In the courses that I teach I’m always on the look-out for current news stories that are directly related to course content. One source that I’ve found to be a great source for these particular stories is the app Flipboard. They have a science section which is a great source for stories being covered by the popular media. Below are a collection of stories aggregated by the app within the past 24 hours.
If you teach a virology course, spending some time talking about the recent discovery of vials containing smallpox in Maryland would be directly applicable to the course content and will likely grab the attention of your students.
Talking about plant dispersal in your botany course? EarthSky has written a great summary of an article about how migrating Arctic shorebirds are spreading mosses and liverworts to new areas of North and South America. The plants may hitch a ride in the feathers of the birds.
Really into amphibians and conservation biology? Check out this Associated Press article on the hellbender; a giant salamander that is rapidly declining in population in the United States.
If invertebrates are more your thing, you’ll be amazed to watch the video of a purple siphonophore in this article from the Huffington Post.
I do a section in my Endosymbiosis class where I talk about all kinds of amazing and gross parasites. Talking about how a targeted eradication effort has almost wiped out the guinea worm in Africa would be a neat way to talk about how public health efforts are changing our ecosystems and the natural world around us.
I’ve just given biological examples above, but the app collects stories related to many areas of science and engineering that could be used to bring your course content to life.
Feel free to share other news story resources that you use for course material or for general interest in the comments below.
I teach a fourth year undergraduate course on the origin of life on Earth and endosymbiotic theory. I use my first lecture as an opportunity to highlight some of the interesting material that we will be covering that semester and to get the students hooked on the class. I do this by talking about several examples of endosymbiosis that are present in popular science-fiction movies.
I have a very broad definition of endosymbiosis. I classify it as two organisms living together where one organism lives inside of or is contained by the other organism. Endosymbiotic relationships exist on a spectrum of whether they are inert (e.g. not harmful or helpful), mutualistic (e.g. helpful to both parties), commensal (e.g. helpful to one, but not hurtful to the other), and parasitic (e.g. detrimental to one and beneficial to the other).
The first example that I discuss in class is from the 1979 classic film Alien. I didn’t see this film until I was a teenager and by then several sequels had been released. The first film in the franchise is a great example of how to use suspense effectively to really scare your audience. There is a classic scene in this movie that will ensure that you never look at eating in a mess hall or cafeteria the same way ever again. Long story short, the humans in this film serve as very effective incubators for the alien in a grisly endosymbiotic relationship. The relationship comes to an end in a very messy way. Unfortunately using this reference dates me a bit; usually only 2 out of 44 students have seen the film when I ask for a show of hands. I do have several students tell me after a few lectures that they ended up watching the film and liking it, so Ridley Scott’s royalties continue to serve as a revenue stream for him.
The second example that I use is from the 2009 film Avatar. The aliens in the film, the Na’vi, ride dragon and horse- like creatures. There are several short scenes in the film where a direct interaction between the Na’vi rider and direhorses or banshees is achieved by cilia like structures and a neural interface is created. I talk about this type of cellular interface as an interesting example of communication between two different endosymbionts.
The last example that I use in class is from the 1999 film The Phantom Menace. There is a scene in the film where Qui-Gon Jinn is testing Anakin Skywalker’s blood for midi-chlorians. Midi-chlorians are described as intelligent, microscopic life forms that allow their hosts to detect and use the Force if present in high enough quantities. Anakin’s midi-chlorian count is the highest ever detected and we all know how that turned out!
I use these fake examples of endosymbiosis from film to illustrate and discuss some of the concepts involved in endosymbiotic theory. They represent an interesting way to bring popular culture into the classroom and hold the interest of my students.
I’m always on the look-out for other examples of endosymbiosis in film or television; please leave any ideas in the comments!
I generally think that graduate students under sell their skill sets to employers. Many graduate students think only of technical skills when they are putting together their CVs or resumes and it’s a real shame. They are failing to capture many great skills that they have developed during the course of their graduate degree and are not effective in highlighting these skills in job applications. Many researchers are competent in running gel electrophoresis protocols, but not as many have competencies in project management or leadership. It is these “soft skills” that will make one applicant stand out from the crowd.
I also think that many principle investigators (PIs) don’t realize that transferrable skills are absolutely required by students in this economy in order to get a job. It is no longer enough to be technically competent; employers are looking for what additional value a researcher can bring to the job. I’ve always been dismayed by hearing stories from students about how their supervisor discourages them from attending professional development workshops. I think that this “chained to the bench” attitude has no place in science.
It is for this very reason that I encourage my graduate students to participate in professional development workshops, go to conferences and meetings, collaborate with other scientists, and take part in student government or organizations. These are opportunities that I took advantage of as a graduate student and post-doctoral fellow and they have served me well over the years. Frankly, these experiences (and the skills that I acquired participating in them) have provided me with an edge over the competition at every transition that I’ve faced in my research career.
Let’s talk about some tangible examples using the case study below. This is a case study that I’ve made up, but many graduate students would be doing these activities during the course of their degree.
Janet has just completed her thesis based M.Sc. degree in the laboratory of Dr. Jones. Her thesis involved the identification and cloning of a gene involved in the biosynthesis of digestive enzymes in mouse saliva. She also characterized the enzymatic activity of the protein encoded by the gene. During the course of her project, Janet was assigned two undergraduate summer research assistants by Dr. Jones to assist her with data collection. Janet’s research has led to the publication of 2 peer-reviewed research articles and 3 conference presentations. While in graduate school Janet was employed as a Teaching Assistant for a 3rd year undergraduate biochemistry course laboratory.
Here is a list of the obvious soft skills that Janet has acquired during her degree:
i) Ability to plan, execute, and finish a multi-year project
ii) Ability to supervise and manage staff
iii) Scientific writing skills
iv) Ability to present information in oral/written format
v) Networking skills
vi) classroom management
v) Ability to evaluate the performance of others
vi) Ability to work effectively with a supervisor
Some other skills that Janet might have gained along the way:
i) Teaching skills
ii) Ability to manage a research budget
iii) Ability to receive and use constructive feedback/criticism
iv) Ability to work as an individual and part of a team
v) Troubleshooting and problem solving skills
vi) Ability to adapt to new challenges quickly
You can see that the potential soft skills that could be developed by Janet during the course of her degree are diverse and that I have not included any of Janet’s technical skills (e.g. molecular biology skills, enzymatic characterization techniques, etc.) in this list. Obviously when you are putting together your CV or resume as a student you only want to list soft skills that you believe are relevant and that are your strengths. You also want to think about tailoring your application package to the specific job for which you are applying. When you think about your soft skills in addition to your technical skills, a larger range of job opportunities become available. Casting a wide net in terms of identifying potential employment prospects is a smart move these days.
The hardest part of being a research academic is not the lab work. By far the most challenging part of this job is maintaining effective interpersonal relationships. This holds true whether we are talking about relationships with colleagues or with trainees. When I started my own lab I realized that I hadn’t had any formal training on how to manage scientists and that I’d better get up to speed as quickly as possible if I wanted my research group to be successful and thrive. One book that I found incredibly helpful was Lab Dynamics: Management Skills for Scientists by Carl M. Cohen and Suzanne L. Cohen published by Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory Press. I have the first edition of this book as a paper copy and the second edition of this book in electronic format.
The book starts by asking readers to do some self-assessment in order to identify their own personality type and to identify personal blind spots that you might therefore have in your interactions with other personalities. This is accomplished through several exercises and requires taking some time for personal reflection. They make a strong argument for why you need to manage yourself first before you attempt to start managing others. There is an excellent chapter on negotiation with great “real-world” examples that serve to effectively illustrate the main points.
I’ve often heard it said that managing scientists is like trying to herd cats. Most laboratory research these days is done in teams; gone are the days of the lone wolf scientist. As such, it’s important to master the skills involved in effectively running a lab group composed of scientists with different personalities and motivations. The problems that I experienced or saw while a graduate student and post-doc were almost always due to interpersonal conflicts. Often the strategy of many scientists is to ignore the problem and hope that it goes away. This book contains an excellent chapter on addressing these issues head on in order to avoid escalations and lost time and effort on projects. The book also contains great chapters on managing up (i.e. how to manage your boss) and managing sideways (i.e. interacting with peers). There is a very eye-opening chapter on the various types of dysfunction that can be found in academia based on how the reward system is set up and how to become a better mentor and how to survive as a trainee under these conditions. A great chapter is present in the book that describes the transition to industry for those looking to leave the ivory tower. The final chapter encourages readers to shape their workplaces for the better using the techniques learned in the book in order to improve the culture of academia for everyone. The second edition contains an additional chapter on leading team meetings and a new section on how to deal with difficult people.
I think that any scientist could learn a great deal from reading this book. I have referenced it several times since starting on the tenure-track when I’ve run into a sticky interpersonal situation or when I need a refresher on a particular aspect of mentoring. I believe that it would also be incredibly useful for graduate students and post-docs who are navigating academia.
What comes to people’s minds when you say the word scientist? Chances are most people picture a middle-aged white man toiling away in a dark, mysterious laboratory. He’s likely wearing a lab coat (either pristine white or covered in who knows what) and has crazy hair in need of a good brushing. This is the image of the scientist most often portrayed in film and TV. The socially awkward misfit who is rude and abrasive to everyone he meets and clueless about the real world around him. He’s often up to no good and has no moral compass. If this is what most people really believe about scientists then it is no wonder that scientific progress is under attack in the US and Canada.
I have two kids who like to play with LEGO. I was therefore happy to hear that LEGO would soon be putting out a new series called “Research Institute” that features female scientists. I can only hope that this will serve to counteract the “Crazy Scientist” that appeared in the Series 4 set of minifigs that hits on all of the stereotypical characteristics that I just described above.
I was again reminded of this stereotype this morning when looking at my Twitter feed. It turns out that a Greek yogurt company Chobani has been putting messages under the lids of its products. One read “Nature got us to 100 calories, not scientists.” Understandably many scientists saw this as a direct attack on themselves and on science and mobilized an effective campaign to get rid of the offensive slogan. The company would do well to remember that many scientists are involved in the making of their product, whether they are engineers working to improve efficiency of the production line, biologists working to improve the texture, flavour, and development of the yogurt, or chemists involved in synthesizing the plastic containers that it’s packaged in.
Guess what? Scientists are people too. We have friends and family. We have hobbies. We have morals and beliefs. The person sitting next to you on the bus is a scientist. The person voting in the same poll as you is a scientist. The person coaching your child in little league baseball is a scientist. When I teach and train students in my laboratory I am showing them that the stereotype is incorrect. I specifically address and dismantle it in one of my courses.
I think science is awesome, but then again I am a scientist. I see the beauty and wonder of science all around me every day, and I appreciate that science allows me to live a healthy life by providing me access to clean water, sturdy shelter, nutritious food, and effective health care. What can we do as scientists to halt the disturbing trend of vilifying science and scientists that is in full swing in our neighbour to the south and is starting the sweep north into Canada? Perhaps the place to start is to deconstruct the stereotype of what it means to be a scientist.
The McDonald lab is seeking applicants for the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships program for Fall 2014. The award is valued at $70,000 per year (taxable) for two years (non-renewable). Further details about the program and eligibility requirements can be found at: http://banting.fellowships-bourses.gc.ca/home-accueil-eng.html
Our lab focuses on the electron transport systems of photosynthesis and respiration. Our particular interest is alternative proteins involved in putting electrons into or taking electrons out of these systems. Current research projects focus on the alternative oxidase, plastoquinol terminal oxidase, and alternative NAD(P)H dehydrogenases of bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals. We use various techniques to study the molecular, regulatory, and functional properties of these enzymes. Trainees receive training in bioinformatics, molecular biology, protein biochemistry, and respirometry. We strive to do excellent science and have fun while doing it! I take a strong interest in my trainees’ professional development and encourage them to maintain a positive work-life balance. Further information about the McDonald lab can be found at: http://www.wlu.ca/homepage.php?grp_id=12358&ct_id=2893&f_id=4.
Wilfrid Laurier University is a growing institution in Waterloo, Ontario. The city of Waterloo is a thriving community and technology hub centrally situated in southwestern Ontario with access to other large metropolitan areas including Guelph, London, Hamilton, and Toronto. The Biology department is a tight-knit community and offers many opportunities for collaborations and research support. Research at Laurier is question driven and uses a variety of techniques and approaches to answer hypotheses through investigation at multiple levels of biology (e.g. molecular, cellular, physiological, ecological, evolutionary). Our trainees leave with a solid biological background, the ability to use critical thinking to address important challenges and issues, and are prepared to succeed in a variety of career paths.
An application package consisting of a CV, all postsecondary education transcripts (can be unofficial versions), a one-page description of career aspirations and rationale for your desire to pursue a postdoctoral research experience at WLU with me (highlighting the benefits expected with respect to fulfilling career aspirations), and a 3-4 page research proposal must be sent to Dr. McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org by midnight on July 18, 2014.
The successful candidate will be expected to put together a complete application for the internal competition at Wilfrid Laurier University and submit it by August 22, 2014. Further details are available at: http://www.wlu.ca/page.php?grp_id=36&p=24457. Applicants will be notified of the pre-selection results by September 3, 2014. Successful applicants will be asked to submit their final application by September 24, 2014.
One characteristic that is very valuable to have as a tenure-track academic is excellent organizational skills. This job makes multiple demands on your time and is a real juggling act; keeping all of those balls up in the air at the same time is tricky business. I have found that it is very worth my while to discover and invest in tools that help me to maintain order in the face of chaos.
One tool that I have found to be indispensable is the label maker. I kid you not! Label makers have come a long way since the models of my youth. I remember vividly using archaic models with the alphabet dial on the top that worked by punching letter imprints into hard plastic. Very clunky- but strangely satisfying.
The current brand that I use is by Dymo and is their middle of the range model. I like it because you can purchase a wide variety of tape types (e.g. paper, plastic, etc.), and colours. I find the base model to be a bit clunky and the top of the line model has bells and whistles that I don’t need. Refill tapes are widely available and reasonably priced.
My colleagues seem puzzled by my love for the label maker and I’ve been the subject of gentle mocking for this proclivity. However, if you read any good productivity book or guide you will see that the label maker features prominently as a must have tool. On a day to day basis I use my label maker to label file folders. Although the bulk of my work occurs electronically, I still require paper file folders to keep track of invoices, budgets, project plans, notes from student meetings, teaching materials, grant applications, etc. A label maker allows me to label these files cleanly and professionally and makes them easy to find and identify in my filing cabinets. The label maker has also come in handy in the lab. When I first moved into the lab and organized it I labelled all the drawers with content labels. This helps me to remember where all of the gel electrophoresis equipment is stored, but has also helped to familiarize my students to the lab and has trained them to properly put away equipment. This saves time and money. If you don’t already have one, invest in a label maker; you’ll be glad that you did.
I have just made it through the deluge of reference letter requests that occurs annually from January to April. I am relatively new to the act of writing reference letters for students and have some words of wisdom to share based on my personal experiences.
1. Create a policy for academic reference letter requests and stick to it. Useful things to think about are who you will write letters for. For example, I only write letters for students who have: i) taken 2 or more classes with me and performed well in the courses, or ii) taken one or more classes with me, but have built a professional rapport with me by visiting office hours regularly, or iii) performed research in my laboratory. In order to write a solid reference letter I need to know the student and be able to talk about their particular strengths and weaknesses. I also let students know that reference letters need to be requested 1-2 weeks in advance of the deadline so that I have time to put together a strong letter.
2. Be honest with the student if you cannot write a strong reference letter for them. This can happen for a variety of reasons. You may not know the student well enough, you do not have the time to write the letter, or you may think that the program and the student are not a good fit. In these cases let the student know that you cannot provide them with a reference letter. If you feel that it is appropriate you can suggest other people who might be more supportive letter writers. You do not do the student any favours by writing a luke-warm reference letter.
3. Require students to provide relevant support materials to you in order to help you to craft your letter. I ask most students to provide me with a resume/CV, an unofficial record of academic transcripts, and information about the program that they are applying to. These materials allow me to make a strong case for the student in my letter. I also make it the job of the student to ensure that I receive any electronic links etc. that might be required for completing on-line reference letter submissions. If you see something in the student’s materials that should be corrected do them the courtesy of pointing it out and offering advice for improvement.
4. Write the strongest and most honest letter of reference that you can. Submit the letter on time. Confirm with the student that you have submitted your letter. I have been on the receiving end of poor and late reference letters from other academics and it is an embarrassment to the profession. If you agree to write a reference letter then you owe it to the student to do the best job that you can. I also ask students to keep me updated and let me know if or when they receive acceptance or interviews for programs or positions so that I can share in their success!
We are fortunate in Canada to live in a country with an abundance of natural resources. The natural resource that will be most valuable in the future is fresh water. In many ways water is the essence of this country. Water is life. Water is transportation. Water is industrial processing. Water is power. Water is precious and should not be wasted. Water should be respected. Often in Canada we take water for granted because there is so much of it. Water leaks are a big deal. Whether they are a dripping sink tap, a water main break, or a flash flood they need to be repaired as quickly as possible. Sometimes you fix the drip by caulking or taping it up, sometimes you need to replace piping infrastructure, and sometimes you need to use sandbags.
Often when issues facing women in science are discussed we invoke the metaphor of a “leaky pipeline” . This leaky pipeline hemorrhages women at each level of academia at every step of the way. I am tired of the leaks and I want them repaired. I do what I can by wielding my plumber’s tape and caulk gun to plug some holes; I mentor and advocate for women in science. I fully recognize that I will not be able to patch the pipeline by myself; but I can call attention to the holes when I see them and demand that others help me to stem the flood of women out of science.
Today I read a blog post at University Affairs that made me angry. It made me angry because the stories presented there are depressing examples of the reality of the “leaky pipeline” for women in science in Canada. It made me angry because I had extremely similar experiences with the incompatible and archaic policies of NSERC scholarships and fellowships and the federal employment insurance program in 2002 during the pregnancy and birth of my first child. It made me angry because I had hoped that a decade later these discriminatory practices would have been abolished.
I want to tell you my story as a cautionary tale. I can tell you my story because it is a success story and because I did not leak out of the pipeline. I need to tell you my story as a call to arms because I am tired of remaining silent.
A year and a half into my Ph.D. program at the University of Toronto (Scarborough) I made the conscious decision to start a family. I did not make this decision lightly. I thought that I fully understood the challenges that lay ahead and was resolved that my career choice was not going to dictate my reproductive choices. I was fortunate to conceive very quickly. Seeing the positive pregnancy test was wonderful and terrifying at the same time. I waited until I was through my first trimester of the pregnancy before disclosing my pregnancy to my research supervisor. I will be forever grateful to him for being completely supportive at that time in my career. I dreaded having that conversation for weeks and was so relieved to know that I had his support. Had he not been supportive I would have leaked out of the pipeline.
At that time U of T had a great deal of information available on parental leave policies for staff and faculty, but no information was available for graduate students. I was holding an NSERC PGS-B scholarship and working as a teaching assistant. I started making plans for parental leave very early on in my pregnancy and was horrified by the incompatible policies that I discovered existed between NSERC and the employment insurance program. There was, and still is, the expectation that NSERC award holders “limit the number of hours of employment per 12-month period to 450 hours” and that award holders “not hold full-time employment during any period of time in which you hold the NSERC award” . This makes it impossible for pregnant female students and post-docs to work the 600 hours required to qualify for parental leave through the employment insurance program . It is worth noting that I had been paying into the employment insurance program for 12 years ever since I first started working at the age of 16. I ended up working three teaching assistant positions in the fall of 2012 while 7-9 months pregnant in order to squirrel as much money away in an attempt to support myself while on maternity leave. I also found out by accident from another graduate student that NSERC does provide financial support to graduate students taking parental leave , but would have been completely ignorant of that policy had she not told me about it. Another frustration was that taking leave from my program had to be done on a semester time scale. Despite the fact that my baby was due in November, I had to start my leave from my graduate program in September. To add insult to injury, when I went on parental leave I lost my student status and then got a call from the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) and was notified that I had to start paying back my undergraduate student loans. So there I was with no financial support from the federal government from EI for paid maternity leave on the one hand, and the demand from the provincial government from OSAP that I start paying them back! What should have been a time of great personal happiness turned into a living nightmare and almost destroyed my academic career. The only way I was able to stay in the pipeline was because I had a partner who generated enough income to support us during the 9 months of parental leave; otherwise I would have leaked out.
It is my belief that these policies actively discriminate against female and male graduate students and post-docs wanting to start a family. Despite the policy horror story that was my first pregnancy, my partner and I decided to have a second child. This time around I was smart and worked part-time in a call centre while wrapping up my Ph.D. in order to bank the 600 hours needed to qualify for employment insurance for parental leave. Had my supervisor not been supportive of me taking on external work I would have leaked out.
Until today, I had thought that my experience was unique; that I was the only one who had experienced it. Judging from the stories in the blog post , this is not so. In contrast to other factors that contribute to the leaky pipeline, I believe that this is an easy part of the “leaky pipeline” to fix. This fix requires changes in policies.
I challenge NSERC to:
1) Either change your financial support policy to provide support for students and post-docs that is equal to EI benefits available to working Canadians taking parental leave OR change your policies to allow students and post-docs to work 600 hours per year in order to qualify for EI in the first place. If the training of a diverse population of highly qualified personnel is a priority for research in Canada, then make the policy changes needed to end discrimination against scholars choosing to have families.
2) Better publicize your parental leave policies to institutions, supervisors, students, and post-docs.
I challenge the EI program to:
1) Take into account how long students have been paying into your program prior to becoming post-secondary students or trainees and allow them to access those funds retroactively when they need to go on parental leave OR
2) Reduce the number of work hours that are required by students to qualify for parental leave through EI OR
3) Keep the 600 hour threshold as a requirement of qualifying for parental leave, but allow students to earn these hours within a time window longer than 1 year prior to the leave.
I challenge OSAP to:
1) Accept a leave from an academic program due to parental leave as a valid reason to maintain interest free loan status and not require the repayment of student loans during this time.
I challenge academic institutions to:
1) Update your websites and program materials to make supervisors, students, and post-docs aware of parental leave policies, requirements, and supports.
2) Allow students to take leaves that are not limited to the semester time clock.
3) Advocate for your students and trainees in conversations with government partners and funding bodies.
The “leaky pipeline” is a very real problem for women in science in Canada. We do not need national, provincial, and institutional policies to continue to contribute to the problem; we need them to be part of the solution.
One public service announcement that I remember vividly from my childhood was an anti-drug TV spot. It starts out showing an egg and the announcer ominously says “This is your brain”. The camera then pans over to a skillet; the egg gets cracked, and then comes the classic line “This is your brain on drugs”. My friends and I used to mock that PSA endlessly because of its frying egg metaphor.
Over the years I have come to the realization that my brain is on “Biology”. The amount of time that I’ve spent in school studying and practicing Biology has permanently rewired how I think about and view the world. Most of the time, I am very happy about this effect. Training to be a biologist has allowed me to learn to think logically, troubleshoot, and generate solutions to complex problems. I think that it’s also allowed me to become a better communicator and serves as an excellent creative outlet. I am a scientist and that means that I experience the world through that lens. I like to think that it makes me the life of the party on nature walks; my family would likely disagree. After a careful inspection of the tenth bracket fungus they are ready to move on while I ponder the wonders of carotenoid biosynthesis that might result in that amazing orange colour. I accept that I am a nerd and fully embrace it.
I have also effectively transmitted “Biology brain” to my children. A few years ago we were eating dinner and talking about dinosaurs. I asked my son what colour he thought that dinosaur skin would have been. This was before the amazing work had been done using fossils to look at melanosomes (pigment containing organelles) in order to extrapolate skin and feather colours. He thought about it for a moment and then answered “Brown and green”. I asked him why he thought that dinosaurs would be brown and green. He answered, “Because they needed to use camouflage to avoid being eaten”. I thought that was an awesome answer that made a lot of sense coming from a six year old.
In the past few weeks I’ve attended workshops with colleagues from a wide range of other departments on campus. I am always surprised and delighted to discover the different ways that each of us looks at the world. I think that regularly experiencing these different viewpoints is one of the big perks of being in academia.