Month: April 2014

This is your brain…This is your brain on Biology…

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.

Why You Should Join a Scientific Society

Depending on the scientific research that you do, there will be one or more regional, national, and international scientific societies dedicated to advancing research in that area. Many societies have very broad interests, while others will be focused on niche research areas. I have found it very useful and rewarding, both personally and professionally, to be a member of scientific societies.

I joined my first scientific society in 1998 when I was finishing up my fourth year undergraduate thesis project. I was encouraged by my supervisor to present my results as an oral presentation at the Eastern Regional Meeting of the Canadian Society of Plant Biologists. This was my first introduction to academic conferences and the first time presenting my research to a scientific audience. It was an absolutely terrifying, but exciting experience. My talk went great, I received an honourable mention for it, and I ended up being invited to join some people for lunch. One of those people ended up being my Ph.D. supervisor a few years later. This effectively illustrates that joining an academic society allows you to actively participate in conferences and can be a very effective way to network and advance your career. Since then I’ve organized the Eastern Regional meeting on my campus and am currently serving as the chair of a committee for a prestigious student award for this society.

I joined my second scientific society in 2005 during my Ph.D. program. While much of my work used plants as an experimental system, I had also started to move into animal models for my experiments. I joined the Canadian Society of Zoologists and attended their annual conference later that year. I gave a talk at that meeting that attracted a lot of positive attention and helped me to meet many colleagues and to develop strong friendships with a wide variety of scientists. As it turns out, the chair of the session that my oral presentation was slated in later become my post-doctoral advisor. This society has also supported my research through travel grants to conferences and a research grant to conduct some work at Stanford with international colleagues. I currently serve as a councillor for this society.

Membership in these two societies has been an incredibly rewarding experience. It’s allowed me to see amazing places all over the world, to meet some incredible friends, and to develop a wide range of useful skills. I strongly encourage all of my students to join a scientific society so that they can experience the benefits first hand.

Book Review: On Course: A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching by James M. Lang

As a graduate student and post-doc one of the on-line resources that I checked out on a regular basis was the Chronicle of Higher Education. One of my favourite columns to read was written by Jim Lang who at that time was a new faculty member who had insightful things to say about teaching university students.

Although I’ve been teaching university courses for a few years now, I’m always on the look-out for ways to improve how I deliver and organize my classes. As such I recently finished reading “On Course: A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching” by James M. Lang. The book was published in 2008 and most of what is discussed is still highly relevant to university teachers today, barring some references to MySpace, WebCt, and other platforms that have fallen out of favour.

The book is logically organized and starts with the creation of syllabi and ends with a discussion on the teaching face or persona that you show to your students. The book is a comprehensive overview of what it is like to experience teaching in a university setting for the first time. It contains many tips and tricks that will save professors time and angst as they prepare and deliver classes. His advice is dispensed with good humour and through the use of various anecdotes in an attempt to save new teachers from the pitfalls that are typical of the first year of teaching.

I would highly recommend this book to newly hired faculty members who will be teaching for the first time this fall as a “how-to guide” for successfully navigating the art of effective course planning and delivery.