I think it might actually be happening this semester for the first time, though I’ve said this before.) Some students are too busy and consistently fail to meet deadlines, and various deadline extensions. Others change their priorities. Others have moved on to grad school and their PIs think they should leave the manuscript behind. Some students might decide that it’s ready, even though it’s not, then get frustrated and give up.

Most of my students don’t even get past the first filter. They stall at the first stack of reprints and come unprepared to discuss them. Clearly, if student authorship is my main goal, I could provide even more care and feeding to students, with more and smaller tiers of expectations. I could be doing the job better.

My first priority when supervising research is to make sure that the work gets finished and published. Because my lab relies on students to generate most of the data, we can’t afford to have students spinning their wheels on projects that result in half-completed projects or data that can’t be used. I’m the only one in the operation who is equipped to ship a manuscript out the door on schedule. I’m also equipped to mentor students through the process of doing it themselves, but this would take more resources and limit productivity.

I want my students to benefit the most they possibly can from being in my lab. In my view, that benefit isn’t the the opportunity to write their own paper. It’s being an actual co-author on an actual paper that comes to press. I could carefully mentor, cajole, coddle and push, and get students to write papers once in a long while. Or I could write a bunch more myself. Without much conscious thought into the process, I’ve fallen into the latter approach.

Perhaps it’s crass to say that I favor creating a productive lab over careful individual mentorship of students leading their own projects to publication. At some liberal arts schools, that’s heresy. However, what I really want to offer students is the opportunity of being in a successful lab, and the fact that I’m writing most of the manuscripts lets this happen. If I didn’t write up student projects, then productivity would take a bit hit. Nobody has suggested that this approach is exploitative of students, and given standard criteria that people apply to authorship, I’m relatively generous with students.

Ultimately, I think my approach offers a much greater benefit to students, and to a greater number of students as well. If my success is measured by the professional trajectories of my students, then I’ve been doing just fine.

Research labs, even in teaching institutions, need outside validation. Outside the microcosm of my campus, nobody gives a hoot about student outcomes. Even NSF cares much more about pubs than the quality of student training (but that’s another post of its own).

Have you had an undergrad write their own paper? Have you been tempted to slap their name as first author even if they haven’t? How do you measure your success as a mentor? Does tenure change the approach? How does departmental climate matter?