Doctor Al Digest #22

A great post over at the Conditionally Accepted blog entitled “Latinxs in Academe: Rage about “Diversity Work that effectively articulates the anger that is generated and internalized when one is assumed and expected to speak for an entire group.

This beautiful piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a must read. I am in awe of this man’s ability to use English prose. The lovely turns of phrase in this piece are surprising given its subject matter. I read it several weeks ago and it’s haunted me ever since.

I had previously avoided reading anything authored by Margaret Wente on purpose. Her column on Sept. 19, 2017 about students with disabilities was ignorant, unkind, and poorly researched. I won’t do it the dignity of linking to it here. I’ll warn you not to read the comments either; most of them are equally gross and lacking in empathy.

 

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Common Problems Experienced during Graduate Student Theses and Defenses

By this point in my career, I’ve been on both sides of this scenario; I’ve written and defended 3 theses (undergraduate, M.Sc., and Ph.D.) and I’ve evaluated a number of theses and presentations from my own students and those from other labs. Here’s my 2 cents on common problems that I’ve experienced, or have heard about from others. I’m focusing on issues that can occur after the thesis has been written and submitted to the committee members up to and including the oral defense of the thesis.

Challenges for the Student

  1. Figures in the thesis aren’t as good or robust as those used in the presentation.

I’ve been in several defenses where many concepts that were challenging to figure out while reading the written thesis have been cleared up by the inclusion of additional figures in the presentation. It would be great if students just included these additional figures from the get-go as this would really improve the experience of the reader.

2. Figure and Table captions are not sufficient.

I always recommend to students that figures and tables should be able to stand on their own without any help from the written text of the thesis. This can be achieved by including an appropriate level of detail in your captions that explains what the reader is seeing as well as making any jargon and acronyms clear.

3. Interpreting questions or concerns as a personal attack.

It is very hard not to take concerns or questions about your writing, data, or presentation personally. While you should definitely not be a doormat, you should be respectful and thoughtful when receiving the feedback and opinions of your committee members.

4. Lack of knowledge on the basic theories, techniques, or information of your field.

Often committee members will ask what we see as very basic questions about your project and your field of study. If you mention something in your thesis or presentation, expect to answer questions about that content. Be sure that your focus has not narrowed so much that you neglect to explore and understand the theory or basic tenets of your research area. For example, if you are showing images of Western blots, I will likely ask you to explain the theory of how this technique works. It looks very bad if you can’t explain technique that is in your thesis.

5. Absent or inappropriate use of statistical analyses.

I’m not a statistical wizard, but even my Spidey senses start tingling when I can’t understand why you’ve chosen particular approaches, whether they are appropriate, and what they are telling you about your data.

Challenges for Examiners

  1. This is not the time to retaliate for a slight that occurred in 1999 from another faculty member on the committee.

Focus on the student’s work and accomplishments and let it go. Stop being so petty and giving professionals a bad reputation.

2. Come prepared and be on time.

Respect the time and efforts of the student and other committee members. Come with useful and insightful questions and suggestions.

3. Clearly communicate the student’s strengths and accomplishments that impressed you.

Be kind and sincere in your praise. A thesis degree is a tough slog and we don’t compliment our students enough and should celebrate their successes.

4. It isn’t about you.

Check your ego at the door. We all know that you are smart. You don’t need to convince us of this by your preambles to a question, your expositions on a particular theory, and your recently published work. Keep the focus on the student where it belongs.

What other insights can others offer about the thesis and defense experience? Leave your answer in the comments!

Doctor Al Digest #21

The Ig Nobel awards are always amusing, but they do make you think. You can go here for a list of the winners that were announced yesterday. I too have always wondered whether cats could be both a solid and a liquid.

A great post over at the blog Conditionally Accepted on Recognizing Emotional Labor in Academe

A powerful art exhibit reinforces the offensiveness and irrelevance of wondering what sexual assault survivors were wearing when they were assaulted. Trigger warning for sexual assault descriptions.

 

Enjoying the Successes of Colleagues

My impression is that a lot of scientists approach doing and funding science as a zero sum game. I suppose that it’s easy to get stuck in this mindset when resources are limited and as grant success percentages reach the single digits. I’ve always felt that this was an unfortunate way to go through your career and life. In recent years I’ve chosen to celebrate the success of my colleagues; I look at their success as a boon to our field of study, department, and institution. These successes also take many forms. While it is perhaps easier to see the success inherent in securing a grant, receiving a teaching award, or an honourary membership from a society or scientific body, due to the fact that they are measurable, I also think it’s important to celebrate other successes such as being a good mentor, an effective supervisor, a wonderful departmental chair, or a key contributor on a committee. Science is a hard taskmaster full of rejection and disappointments. It is well worth our time to celebrate the wins before we put our collective noses back to the grindstone. Take the time to congratulate your colleagues on their achievements; there are more than enough kind words to go around.

 

Impacts of Hurricane Irma on biology

The footage and news coverage of Irma has been amazing and serves to remind us that no matter how much we think that we have been able to engineer our environments we are no match for the power of Mother Nature. While much has been said about the impacts that the hurricane will have on human affairs, culture, and infrastructure, not much has been said about the long term effects that will be felt on the ecosystems in the path of the storm. This focus, when it does occur, will no doubt be on animals. My daughter was particularly disturbed by the Tweets that went out yesterday urging Floridians to not abandon their pets to fend for themselves during the hurricane. While this is certainly disturbing, it is worth taking a moment to think about the wildlife in these regions that will never be the same.

I find it amazing that birds are commonly found in the eyes of hurricanes and that they can be transplanted hundreds of kilometres by this process. Here’s a short article from the Miami Herald on the topic of wildlife and hurricanes. As a plant biologist, I’m really impressed by the ability of the palm trees to survive hurricane conditions. Here’s a quick article on the adaptations that allow them to do this.

I also found the emptying of the bays and the returning storm surge to be amazing. This phenomenon must kill a huge amount of aquatic life due to the changing water levels, salinity, temperature, and oxygen that results.

 

DoctorAl Digest 20

A great new website with blog posts targeted at research supervisors is The Supervision Whisperers. An excellent piece on stress and self-care for graduate students was posted several days ago.

Terry over at Small Pond Science is an insightful blogger. His latest on The deficit model of STEM recruitment is bang on.

If you’ve ever had the feeling that you are alone in having your manuscripts rejected from multiple journals, this post over at Scientist Sees Squirrel will be reassuring! The snazzy title is Persistence in publishing: the Tubthumping strategy. Now I have a 90’s ear worm

 

DoctorAl Digest 19

An exciting article in University Affairs about Laurentian’s new MSCom (Master’s in Science Communication) program launching this fall.

Samantha Oester’s (@samoester) Twitter feed from yesterday drives home the fact that it isn’t just harassers that drive women out of science; the clueless and unsupportive other members in the community also contribute.

I’m really enjoying the Period Podcast by Dr. Kate Clancy.  You’d think as a middle aged woman I’d know all that there is to know about menstruation…but you’d be wrong.

When I became a principal investigator of a lab I began managing people for the first time. I’ve found the Ask a Manager website an amazing resource. Some of the stories are so wild that you’d think that they can’t be true! A great source of examples of how not to manage, and excellent advice from Alison on how to solve problems and effectively manage your staff.

 

Review: Ctrl-V Virtual Reality Arcade

Last Thursday my family and I went to Ctrl-V in Waterloo. It’s essentially a virtual reality arcade. We’d heard about it from Twitter and the local media and thought that it would be cool to check out. I will admit to being a bit skeptical; virtual reality was supposed to take off in the 90’s and never really reached critical mass. When I think of virtual reality, I think of bad movies like The Lawnmower Man. I was prepared to be underwhelmed. My other concern was that I can’t handle IMAX movies or planetarium shows; they give me motion sickness. My worst experience was in the Canadian pavilion at Epcot and the 360° hell that was O, Canada!

The booking process is simple and can be completed online. We had two coupons that gave us 50% off the experience, so for 4 people to each play 1 hour cost us ~$50. Prior to arrival they ask that you read and sign a liability waver and watch a short (and highly amusing) orientation video. Upon arrival we were greeted warmly by Will who is a credit to the organization as he was enthusiastic, professional, and very helpful during our session.

Each person is assigned their own pod, and the gear consists of two controllers that you hold in your hands in order to interact with the simulation, a headset that contains the screen, and a set of earphones for sound. The gear isn’t too clunky, but it felt a bit weird to be tethered to the pod via the headset and by the end of the hour the headset was very heavy and was compressing my neck. It didn’t take long to get set-up.

My first game selection was an escape room called Escape the Bunker. I’ve never done an escape room in person, but the virtual version was pretty cool. I was able to open a combination locker (this took multiple attempts) and a lock using a key. It was neat to open lockers and a fridge and explore the room. I got stuck when my propane tank went missing from the environment (I was going to make it explode using some beer and a lighter) and decided to switch games. Next up was a first person shooter called Space Pirate Trainer which was lots of fun! Multiple guns could be selected, or you could use a shield and a really cool lasso to pull in the targets. Three of us then did 9-holes of mini-golf in Cloudlands using a local multi-player option. It wasn’t our cup of tea, but would be great for people who aren’t into fast paced action games. I then went a few rounds on Light Blade which is for those of you who have ever wanted to be a Jedi or Sith. It’s basically Luke doing lightsabre training on the Millenium Falcon in Star Wars. Tonnes of fun! My last activity was essentially like being in the ocean. There was a simulation featuring a whale encounter, a coral reef, and the deep sea; all of which were quite relaxing and well done.

All 4 of us had a great time and really enjoyed the experience. While happy that we were able to use coupons to reduce the cost, I believe that this activity is well worth the $25/person cost, especially if this would be your first visit. If you are looking for something cool and fun to do in Waterloo with friends or family be sure to check out this neat option!

 

4th Year Undergraduate Research Thesis Opportunity #2

Investigation into the Structure of the Oyster Alternative Oxidase Protein

An undergraduate student position is available to conduct a BI499 or HE490 thesis research project in the McDonald lab in the Department of Biology at Laurier. The McDonald lab prides itself on being a diverse and friendly working environment.

Description of the Project:

Research in our lab focuses on the mitochondrial protein alternative oxidase (AOX) which is involved in the electron transport system in mitochondria. This project will focus on developing a protocol for isolating mitochondria from the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae that are expressing the oyster AOX protein. These yeast mitochondria will then be exposed to various chemical cross-linkers in order to determine whether oyster AOX is monomeric, dimeric, or oligomeric by using protein gel electrophoresis and Western blots.

Skills Required:

Ability to effectively conduct literature searches and to analyze and synthesize information from primary research papers.

Knowledge of the theory of protein gel electrophoresis and Western blotting techniques.

Attention to detail and ability to work safely in a biological laboratory.

Strong written and oral communication skills.

Effective time-management and project management skills.

Highly self-motivated and resilient in the face of project challenges.

Interested students should email Dr. Allison McDonald at amcdonald@wlu.ca by Jan. 31, 2017 with a resume/CV and to set up a time for an interview in early February.

4th Year Undergraduate Research Thesis Opportunity #1

Searching for Animal Alternative Oxidases

An undergraduate student position is available to conduct a BI499 or HE490 thesis research project in the McDonald lab in the Department of Biology at Laurier. The McDonald lab prides itself on being a diverse and friendly working environment.

Description of the Project:

Research in our lab focuses on the mitochondrial protein alternative oxidase (AOX) which is involved in the electron transport system in mitochondria. This project will focus on conducting a literature review and searches of molecular databases using bioinformatics to look for AOX sequences in animals. The final goal of the project will be to identify taxonomic distribution trends and to reveal phyla/orders of animals that are lacking data about the presence or absence of AOX.

Skills Required:

Ability to effectively conduct literature searches and to analyze and synthesize information from primary research papers.

Knowledge of bioinformatics tools and how to conduct sequences similarity searches (the ability to code is a strong asset) and maintain a database of sequences and their associated information.

Strong written and oral communication skills.

Effective time-management and project management skills.

Highly self-motivated and resilient in the face of project challenges.

Interested students should email Dr. Allison McDonald at amcdonald@wlu.ca by Jan. 31, 2017 with a resume/CV and to set up a time for an interview in early February.