Month: January 2015

Is your academic office a pit of despair?

When I started this job a huge perk was that I finally got my own office. While there are often limitations on what you can physically do to your office, I spent a bit of time thinking about my office set-up in an attempt to make it a pleasant place to work in so that I could be as efficient and productive as possible. Given how much time we faculty members spend in our offices I think that this is a good long term investment and is worth thinking about. My office is still a work in progress, but recently several colleagues have commented on how dynamic my office space is compared to theirs. I’m taking this as a compliment and as a sign that I must be doing something right!

Without further ado here are some suggestions on how to make your office more comfortable and less sterile:

Wall surfaces: A new coat of paint can do wonders, but that isn’t always possible. The next best thing is to hide scuffs and holes as best you can. I’ve done this by hanging up a small bulletin board, a white dry-ease board, an awesome poster of a photosynthetic sea slug, my academic degrees, and a cool frog calendar.

Floor: My office has generic brown/grey carpet that’s in great shape. It gets vacuumed regularly by the custodial staff, so I’m happy. I added a plastic runner under my desk chair so that I can wheel around freely.

Lighting: I’m very lucky that my office has a huge window and receives a lot of light. I also have the ability to open parts of the window which is awesome. One handy tip is that it is a good idea to set your computer monitor up perpendicularly to the window in order to avoid constant glare. If you don’t have a window in your office and don’t do well with fluorescent lighting it’s worth the investment to get a task lamp or two to avoid headaches.

Furniture: I inherited serviceable furniture with my office that included two tall bookshelves, a gigantic horizontal filing cabinet, an L-shaped desk, a small under-desk filing cabinet, and a blue fabric task chair on wheels. Most universities have a storage depot for used furniture that you can raid, or if you are negotiating a new position see if you can get some money to purchase office furniture. Two years into my job I decided to spend some of my professional funds on a more supportive office chair; it’s been money well spent given the amount of time I spend seated in my office.

Living Things: Plants look awesome, add life to an office, and require very little upkeep. Several of my colleagues have aquariums in their offices that are pretty neat.

Computer set-up: Take a little time to learn about ergonomics; your wrists and back will thank you years later. I use a laptop with a docking station which makes coming and going considerably easier. If you use a laptop invest in a separate large monitor in order to prevent neck strain and hunched shoulder syndrome. I switched to a dual screen display this morning; it’s been a revelation!

Personal items: Bring in and display items that make you happy and that are useful. I display photos of my kids, some colleagues have Tassimo or Keurig coffee machines in their offices. Maybe your office gets cold and it would be a good idea to bring in a big sweater so that you can be comfortable.

My office is a work in progress and I’m continually looking for ways to liven the space up a bit.

How have you made your office space your own?

(Bonus points if you caught “The Princess Bride” reference in the title of this post!)

Academic Speed Dating: The Do’s and Don’ts of Approaching Potential Graduate Research Supervisors

Small Pond Science has a great post up right now on how to “cold call” other scientists in order to set up collaborations. Making a cold call means that you don’t directly know the person that you are contacting, which means that it is often awkward and uncomfortable to do. Experienced researchers find this challenging, so it’s no wonder that undergraduate students looking for potential research supervisors would find it mysterious and terrifying!

As someone who operates a research lab I receive a lot of inquiries that are cold contacts from undergraduate students, graduate students, and post-docs about working in my lab. I’ve seen this approach done really well, but I’ve also seen it done poorly. Below are some tips for making effective first contact with a potential research supervisor.

 1) Please read my previous blog post about narrowing down the potential locations and supervisors for graduate school. Do your homework and investigate the institution, department, programs offered, and the faculty members who supervise graduate students. Identify several potential professors that do research that you think is interesting. Come up with a list of reasons why you would like to work in a particular lab or area of research. Define what it is that you can offer the lab in terms of skills, educational background, experience, work ethic, etc.

2) Draft a short, professional email that clearly explains who you are and what you are currently studying. Explain why you are interested in working with this particular professor. Explain what skills you can bring to the table. Indicate that you are exploring options for graduate programs that have a particular start date (e.g. September 2015) and ask whether the professor has space and funding available to support a graduate student at that time. I usually recommend that students do not attach any additional documents to this first email. The goal of this email is to determine whether the professor is i) able to take on a student, ii) interested in further exploring your candidacy for that opportunity. It would be very helpful if you have multiple people read your draft to catch obvious spelling errors and to ensure that you’ve captured the right tone in your email. Use a professional salutation (e.g. Dear Dr. X) and close (e.g. Sincerely). I am a female professor, so if you start your letter using “Dear Sir” I delete it since it tells me that you can’t be bothered to read my webpage and learn some basic things about me and my lab. You should craft an individualized email for each lab that you are approaching. We can spot a generic letter from miles away and they get deleted. If it is clearly a cut and paste job it goes straight into the trash bin.

3) Make sure that you send the email to the correct email address.

4) If you have done the first 3 steps well, you should get a response from the professor within a few days. That being said, keep in mind that professors are busy people and do take vacations, so don’t panic if you don’t hear back within minutes of sending your email. If you haven’t heard anything back in a few weeks, feel free to send a second email reiterating your interest in joining the lab. If you don’t hear back, move on in your search and don’t take it personally.

When done well this cold call approach can serve to open a conversation between you and a potential supervisor. At this point you are both attempting to collect information in order to determine if a future scholarly relationship will be a good fit and of benefit to both of you.

Thinking about graduate school: How to narrow down your choices

This time of year many undergrads are starting to think about their plans for next year. For some of them this includes exploring the option of pursuing graduate school in a program that requires the production of a thesis based on research done in a laboratory. Based on my past experiences as a graduate student and my current experiences as a faculty member with a lab, I’d like to offer some advice to undergraduate students on how to identify potential graduate school programs and supervisors. This advice is aimed at students who need to find a supervisor before they apply to a graduate program and is not targeted at students who will be entering a grad program where lab rotations are the norm.

 1) Why do you want to go to graduate school? What goals do you want to accomplish in graduate school? What is the value in a graduate degree? Think long and hard on these questions. You should not go to graduate school as a default option or a back-up plan.

 2) Form a realistic view of what graduate school entails and whether the experience is right for you. One of the best ways to do this is to volunteer or do a fourth year undergraduate research thesis or project in a laboratory. It’s also very helpful to talk to graduate students who are in the graduate program in your home department to get their bounce on what it’s like to be a graduate student. You can also get great advice from faculty members who run labs in your home department.

 3) Think about personal and professional constraints that may limit where you can go to graduate school. Can you handle cold winters in Edmonton, or would you rather live in warm, sunny Florida? Are you looking to gain international experience? Do you need to consider the needs of other family members, your partner, or your children? Can you afford to live on a graduate student stipend in a city with a high cost of living? Do you need to live in a culturally vibrant city, or are you a homebody? Some of these questions will serve to narrow your search for graduate school programs in terms of location and characteristics.

4) What discipline or subject area are you most interested in studying? Is there a particular research question that you are interested in answering? For example, if you want to study sharks there will be many departments that will not have that as an option. What kind of department name sounds like a good fit to you? Sometimes department names are not particularly descriptive or representative of the research being pursued within a department. For example, you can do cancer research in a Department of Medicine, a Department of Health Sciences, or a Department of Life Sciences. Ecology can be studied in Ecology and Evolution departments or Biology departments. How narrow or broad do you want your research experience to be?

 After you’ve answered some of these big picture questions you can start the process of identifying particular degree programs, departments and potential supervisors. I’ll provide some tips on how to do that in my next blog post.


The Real Value of a Ph.D.

In the past few years, a lot of the blogs that I’ve been reading have been challenging the structure of the Ph.D. in terms of its value and the process of how you get one. There have also been discussions about how there are too many Ph.D. degrees being awarded and not enough jobs (academic, industrial, governmental, etc.) available to graduates. These articles often make me feel guilty for two reasons: I am one of the lucky ones to have a stable, tenure-track position and I am contributing to this perceived glut of scientists problem by training a new generation of scientists in my lab.

This post at Wandering Scientist assuages some of my guilt by talking about some of the non-specific skills that you can pick up by doing a Ph.D. Based on her blog post, I would agree that she has picked up realizations about herself and a skill set that are much more valuable than the piece of paper that represents her degree.

I think that if you were to ask most people with a Ph.D. what the most valuable skill that they came away with from their stint in graduate school they’d probably talk about something technical like becoming a bioinformatics whiz or being able to build the flux capacitor of their dreams. You might get a few people who will talk about the development of time management, project management, or organizational skills or other similar soft skills. You’d get fewer still who would talk about how their Ph.D. experience shaped them as an individual.

Earning that Ph.D. results in your strengths and weaknesses being put under a microscope and being pushed to the limit by the time that you emerge on the other side. It’s pretty cool to go from being a caterpillar, to building your own chrysalis, to ripping that sucker apart to soar on new wings. It’s a transformation and at times it’s very painful, but I think that the experience is a valuable one that tells us more about ourselves than our research question.

A Modest Proposal to Conference Organizers

Most of the academic conferences that I attend take place during the summer months from May to August. This means that many people are hard at work during the upcoming months putting together conference programmes. Having organized a conference myself I know how much work this requires and I have the utmost respect for these volunteers who work tirelessly so that we can have a valuable experience. This task includes organizing events that are research related such as symposia, keynotes, plenary sessions, etc. It also involves organizing events that are more social in nature that allow for networking and the development of new acquaintances and the renewal of long-standing friendships. My overall experiences at conferences have been mostly positive, but over the years I have witnessed or been privy to inappropriate and unprofessional behaviours and when these occur they diminish my enjoyment of meetings. In the past I was often silent about these incidents as there were large power differentials at play and I felt I was at a vulnerable stage of my academic career. Now when I see these things happen I point them out. In some cases this involves challenging the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours of colleagues and in other cases it involves speaking directly to organizing committee members or society representatives in order to effect changes that remove systemic bias. I have been attending academic conferences since 1998 and present my biggest pet-peeves below. Wherever possible I offer solutions to these challenges.

1) Our goal should be to have a professional conference. Knowing that people sometimes act unprofessionally despite this fact, a written, clear, code of conduct and repercussions for unprofessional conduct should be generated, made widely available, and enforced. This includes mechanisms for the safe reporting of unprofessional conduct and transparency of these processes and the outcomes. Conferences should have a zero tolerance policy for harassing, threatening, or disruptive behaviour. This provides a means of addressing overly aggressive questioners/hecklers to addressing incidents of sexual harassment and ensures that conferences are safe spaces for everyone.

 2) Child-care, elder-care, and accompanying persons should not be an afterthought or receive only lip service. People have complex lives; do the best that you can to recognize and accommodate this fact. At the very least, do not put up additional barriers that have to be overcome in order for scientists to attend and fully participate. For example, does your venue have a lactation room? If you have ever had to breastfeed your child or pump milk in a filthy toilet stall you will understand why this is important.

 3) When picking your venues for events, please think about safety and accessibility. Are you forcing people to choose between networking and personal safety? I especially dread the late night walks in unfamiliar surroundings from the pub back to the hotel that seem to be a staple of academic conferences. Can everyone fully participate in all of your events if they wanted to? Are you using older buildings that lack ramps or elevators? That networking session in the loud bar is a nightmare for anyone who has a hearing impairment. Does your venue have gender-neutral washrooms or washrooms that can accommodate those who require assistance from an attendant? Are your food and beverage options meeting the dietary needs of your participants?

 4) Ask yourself if the speakers/presenters at your conference are reflective of the diversity of your profession and professional society. If they aren’t then you need to try harder. You’re a scientist; use your creative problem solving abilities to fix it.

5) Are your registration and accommodation costs reasonable and varied? Can you offer discounts in exchange for volunteering? Please make an effort to remove financial barriers to attendance. This is especially important for student and post-doc participation.

6) Do you have any hazing rituals that are disguised as “hallowed traditions”? Perhaps it’s well past time to rethink those and end them.


The 10 minute in-class essay

When I was a student I hated writing tests and examinations with the intensity of a thousand flaming suns. Now that I get to set the curriculum, I actively look for alternative assignments to tests and exams that I can use in my classes. One assignment that I’ve had a lot of success with is the 10 minute in-class essay. It’s quick to administer, flexible, and doesn’t take a lot of time to mark.

At the beginning of the semester I tell my students that I will be offering 7 opportunities to write an in-class essay during the course and that they should make sure that they always bring a few sheets of paper and a pen with them to class. I ask that my students complete 5 of the in-class essays. Each essay is worth 2% and the total towards their final grade is therefore 10%. The dates of the in-class essays are not disclosed to the students, but at the beginning of the semester I work out which dates I’m going to be offering the essay opportunities and try to spread them out over the semester. This is where the flexibility comes in. Since I only require 5 essays to be completed, a student could miss 2 opportunities completely (due to illness or other life events) or could do poorly on a few and still earn a good mark on this assignment category. A student could complete all 7 and I will then calculate their mark based on the best 5 essays. The assignment also encourages students to come to class because they don’t know when I’ll offer an in-class essay and it forces students to keep up with the material because the essays are based on the content of that class or the class before. The students like the flexibility of the assignment and the fact that each one is low stakes, so it doesn’t cause a lot of stress. It also provides me a quick way to check in with my students to see if an important concept is not being taught or learned effectively.

Prior to a class in which I’m going to do an in-class essay I put together a slide that contains the question that I would like the students to answer. I try to make this question as open ended as possible and ideally it could have several correct answers depending on how the students are interacting with the course content. In class we do our normal activities and lecture and I use 15 minutes of our in-class time to run the assignment. It takes the students a few minutes to get their paper and pen out and to put away their notes and laptops. I put the question up on the screen and give them 10 minutes to write a few paragraphs in order to answer the question. I circulate around the room to address any issues and then collect the essays. Depending on my schedule I run the in-class essays at the beginning of class (this very effectively discourages tardiness), the middle of class, or at the end of class. In the next class period I take 5 minutes to explain several of the possible answers and to clarify concepts if I saw that common mistakes were being made.

So what does one of these questions look like? As an example, in my Endosymbiotic Theory course we do a section on the origin of mitochondria. The prevailing hypothesis is that mitochondria were once free living bacteria until they invaded or were ingested by another cell. We talk in class about the various lines of scientific evidence that support this particular hypothesis. My in-class essay for this section of the course is the following:

 Antibiotics in medicine that are used to treat infections in people are very effective in disrupting metabolism, cell walls, membranes, transcription and/or translation in bacteria. Given the hypothesis that mitochondria are derived from bacteria, explain why antibiotics are not toxic to humans.

An answer that would earn the full 2% might talk about how mitochondria possess an outer membrane derived from the host organism and an inner membrane derived from the bacterium. They might suggest that the antibiotics have no effect on the outer membrane or cannot penetrate it and therefore the mitochondria are impervious to the drug’s mode of action.

An answer that would earn 1% would talk vaguely about membranes, but wouldn’t clearly explain the rationale behind the answer.

An answer that would earn 0% would be one where the student puts seemingly random facts down on the page that don’t form a cohesive answer to the question.

There are alternative answers to this question that do not involve membranes (e.g. gene transfer to the nucleus, loss of drug targets over evolutionary time, etc.) and if the student is able to make a compelling and convincing argument to answer the question I am flexible in the answers that I accept.

I find the 10 minute in-class essay to be a great evaluation tool and an effective way of assessing what my students are taking away from my classroom. I am often impressed by the answers that my students provide which reveal their creativity and problem-solving abilities.

The Importance of Self-Care in Academia

There have been some excellent posts in the blogosphere recently that deal with aspects of physical and mental self-care including this excellent piece on Tenure She Wrote . This point was driven home for me during the holidays because I got sick with the flu bug from Hell. It started with chills and then a fever. Then the cough set in and I pulled some muscles due to the frequency and intensity of the coughing. And to top it all off was the violent expulsion of bodily fluids for several days that make that scene in The Exorcist look like a cake walk. It is the sickest I have been in a long time. I lost 10 pounds over 7 days that I couldn’t afford to lose. I think it was my body’s way of telling me to smarten up. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that my body got sick as soon as the stresses of the semester were over.

It’s served as a wake-up call by telling me that I need to make some big life changes. I need to really start using that YMCA membership. Unfortunately when things get really busy, physical exercise is one of the first things to go. This is a bad choice since it’s the physical exercise that helps me deal with stress and keeps me energized. I’m also spending way too much of my life sitting in my office and several recent studies have determined that it will take years off my life. I need to remember to take frequent breaks and go for some walks.

As academics we are busy people. There was a very funny piece about the busyness competition in academia a few days ago on the New Faculty blog that cracked me up. Like the author, I’ve decided to stop participating in that particular competition; it isn’t one I’d like to win. There are a lot of competing demands on our time and if you couple that with perfectionist tendencies it’s a recipe for disaster. Since starting on the tenure track 4.5 years ago it feels like I’ve been running on a treadmill where the speed is set a bit too fast. It’s felt like I’m always playing a game of catch up. Recently I have come to the stunning realization that I will never catch up. I’m not the only one who feels this way; the sensation is articulated very well in this piece on the Chronicle’s Vitae site by someone more experienced than I. I’ve decided that instead of the quick sprint that I’ve been doing, a more effective strategy would be to pace myself for a marathon. I think that it’s about realizing my limitations and accepting them and being kinder to myself. I’m stepping off the treadmill and I’m going to start doing things my way at a pace that is manageable and sustainable. I’d like to model a more realistic way of doing science for my students; I think that is a worthy goal.

Being sick also served to remind me of the many great things in my life that I take for granted. I live in a safe and comfortable home. I am fortunate to live in a democratic country with robust social and health support systems. I have a great and funny family who are there for me when I need them. I have a fantastic job with excellent colleagues and students. I have a great deal of self-agency and autonomy. I am relatively healthy and have a lot of personal privilege. Perspective is everything.