Deadlines for undergraduates in research

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Students might not be aware of the time horizons of applications for opportunities. Oftentimes, these things need more advance planning than expected.

Here I suggest timelines for undergraduates doing research and applying to grad school, particularly within the United States. Please make sure that students working with you are aware of these deadlines.

Applying to graduate school

You should be deep into grad school applications at the start of the Fall, one year before you plan to start grad school. Continue reading

Parade of professors or solo scholar?

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There are two basic models for teaching courses and the norm varies a lot depending on the type of ecology course. A single professor was responsible for the majority of classes I took as an undergraduate. However, these days the courses I’m involved with are done by a series of professors for particular subtopics. The contrast has me thinking about the pluses and minuses of these approaches. Continue reading

My path to science

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Two years ago, Meg Duffy told the the story of her path to ecology. It’s a good story, why not go over and read it? I think it might be useful for more folks to tell their own stories. Here’s mine, about how I became an ecologist, with specialities in tropical biology and social insects.

As a kid, I didn’t collect bugs and I wasn’t a nature geek. Continue reading

NSF makes its graduate fellowships more accessible

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The US National Science Foundation has changed a rule for their Graduate Fellowships. As of next year, grad students can only make one attempt at landing a graduate fellowship, which is intended to increase the proportion of awards going to undergraduates. Continue reading

Undergraduate research is many things

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Conversations about “undergraduate research” often involve dispelling misconceptions.

Undergraduate research is not one thing.

What is undergraduate research? It is research that involves undergraduates. That’s all, nothing else. If you want it to mean something else, you might have to spell it out.

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Continue reading

Students say the darndest things!

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Oftentimes, professors make sport of sharing humorously incorrect exam answers. I’ve seen a bunch of these during this end-of-semester grading season.

When students don’t know the answer, they sometimes entertain us with witty, technically correct answers that don’t answer the intended question. (There’s a well-selling book about this. And at least one website, too). But that’s not what I’m talking about. Continue reading

Having “The Talk” with students

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

Teaching Challenges: group projects

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Science is a collaborative effort and in essence, more and more of our scientific effort is done in groups. We come up with projects together, divide the labour, and co-write the papers that come out of it. So the idea of the lone scientist, working away in a solitary lab is really something for the movies rather than reality.

In teaching, group projects not only mimic the reality of what happens ‘for real’* but also provide a valuable learning experience for students. If you’re interested in reading more about the benefits of group work here is a start and here and here offer some tips on how to implement group assignments. 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

After one year as a Visiting Assistant Professor

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This is a guest post by Carrie Woods, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Colgate University. This is a follow up to her post from last year, about starting out in a VAP position.

I just completed my last lecture of my first year as a Visiting Assistant Professor at a liberal arts University. Each semester I got to design my own course and teach three lab sections of a general biology course called Ecology, Evolution, and Diversity. Having graduated in August 2013, this was my first experience in designing and teaching my own course and it was absolutely amazing.

I did stumble a bit at the beginning though. In the fall I taught Plant Physiology, a junior level course of my own design, and had a bumpy start trying to figure out how to teach. Given that all of my post-secondary education has been at research I universities, I assumed the most familiar teaching format I knew – standing in front of students, powerpoint up, throwing information and numbers at them. That was my first lecture. I blew through what I thought would take me three lectures in one hour.

Then I did what anyone in my position would have done: sought advice from fellow faculty. This is a top-notch liberal arts university after all, and I am surrounded by teaching gurus. Within a couple of hours and several meetings with different faculty post-first lecture, I completely changed how I thought about teaching. As per the advice of the faculty, I abandoned my powerpoints (except for complicated images and figures) and returned to the most basic method of teaching: the chalkboard.

My second lecture, I asked what they had learned from my first lecture and, after many mumbles and looks of confusion, I decided to start from scratch and re-teach the first lecture. I was honest and open about it and told them that if I was doing something that confused them, I wanted them to let me know. I used a socratic method and got them engaged and involved by asking questions constantly. I used the chalkboard to write and explain key concepts. The classroom transformed into an open and engaged learning environment. I was happier, my students were happier, and my teaching was way better. The learning curve wasn’t just steep, it was 180°!

Through my Masters and Ph.D., I had so many opportunities to TA courses as a graduate student that I realized my teaching skills were developed for running labs. So the lab sections of the biology course that I ran were much smoother than my Plant Phys course. I shadowed the faculty member who was the coordinator for the course, by which I mean I went to every MWF lecture and to her Monday lab so that my Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoon labs went smoothly. Although it took quite a large time commitment, I learned a lot by doing this and incorporated the same questioning and engaging teaching methods from my classroom into the labs.

With new skills in hand and great feedback from my students in the fall, I designed a CORE science course on agriculture called Food for Thought this spring. By far, this has been my most rewarding teaching experience. The class is for freshmen and sophomores in any discipline. I only have three students from biology the rest being from varying departments – political science, economics, philosophy, English, and sociology. Students discovered biology through the history of agriculture and current farming practices. We examined environmental impacts of farming, GMOs, and had a continuous debate about the global food crisis and how to feed the world. This class (again!) taught me how to be an effective teacher because of the new challenge of teaching non-biology students. The course went so well that I have students knocking on my door asking if I could teach it again in the fall so they could take it. I am so touched.

I am so grateful to have had this experience. I am a much more effective and creative teacher and would recommend this job to anyone looking to better their teaching skills. I liked it so much that I have decided to stay for another year.

Public higher education is not a reward for hard work

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Here in California, there was a measure to officially restore affirmative action to the public university admissions process.

(The movement navigated through our state senate, but then the popular narrative is that the Asian-American community tanked it before public had a chance to vote on it. More here.)

Whenever white folks (or non-Hispanic European, or whatever ‘white’ means nowadays) are opposed to affirmative action, they’re called out on privilege and are told to share fairly with everybody.  This is justifiable in my view. Now, in California, the politicians associated with the Asian community are allied with the white folks that are against affirmative action. Considering that there is no shortage of Asian-Americans getting into our public universities, concerns about privilege should be extended to this demographic category as well.

The status quo remains: we continue to have an underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos in our public universities in California.

Some people get upset because affirmative action decreases their own opportunity. (I know how this feels. In my high school class, the only white person who got into UC Berkeley was the valedictorian. But everybody who was a member of one of the protected categories got in. (This was a small number, because I was at a mostly white private school. I wasn’t poor by any measure, but I was one of the poorest kids at this school.) I didn’t like it, because I didn’t think it was fair. And, well, life isn’t fair. That’s especially true for people who have don’t have avenues for opportunity despite hard work. Like the students who are systematically excluded from our public universities.

Taxpayers should fund K-12 public education because in a civil society, education should be a right and not a privilege. Moreover, we want an educated populace for the betterment of our entire community. And education for everybody in an equitable fashion is an engine of prosperity.

The same principle applies to our public universities.

As a taxpayer in California, I am not (partially) funding the undergraduate education of students because they worked hard. I don’t want to use my money to reward people who deserve it. I’m not giving out prizes for performance. I don’t want my state legislators to do that either.

I want to spend our public dollars in a way that improves the welfare of the state and its populace. I want a state that provides the best education to all of its people. I want my kid to go to school with students that all have a real chance to attend our state’s top universities. And frankly, without affirmative action, most of the children in our school district will have a hard time getting into UC Berkeley because of the systematic disadvantages that they’ve been facing since fetushood.

So, if you’re mad that someone with extraordinarily high grades can’t get into the publicly funded university of their choice, you can stuff it. I want everybody in the state of California to get admitted to our best universities (whichever ones those might be). If you don’t want to share our state universities with fellow Californians that have experienced a long history of disenfranchisement, then you aren’t deserving of a publicly-funded education.

This issue has nothing to do with immigration. It has nothing to do with “hard work.” It has to do with making sure that those the potential to succeed are given the capacity to do so, and that this happens as equitably as possible. That’s the point of affirmative action, because if you base admissions based on grades and test scores, you are perpetuating an inequity. If you don’t see the inequities among our public schools based on socioeconomic and ethnic dividing lines, you’re blind. Without affirmative action, we codify these inequities into the access to universities.

Even the opponents of affirmative action understand this point, unless they’re stupid or ignorant. But they might not like it because it hurts their own demographic group. Yeah, my kid (of Irish-Italian-German-British heritage) has a lower chance of getting into his favorite UC campus because of his background. And I’m okay with that. Because I want him to inherit a state in which people of all backgrounds have access to opportunity, even when they come from underfunded school districts whose students lack a way to get ahead. As people have explained for many decades, you can’t pull yourself by your bootstraps if you don’t have any boots. This is self-evident to all but those with boots.

Since we’ve been failing at providing equal access to quality public education at the K-12 level, the least we can do is to try to make things more fair when it comes to access to higher education.

It’s not about how hard your kid has worked. It’s about the priorities for our state. I don’t want a state that systematically disenfranchises major segment of its populace. I guess if you do want that systematic disenfranchisement, then feel free to fight affirmative action. But don’t try to fool yourself by arguing that it’s about fairness and equity. That’s a transparent sham. If you buy into the fairness and equity argument, then you need to spend some time volunteering in a high-need public school district to remove your blinders of privilege.

 

Our expert advice remains unheeded

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Once in a while, tropical biologists get bot flies. We sometimes find this out while were are in the field. But on five occasions, my students have returned to the US, and then discovered that they are hosting a bot. They all contacted me for advice. I told them a few things, but the most important one was:

Whatever you do, don’t go see a doctor. That could be disastrous.

Nonetheless, three of these students went to the doctor.

The bot fly Dermatobia hominis, that came out of my student's arm while he was sleeping. Photo: T. McGlynn

A mature bot fly larva, Dermatobia hominis, that emerged from my student’s arm while he was sleeping. He intentionally reared this one out and allowed it to pupate. Pencil is for scale. Photo: T. McGlynn

This has always troubled me. Without any additional context, it looks like the students just didn’t trust me, and thought that I’m stupid. At the very least, it shows that they trusted their own intuition over my recommendation based on a long history of experience. It shows that they followed the misinformed advice of family and friends over the judgment of the person who was responsible for the trip to the rainforest.

It shows that when it really really really counts, my guidance ain’t worth much at all to my own students.

I don’t give students this instruction without an explanation. I tell them that nearly every doctor in the US will want to cut the creature out. History shows that bot fly larvae are smarter than doctors. If you present yourself to a US doctor with a bot inside you, the predictable result is that you leave the doctor with your bot inside you. You will also leave without a large chunk of flesh that the doctor removed in a futile attempt to get the bot. Sometimes the bot is killed in the surgery, but not excised, which leads to a rotting carcass and infection, and the need for serious antibiotics. I tell them that, if they can’t get it out using the variety of techniques we’ve discussed, and they feel compelled to go to a medical professional, they must go to a vet and not to a doctor. (The students who did the opposite of my recommendation came to regret their choice, if you’re wondering.)

These bot fly incidents are convergent with a recurring incident in a non-majors laboratory that I have taught. The week before an exam, I hand out a review sheet that specifies the scope of the exam. I then tell the class:

Check out item number three on the review sheet. This is a straightforward question about osmosis. The answer is that the volume of water in the tubing will “increase.” The correct answer to this question is “increase.” Just circle the word “increase” and do not circle the word “decrease.” I’m letting you know the answer to this question now and I guarantee — the odds of this question being on the exam next week are 100%. I promise to you, with all of my heart, that this question will be on the exam word for word, and this one question will be worth 20% of your grade on this exam. You don’t want to get this question wrong, and I’m telling you about it right now. So, be sure to write down in your notes that this question will be on the exam and be sure to remember the correct answer when you see it.

The reason that I’m being really obvious about telling you about this question its that in the past, half of the class has gotten the answer to this question wrong. It’s a simple question, and it addresses the main point of the lab we conducted for more than two hours last week, but still, lot of people got it wrong last semester.

You should know that those students also were told in advance what would be on the exam. Just like I’m telling you right now. They knew that 20% of their exam hinged on remembering one word, “increase,” and still the majority of them got it wrong. I’m telling you this now because I don’t want you to suffer the same fate of those other students. DON’T BE LIKE THE STUDENTS FROM LAST SEMESTER WHO WERE FED THE ANSWER AND THEN GOT IT WRONG THE FOLLOWING WEEK. Just remember that “increase” is correct and the other word is not correct. I’d like you to remember the physical mechanism that explains this osmosis, but more than anything else I’d like you to demonstrate that you can be prepared for the exam and remember this small fact which I am hand-feeding to you right now. I promise to you this exact question will be on the exam Learn from your predecessors, don’t make their mistake. I’m giving you 20% of the exam for free right now, so write this down.

As I give this slightly overwrought speech, the students are paying attention. There is eye contact. They might be note-taking activity. Nobody’s on their phone, and nobody’s chitchatting.

When I administer the exam, more than half of the class circles “decrease” instead of “increase.” This has happened four times, and each time it happens a little piece of my heart dies.

As you can imagine, many of the students in our non-majors class are as disengaged as humanly possible. By no means is this a difficult course, even with low standards, but the fail rate for the corresponding lecture course is about 50%. The students who fail are clearly doing so because they aren’t even making the slightest effort. The reason that I keep giving students that same question over and over, and give them the correct answer over and over, is to give me some reassurance that the wretched performance by so many of the students is not my fault. I do this to grant myself absolution.

In these labs, each week is designed to give students the opportunity to develop their own experiments, find new information on their own, and work together to solve problems. This happens to some degree. But half of the students do not exert the tiniest amount of thought about doing what it takes to pass the exam. Why don’t they even try even the slightest, despite my best efforts to both inspire and feed them the right answers?

The students who fail these exams trust their own intuition, or some other model of behavior, instead of my own advice. If anybody is the person to tell you how to pass the exam, it should be the professor who is telling you the answers to the exam. But in this case, the students weren’t even bothering to look at their notes for five seconds before stepping into the exam. They’ve presumably heard from other people that work is not required for this class whatsoever, or perhaps they don’t care for some other reason. All I know is that no matter what I do, I can’t get these students to care about their grade on the exam. Some are excited about the labs, but not necessarily in passing.

So, what do the bot fly story and the osmosis story have in common? No matter how hard we try, sometimes our students won’t follow our recommendations. At least, not mine.

We are fancy-pants PhD professors, with highly specialized training. We’re paid to be the experts and to know better. That doesn’t mean that our words are prioritized over other words. Anything we might say just ends up in a stream of ideas, most of these ideas just flow out as easily as they flow in. It’s no accident that my teaching philosophy is “you don’t truly learn something unless you discover it on your own.” This is why I focus on creating opportunities for self-discovery in teaching. This is the only way in which people truly learn.

No matter what we professors might say or do about bot flies, or studying for exams, or anything else, other people will rely on their own judgment over our own. Even when the experts are overtly correct on the facts, even smart people often use misguided intuition when making important decisions, even when they are obviously wrong on the facts and the experts are overtly correct.

It’s easier to listen to other people than it is to heed their words. As a professor and research mentor, I’ve given up on the expectation of being heeded. I just work to speed up the process of self-discovery of important ideas. But, for the most part, I still don’t know how to do that. I think it’s an acquired skill, and a craft, and I think I still have a ways to go.

I grew up poor.

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There are two inspirations for my post. First, a conversation over at Tenure She Wrote is really worth reading. Sarcozona started it up with a great post on poverty in the ivory tower and Acclimatrix has added to the conversation with her own personal musings about coming from poverty and class struggles with family. Both are really wonderful/powerful posts and I highly recommend reading them. One thing that struck me was Sarcozona’s call for people to talk about their own experience with poverty. So here I am.

The second inspiration is that I’m currently traveling (a sign of how far I’ve come). I wanted to attend a conference in California, which is 9 hours time difference from where I live in Sweden. Being someone effected by jetlag, that sounded nearly impossible. So I stopped off in Nova Scotia to spend time with my family and give my daughter a chance to see them all too. Then I travelled on alone for the conference. Being home is always a time to reflect on where I come from, and makes these thoughts come even more naturally.

So my confession is that I also grew up poor. It isn’t something I hide but it also isn’t something I talk about often. My parents were teenagers when they had me and so it is difficult to actually talk about my childhood with any generalizations; my parents were growing up as I did. We moved around a lot, they changed jobs and roles, and we didn’t stay poor forever. I never knew the feeling of going to bed hungry and there was always lots of love and fun when I was a kid, so I didn’t feel poor. But we were. I didn’t have the latest, well, most things. A small example is that I had to make do with hand-me-down clothes from my cousin. I can still remember the mix of excitement and dread when those big boxes showed up. Excitement to see what there was but dread because I wouldn’t have much choice in what I would wear for the next year, even if it wasn’t to my liking. We also lived in houses without electricity or running water from when I was about age two to seven. Although there were lots of hippies getting back to the land in Nova Scotia when my parents were, living without modern conveniences and growing your own food was more of a necessity than a social experiment for them.

In many ways my younger years were really magical and for me and my brother, it was often a big adventure. We spent huge amounts of time wandering around in the woods and fields that surrounded the various houses we lived in. I’m sure my deep routed appreciation for the natural world can be directly attributed to the freedom (sometimes/many times forced: “Go play outside!”) I had to explore it. Our vacations were also outside/cheap. We either visited relatives or went camping. As kids, we loved the camping trips, even if it was hard to compare with vacations to Disney that the some of the other kids at school talked about.

Although my family’s financial situation was stable by the time I went to university, they didn’t have a fund to support me to go to school (I have the student loans to prove that). Although there was no pressure in any particular direction I think financial security drove most of my early university education decisions. I wanted to go into healthcare or something that would ensure I got a ‘good’ job afterwards. I started university for a semester and then quit because I couldn’t manage it even with a partial scholarship and a job. I went back to university after working for a couple of years—it allowed me to apply for a loan independently of my parents and therefore be able to afford it. My parents didn’t have the money to help me out with university but made too much for me to qualify for full loans (although to be fair it was me that decided on a university on the other side of the country and I could have stayed in Halifax instead). Even with loans, I worked a lot during my undergraduate years and it took me about six years to finish my degree. I remember seeing opportunities for things like field courses and exchange programs but there was no way I could afford them. I was lucky to get to work with some labs locally and those experiences steered me on the path to research. However, I was jealous of some of the things my richer peers were able to do.

These days, I’m the richest I’ve ever been and my parents are no longer poor either. I don’t want to glorify my childhood but it did instil an appreciation for nature, good healthy food, and getting by with what you have. But I’m happy for my and my parents’ financial freedom. It allows us to travel the distances between us more easily and I don’t worry about grocery bills like I did as an undergrad. I’m glad that my daughter is growing up in a different way than I did. Perhaps more importantly, I’m happy that as a parent, I don’t have to worry so much about money as they did. But having so little at times, meant that a grad school salary actually felt rich to me and I’m amazed that we were able to buy a row house this past year. In some ways the skills I learned from being poor as a kid and then as an undergraduate has made the relatively lower salary I have as a scientist quite manageable for me. But it does mean that I had a very different experience from many of my fellow grad students. I thought seriously about paying for conference travel at times, although for the first time ever my grad school salary was enough to grow a savings account. Having to buy my own car for fieldwork made an impact and money factored into my working locally instead of elsewhere like many I went to grad school with. I don’t mean to say that others were basing their research decisions on their personal funds but it made me nervous to plan a field season far away, not knowing whether I could fund it or not. So my upbringing and relationship to money did/does factor in to how I approach funding research. Mentally, I have a hard time draining accounts (personal or research) because it feels safer to have something tucked away for a ‘rainy day’. So sometimes my reluctance to spend when I have little is something I need to overcome with my research budgets.

Wandering around downtown Halifax has also emphasized some of the relative poverty I came from. It seems like there are lot more empty storefronts then the last time I was here. Nova Scotia is a ‘have not’ province and I’m sure that affects the kinds of opportunities available for students growing up. I certainly noticed a difference when I moved from the county schools I had been attending to the city schools I started in at age 12 (we moved to Halifax then). I had a lot of really amazing teachers who helped lay the foundations for my science career but I’m guessing their access to supplies, etc. was determined by limited budgets in a poorer province. Having grown up poor also means that I walked through a raging snowstorm in downtown Halifax with my four-year old daughter because for some reason I still think paying for a cab is excessive (by the time we came home, we couldn’t have got one anyway because of the road conditions). It was actually quite fun to walk through a shutdown city in the snow and I’m still amazed at what a little trooper my girl can be. But it is a reminder that no matter how different my life is, some things are hard to change.