Science Moms

There have been some great articles on-line this week talking about the realities of being a female and/or Mom in science and technology.

Meg Duffy tackles the logistics of pumping breast milk at work and sending bottles to daycare in today’s post over at Dynamic Ecology . This is a practical post about an important topic that doesn’t get talked about a lot. I give Meg props for making this work. I found that after my kids started daycare we had to switch to formula during the day due to a lack of supports for pumping/breast feeding on my campus. I just wasn’t willing to pump in a nasty bathroom stall and probably would have gotten bizarre looks if I had asked about a lactation room.

An awesome article posted yesterday by Rebecca Schuman in The Chronicle of Higher Education on how Academe Is a Lousy Family Planner. Rebecca has articulated very well how I felt as a graduate student starting a family. Looking back I’m amazed that I was so strong (or naïve) to start my family during that phase of my career. It was tough, but I have no regrets and the timing worked out exceptionally well for me. Start your family when you are ready; do not let the academy dictate your reproductive choices.

Jessica Valenti has an interview in theguardian with Anita Sarkeesian about GamerGate and how it has changed her life. The comments kind of say it all and illustrate the point of the article quite effectively.

I’m also pleased to have taken part in @EdenHennessey’s display that highlights the challenges faced by women in STEM. The #DistractinglySexist exhibit is on display @LaurierLibrary for the next month.

Book Review: Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin

Better Than Before book

This book is a fascinating exploration of habits and how one uses them for change and potentially improvement of our lives. There are some pretty interesting insights on offer here in terms of what the author calls “the four tendencies” that could be used to describe how a person deals with outer expectations (those in the environment) and inner expectations (the ones we have for ourselves). This part of the book was really interesting to me as I had no trouble identifying my tendency and the tendencies of some of the people I work and live with. This has given me a lot to think about in terms of managing my lab trainees and my approach to interpersonal relationships with my family, friends, and colleagues. I’m not sure I buy into the idea completely, but it’s a different way of thinking about personality and motivation than anything that I’ve come across before. She also talks a fair bit about “distinctions” which are personal preferences that are hardwired by biology or previous experience (e.g. early risers vs. night owls).

She offers some strategies on how you might try to form and maintain a particular habit. These including monitoring (e.g. using a Fitbit or the app MyFitnessPal to form health habits), scheduling (i.e. setting aside a particular time for a habit), accountability (e.g. telling someone about your habit goals). She talks about getting started, dealing with set-backs or “falling off the wagon”, being struck by “lightning bolts” that cause you to start or give up a habit (e.g. quitting drinking if you find out you’re pregnant), and abstaining vs. moderation in the formation of habits. She describes the various ways that we sabotage ourselves with regards to habits by making things too convenient or inconvenient and failing to set safeguards and distractions from temptation. The section on creating loopholes that allow us to make excuses was especially amusing and insightful. She argues that rewards are not particularly effective because setting a finish line might not yield the positive outcome we expect and that small little treats might be better (this reminded me of training a dog). One of the neatest strategies is pairing where you pair something you don’t like to do with something that you do. A great example was forcing yourself to exercise on the treadmill by pairing it with watching a favourite show or listening to a podcast. The constant theme throughout the book was that each person is different and that what works for one person won’t work for someone else.

This book will be interesting to someone looking to start positive habits or stop negative habits. This might be particularly relevant now for academics as September is just around the corner and heralds in a new beginning.

Funding graduate student travel to conferences

This blog post was prompted by a disturbing post over at Tenure, She Wrote by a graduate student talking about the lack of funding for conferences. I am happy to say that my experiences of conferences as a graduate student were not like the experience that this student is describing, but I was horrified by the situation detailed in the blog post.

I’m now a PI and my goals with regards to graduate student travel funds are to be as transparent and fair with my graduate students as I can be. It is what I would like a supervisor to do for me if I was still a graduate student. Since starting my position 5 years ago, I have had an unwritten policy on this topic, but this student’s post made me realize that I should be more explicit in my policy and perhaps write it down so that there is less chance of a miscommunication with one of my students.

My goal for each of my graduate students is to send them to 1 conference per year of their program. Most of my students complete their program in 2 years, so this usually means two conferences. Usually the first conference is local and therefore lower cost and they usually present on work in progress at this meeting. These are smaller meetings where I am able to help them network and the attendees are friendly. The second meeting involves the presentation of the full story of their thesis work and I try to ensure that this is either a national meeting or an international one. This is my philosophy on meetings. I allow my students to present work in progress or partial stories at the first meeting and I know many PIs who don’t do this; I feel that the experience is worth it for the students even if the work doesn’t yet represent a full story. I tell my graduate students several times during the year that my goal is to send them to one conference per year. If students wish to attend more conferences, then we discuss their reasons for attendance and negotiate my financial contributions based on grant funds available.

I also have a very explicit conversation with my graduate students near the beginning of their program about how the costs of the conference will be handled. I pay for all travel, accommodation, meals, posters, and registration costs. If I can charge the cost directly to my grant (usually using an institutional credit card) I do so. If the cost gets charged upon arrival at the conference I either charge it in person upon arrival, issue the student a travel advance, or if the student is comfortable with it they charge it on their own credit card and get reimbursed. Fortunately our institution is fairly speedy with reimbursements, so students do not have to pay interest on the amount or carry the balance for more than two weeks after our return from the conference. I let the students tell me what they are comfortable with and I don’t judge. I let them know that if funds are tight, we will come up with a solution that works for both of us and that they should not place themselves in financial hardship to attend a conference. If the student wishes to pair travel to a particular location with a vacation and stay for a bit before or after the conference, then I still pay for the return trip, but during those extra days they are responsible for their accommodations and food and I explain that clearly before we make any travel bookings. I also ask my students to apply for all available travel grants that they qualify for to help support their attendance, but these funds do not make or break the trip.

As a graduate student I often had to share rooms with other students. At times this was fine and I expected it and at other times it was awkward (e.g. when I was pumping milk while still breast feeding). I initially ask students if they are comfortable sharing a room or a suite of rooms with other students. Residence and hotel options differ quite a bit and I ask my students to explore all options and let me know their preferences. I have had students who preferred their own room with a washroom, students who share a room and washroom with one other student, students who share a suite with other students (they have their own room, but share 1-2 washrooms with others), students who have their own room and share a communal washroom on the floor, etc. I respect the requests of my students and I assume that they have logical reasons for any limitations that they place on housing arrangements. I do not share accommodations with my students as I am not comfortable with that arrangement.

Affording all graduate students with the opportunity to participate in conferences is one of the commitments that I make to each student that I accept into my laboratory. Whether or not they can financially afford it should not dictate whether they can attend. I consider this philosophy one of the privileges and responsibilities of mentoring graduate students.

How do other people handle conference costs for their graduate students? Any horror stories that you’d like to share?

Classroom use of Twitter

I’ve been on Twitter since December 2012 and am still learning how to use this platform in a useful way. After attending the Western Conference on Science Education in July, I’ve been thinking about how I might be able to integrate Twitter into my courses. In the past few weeks I’ve been investigating how other professors use Twitter as either a teaching tool, or how they build it into class assignments and course credit. I’ve listed a few uses that I’m mulling over below.

1) Several professors run a Twitter back channel during their lectures. This allows students the opportunity to ask questions in real time and is especially great for shy students who may not feel comfortable speaking in front of a large audience. One example of a person who did this fairly early is Monica Rankin.

2) A Twitter feed can be used to remind students of upcoming tests and assignments. Our internal course management system already does this, but using Twitter is another quick and easy way to issue class updates.

3) Collaborative event watching. One professor teaching film studies had students live Tweet as they watched the movie Blade Runner.

4) Creating a course hashtag and asking students to post links to news stories relevant to course material.

There are many other great uses suggested for bringing Twitter into the classroom. Two sites that summarize ideas can be found here and here.

I probably won’t do anything too wild this upcoming term, but perhaps I’ll ask the students in one of my courses to dip their toes into Twitter.

Feel free to share any comments, ideas, and success stories in the comments.

Bat poop and spiny lips

The first cool story came out a few weeks ago. In my 4th year undergraduate course “Environmental Stress Biology of Plants” I teach a few lectures on low nitrogen environments and the various ways that plants have adapted to get around this problem. In one of these lectures I cover the many neat types of carnivorous plants that eat animals as a way to obtain nutrients. A few years back I stumbled across a neat photo of a bat hanging around inside of a pitcher plant. This was a great example of a symbiotic relationship; presumably the bat gets a safe place to camp out during the day and the plant obtains nitrogen in the form of bat guano (feces). Biology is so awesome! The story gets even more interesting with the publication of a research paper a few weeks ago that figured out how the bat locates these potential nesting spots. It turns out that the shape of the plant’s opening takes advantage of the bat’s echolocation abilities and tells the bat exactly where to go in order to safely sleep in the plant.

The original article can be found here.

The second story is about frogs which are my favourite animals. While many frogs are poisonous (they produce toxins, but lack a delivery mechanism), this is the first description of frogs that are venomous (they produce toxins, and have a delivery mechanism). Two species of frogs were recently discovered in Brazil that have bony spines on their skull that pass through poison glands and there are some stunning photographs in the article. One of the authors had the unfortunate luck to experience the effectiveness of the toxin first hand while collecting a frog and experienced 5 hours of intense pain. The authors note rather dryly that this defense mechanism would be even more effective if delivered into the mouth of an attacking predator.

The original article can be found here.

Both of these articles likely had their genesis in a scientist noticing something really weird during field work. I always emphasize to my students that one of the best skills that a scientist can develop is a keen sense of observation.

DoctorAl Digest 3

Interesting reads and posts that I’ve stumbled across this week…

DoctorAl Digest 3

Thinking about having kids as an academic and want to do it with a partner? Yes, yes, yes to everything in this article! One of the most honest and frank articles that I have read on this topic.

During graduate school I participated in the thesis support group that was helpful in so many ways. I’m thinking that I might need to start a faculty writing group where I am.

A great overview of social media tools by Bonnie Zink that has been helpful to me as I become more savvy with these platforms.

A good, quick article on disruptions and distractions (and the differences between them) and some strategies on how to deal with them by Natalie Houston.

Having been at the cottage last week and thinking about West Nile Virus, here is a great blog post on how mosquitos look for their next meal by Betty Zou. Her summaries of scientific papers are always well written and interesting!

Happy reading!

The Disabled Scientist: Thriving in Academia with a Hearing Impairment

hearing aids

By writing this post I am outing myself as a disabled scientist. This will likely come as surprise to many of my colleagues and trainees as I haven’t disclosed my disability to many people at work. I have a hidden disability and as such have had the luxury of letting people know about my disability or not sharing this information. This ability to be selective in my disclosure choices is not one that persons with visible disabilities have. I have also not had to live with my disability for very long. I was diagnosed with my hearing impairment in February 2012 and have therefore only been aware of it for about 4 years. I am choosing to share my story now in order to show other early career scientists that it is possible to survive and thrive with a disability in academia. It can also serve as a reminder to everyone that disabilities can develop at every life stage and quite unexpectedly.

I first suspected that something was wrong with my hearing in the Fall of 2011. I was having consistent difficulty hearing my husband, especially if he was speaking to me around a corner or with his face turned away from me. At first we joked about my selective spousal hearing, but as time went on it became more apparent that something wasn’t right. My husband would often talk about everyday sounds (e.g. barking dogs, machine noises, thunder and rain) and how annoying they were, but I wasn’t hearing the same things that he was. I was also finding that I would have to ask students to repeat points that they were making in class because I would miss some things the first time around. In February 2012 I booked an appointment with my doctor who recommended that I see an audiologist for a hearing test.

Getting a hearing test done is a pretty surreal experience. You go into a sound proof booth, wear headphones and sensors and listen to tones and spoken words in order to assess the range of frequencies and syllables that you can hear. There were parts of the exam that were eerily silent and that signalled to me that there was something definitely wrong with my hearing. I have an impairment in the low frequency range which is very uncommon. Most people exhibit a loss of high frequencies and this typically happens as people age. As such, I’m a pretty unusual client for the clinic given that I have atypical hearing loss and I’m younger than most clients by several decades. The clinic was able to program some loaner hearing aids for me to try out the same afternoon as my exam as a first step towards treating my disability.

The first afternoon with hearing aids was pretty shocking. It was only at that point that I realized what I had been missing due to my disability and that the problem had probably been going on for quite some time. When I turned on my van to drive home, I heard a really strange sound. It turned out to be the seat belt warning bell and it sounded completely different than before. Dinner that night with my family turned out to be very challenging. The settings on the aids weren’t quite right and everyone sounded like they were screaming. It was pretty clear by that first evening that the hearing aids were extremely helpful and necessary.

Having a disability is financially challenging. The best hearing aids for my situation cost $5,000 (they are pictured beside this post). The government covered $1,000 of this cost and my employer’s health plan paid for $500. That left us on the hook for $3,500 which was a huge dent in our budget that year. I felt a bit guilty for needing the hearing aids, which was ridiculous. The other on-going cost is hearing aid batteries. I wear my units for 16 hours per day and need to replace the batteries every 5-7 days. It’s made me realize the true cost of assistive devices and the inadequate coverage by government and employer healthcare plans. After a request from me our union attempted to negotiate for better coverage in our last round of collective bargaining but was unsuccessful.

My disability largely presents challenges in the teaching and service realms of my job. I have difficulty hearing voices in the low frequency range, so “low-talkers”, male students, and quiet speakers of both sexes can have voices that are challenging for me to make out. This sometimes makes discussions and question/answer sessions in class difficult. I’ve gotten comfortable with asking students to repeat themselves or speak up when I need it. I may go so far this year to disclose my disability to my students and to ask for their assistance by requesting that they speak loudly and clearly for everyone in the classroom. I have also experienced some difficulties in faculty meetings, especially with some of my “low-talker” colleagues or friends who have learned English as a second or third language. At conferences, presentations in large rooms without microphones can be difficult and social events at the pub are my own personal version of Hell. Thus far I haven’t asked for any accessibility accommodations at work, but I have asked conference organizers to make sure that speakers use microphones and to think about background noise levels at social events. This summer I had a heating vent leak in the ceiling of my office that was making a hissing noise. Amplified by my hearing aids, the sound was distracting and irritating until fixed.

Assistance on campus is a bit confusing. Accessibility services are mostly focused on students and our equity office recently underwent restructuring. This has meant that knowing where to go for information and help is not always obvious. With the recent passing and implementation of the most recent version of The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act lots of positive change is happening on campus and in the community. I will admit to being woefully ignorant of accessibility issues prior to becoming disabled. I am still struggling to integrate my identity as a person with a disability with my other identities of being a scientist, female, mother, and partner. These multiple identities are really interesting and I’m still navigating the landscape.

Thus far I only disclosed my disability to two people at work. One is a friend and the other was a colleague that I was co-teaching with who I felt should know how my disability might impact my performance in the classroom. This blog post essentially lets the cat out of the bag with respect to my socially savvy colleagues. The timing of the post is not co-incidental; I waited until I had tenure before writing and publishing it. I fully expect that my colleagues will be supportive and understanding, but the fear associated with the stigma that still surround many disabilities certainly factored into my decision to delay disclosing my condition.

If we are fortunate to live long lives, all of us will have to stare disability in the face. My disability has made me a stronger and more compassionate person. I’m a bit chagrined that it took becoming disabled to recognize the struggles and everyday realities faced by many people around the world. If you are looking for a way to make a positive impact, there are some great resources on universal course design that you can implement in your syllabi, classrooms, and assignments. Accessibility accommodations don’t just help those with disabilities; they help everyone.

Western Conference on Science Education 2015

Last week I attended the Western Conference in Science Education in London, Ontario. My goal in attending was to pick up some ideas for new things to try in my classroom and get some tips on possible assignments to try in the future. I also presented on my experiment in my graduate course last fall on using blogging as an assessment tool for learning .

Below is a list in random order of ideas that I’ll be ruminating on in the next few weeks before teaching again in fall term:

1) Have your 1st assignment early. It gives students a chance to see how you write questions and to prepare for future assignments.

2) If you use in-class quizzes, let the students teach each other for a few minutes before you evaluate them. This allows peer learning to take place in the classroom.

3) Lists of learning tasks and learning outcomes are important. This is definitely an area where I can improve.

4) Start a teaching mentoring community for faculty so that we can discuss strategies, successes, and challenges and learn from each other.

5) Get over the need to feel that every minute of every lecture has to be perfect.

6) I usually have students evaluate my teaching using a paper survey that I hand out in class. Other teachers found that allowing the students to use 15 or 20 second audio or video clips to deliver feedback led to more authentic responses.

7) Investigate the PeerWise platform.

8) It’s important to teach our science students how to communicate science to non-specialists and to tailor their communications to their audience.

9) I attended a great workshop that discussed strategies for teachers to maintain their well-being during our busy teaching semesters. Lots of valuable tips that I hope to implement!

10) Think hard about my classroom policy on electronic devices and their use. Tanya Noel and Tamara Kelly gave a neat presentation on “Does the digital have to divide us?”

Reflections on Getting Tenure

On July 1st I entered a new phase in my academic career. On that day I officially became an Associate Professor with tenure. Tenure at my institution occurred at an accelerated pace; you can go up for tenure 4 years in, so as of July 1st I’ve completed 5 years of employment at my university. I think that this was a good thing. The time scale is much faster than the 6-7 years for my colleagues at other universities, so while it’s pretty stressful to prepare to go up for tenure so rapidly, the decision is made quickly.

Tenure is a big deal for me because I saw it in my mind as the last large hurdle that I needed to clear in order to prove that I belong in science and academia. I made some personal and professional choices along the way that were not “typical” and could have negatively impacted my success in this career. Based on the fact that I’m a woman and a mother, everything that I’ve read indicates that the odds were stacked against me in my chosen profession. It feels good to defy the odds.

The purpose of this post is two-fold. The first purpose is to thank everyone who had a hand in helping me achieve this milestone in my career. I have had a variety of friends, mentors, and supporters during my nascent career who believed in me and my ability to do this job. I will be forever grateful to my family and my partner for their unwavering support. The second purpose of this post is to serve as encouragement to people who identify as being “other” in academia. The road to tenure is long and challenging, but is totally worth it in the end. Hang in there and look for allies; we are here waiting to give you a hand up.

I think that I’ll take some advice from Hope Jahren and take my tenure out for a spin . I’m looking forward to the new journey ahead!

DoctorAl Digest 2

An overview of neat things that I’ve found on-line in the past few weeks:

1. Some great tips on handling stress as a graduate student or post-doc. (Also applicable to faculty members!)

2. A very thoughtful post on ignorance and privilege. Confronting My Own Racism on the Women In Astronomy blog.

3. As usual, Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s advice is spot on!

4. We hear about microaggressions, but this blog post very succinctly outlines the threats of micropromotions for those who don’t fit the typical mold.

5. An exceptionally cool paper talking about eye-like structures in dinoflagellates that are assembled using mitochondria and chloroplasts. I especially liked the idea that “hidden organelle networks could be widely overlooked in nature”.

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