Category: Working as a Professor

Planning a New Course in Science Communication

Next term I’m launching a new 4th year undergraduate course in Science Communication. I’ve wanted to teach a course on this topic for a while as I think that teaching our students how to communicate science to a range of audiences will be useful to them. Ideally we’ll get to a point where they can enter into dialogues with others about science, rather than having the interaction be one sided.

It’s been fun to think about what topics to cover in the course and what order to present them to the students. I’ve also been developing assignments for the course that I’m hoping will be useful for the students to complete and am aiming to have them be interesting and enjoyable too. Several months ago I sent out a call on Twitter to crowdsource resources and ideas and I was not disappointed!

My own relationship with science communication has been an ever-changing journey. I recognized its importance when I was a plant biology graduate student during the mid-90’s and consistently found myself at parties having conversations with people about genetic engineering. Most of these conversations were frustrating for me as I felt that I wasn’t very effective at articulating my viewpoint and was very shocked by the beliefs (true or not) that other people held about the technology. I’d like to think that I’ve become a better communicator since then, but I recognize that I still have a lot to learn. I’m looking forward to my new class next term and will be learning a great deal of new content and ideas alongside my students.

I received very little explicit instruction or education about how to be an effective science communicator. I think that this is a skill of increasing importance, not only in academia, but in other career paths that my students may choose once they leave the university. I think that I have an obligation to engage with various audiences about my science and science in general due to the fact that my research is funded by the public. I also think that if we as scientists do not have a role in crafting the narrative about science and the process of doing science that other incorrect or harmful narratives will be offered up by others. I’m hoping that by teaching this course I will be giving my students some of the tools that they will need to be effective and engaging ambassadors for science and that this is a worthy endeavour.

 

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Doctor Al Digest 28

A few things that I’ve found interesting in the past few weeks:

A nasty case of alleged sexual harassment drives home the point the dangers that are inherent in a system where a graduate student has only one faculty member as their research advisor. It’s important as a grad student to develop a network of mentors.

In some cases, it is worth your time to improve a skill that you are poor at, especially if it is a required skill for your career. In many cases though, it is a better use of your time and efforts to capitalize on your strengths.

The “Dear HBR” podcast is excellent, but the Harvard Business Review “Women at Work” podcast is phenomenal! The podcast has recently returned for its second season and is better than ever! Honest, frank discussions of the challenges faced by professional women in their workplaces and practical advice on how to navigate this minefield. I can not recommend it enough!

I’ve written my second column for The Conversation Canada on the Venom movie that opened last night. The focus is on symbiosis and how an alien could go about hacking a human host.

 

 

Book Review: When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink

When

This is the first book that I’ve read by Daniel Pink, but it likely won’t be the last. I read it because I’m interested in being efficient and effective using time-management techniques and the book certainly has much to offer in this area. It also contains lots of other interesting insights into human relationships with time.

The book is divided into three parts and each has its own focus. The first part focuses on daily rhythms of the human body and the need for recharging and replenishing. The second part takes aim at beginnings, midpoints, and endings and why each is important and can be influenced for positive outcomes. The final part discusses working with others and how people think about and are obsessed with time.

Something that I really liked about this book is that there is a “Time Hacker’s Handbook” at the end of each chapter that is full of hands on advice and tips that are extremely useful. You can think of it as the Cliff Notes version of each chapter. One thing that I did not like about this book, likely because I am a scientist, is that only scientific research that supports each thesis is presented. No results are presented that refute the author’s hypotheses. This comes across as rather one sided.

The writing style is easy to follow and I learned a lot of interesting things by reading this book. I know that a book is engaging when I’m constantly sharing little facts from it with my immediate family members (much to their chagrin!).

This book would be useful for people who have some time-management systems and habits already in place and are looking for improvements and ways of tweaking what you are doing to improve your productivity.

 

 

Why I will continue to use the title Dr.

I was a bit annoyed yesterday when the decision by the Globe and Mail to update their style guide came across my Twitter feed. I get to be an associate professor of biology upon first reference in an article, but become Ms. McDonald on second reference. I guess this is how the Canadian Press have been doing things for years, but I find it irritating and I’m going to tell you why.

I’m a professional and an expert and earned a credential, namely a Ph.D., that reinforces these facts. Now you may ask why I need these facts reinforced. It is not because I have a gigantic ego, think I’m better than everyone else, or am a member of the non-existent Canadian “elite”. The fact that I’m a professional and an expert needs to be enforced regularly because they are questioned regularly several times each term due to the fact that I don’t look like a typical scientist. There are huge social and cultural contexts at play here and that Dr. title is therefore really important to people like myself; that is women and persons with disabilities.

I can only assume that because I look younger than I am and because I am female that people feel free to tell or ask me:

1) that I don’t look like a scientist (hello, stereotypes!)

2) I’m too pretty to be a scientist (umm, these two things are not mutually exclusive like you seem to think they are, and ewwwwww!)

3) Which professor do you work for? (I’ve run my own research lab for 8 years thank-you very much)

4) I thought you were so and so (insert some other female academic here), I’m so confused! (We are both petite and female presenting so we must be interchangeable then)

The above are interactions that I’ve had at academic science conferences.

My credentials and authority often also get challenged in the classroom. This is not a unique experience given that it happens to most of the other female professors that I’ve mentioned it to. We were commiserating about it over lunch a few years ago and our male colleagues were in disbelief because it never happens to them.

That doctorate is one item that I can use to level the playing field in academic science. I earned it, I need it, and you can pry it out of my cold, dead hands.

 

Service to Professional Societies

I have recently finished a fair amount of service to two professional scientific societies and wanted to write a post about what I have found valuable and challenging about these experiences.

I did my first stint of professional society service as a post-doctoral fellow and represented both students and post-docs on the executive of that society. I was a valuable experience and similar in many ways to the various student governments and committees that I’d been a part of in graduate school. It was a fantastic opportunity to network and be involved in selecting the professional development opportunities offered to our early career members.

For the next several years and continuing up to most recently, I’ve served as a judge for various student presentation, poster, and best paper awards. This has allowed me to gain an understanding of what constitutes a great research story and how it can be communicated effectively. I’ve learned a huge amount doing these activities that I now use in my own work and that I pass along to my own lab students.

This was followed by several opportunities to serve as a session chair and the chairperson of several committees in these organizations. This has gained me a subset of very specific organizational skills and allowed me to work with some wonderful colleagues. This work was also very fulfilling as it allowed for the opportunity to overhaul several outdated policies and procedures that we hampering equity, inclusivity, and diversity efforts of the organizations.

I’ve also had the opportunity to contribute to the organization of two scientific conferences which led to the development of a whole host of new professional skills. In hindsight, conferences are a huge amount of work and I would recommend that you wait until you are more than 2 years into your tenure-track job before you take on the task of organizing one!

Most recently, I served on a society’s executive council for three years and this last year I served as the chair for a major section of one of the scientific societies. It was very rewarding, but was more work than I was anticipating, and I’ve therefore made the conscious choice to step back from scientific society service for a few years in order to give myself a break and to allow for alternative perspectives to have a voice.

My take-home messages are:

1) Take the initiative. Sometimes you will be approached to participate, but your contribution will be very welcome if you volunteer through self-nomination.

2) Start small and get your feet wet with some reasonable commitments before diving into duties that are more challenging.

3) Do service that is personally and professionally meaningful for you. I especially liked assignments where I had a fair degree of autonomy and flexibility where I could make a meaningful and long lasting impact on the society.

4) If the timing isn’t right, you should decline opportunities without guilt and take breaks as needed.

5) If you recognize the potential to contribute in others, plant a seed by suggesting that their skills would be valuable and encourage them to get involved.

 

Reflections on Teaching a Three Hour Evening Class for the First Time

Since I’ve started teaching courses at the university level, the classes that I have taught have been 1 hour timeslots three times a week on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, or 1.5 hour slots on Tuesdays and Thursdays between the hours of 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. This semester I taught a 3 hour class for the first time and it was on a Monday evening.

I think that when dealing with timeslots that you haven’t experienced before that it is important to go into the experience with an open mind. Prior to teaching this particular course I spoke with some colleagues who had done 3 hour classes before to get an idea of what they liked and didn’t like about the experience. I also went online and looked more broadly about what other professors said about preparing for and teaching a 3 hour class.

Here are my lists of pros and cons that I experienced:

Pros

1) I liked teaching once per week as opposed to 2 or 3 lecture slots per week. I think this considerably decreased my overall stress level because my days weren’t as fragmented this term. While I enjoy teaching, it was great to know that my classroom time was completed by 10 p.m. on Monday. I felt like the rest of the week was open and full of possibilities.

2) Monday evening was a good timeslot as my students were coming off a weekend and were definitely more lively than if the class had been scheduled in the early morning. Getting them to participate in class was fairly easy.

3) I never felt rushed going through my teaching material. I also felt that I could deliver the material more efficiently and in less time in a single 3 hour block compared to three 1 hour blocks.

4) I was able to offer my students some class time to work on a major group project.

Cons

1) Three hours is a long time to teach and to hold the attention of students. The first hour was always good. I then gave a 10 minute break and we launched into the second hour. After that I gave a 5 minute break and moved on to the last hour. I have to admit that the 3rd hour was pretty tough. I was starting to get tired and holding the full attention of the students was very challenging because they were reaching the limits of their ability to focus.

2) It was disheartening to lose a few students after each break. The vast majority did stay for the second hour, but larger numbers left during the second break. This was at its worst on my very last day of class.

3) I found it harder to run active learning exercises in a 3 hour class compared to a 1 hour class. This might have been because there was more time and less urgency to get through an activity and I think this threw off my sense of timing a bit.

4) If a student missed class on Monday evening, they missed a lot of material.

Overall, I liked teaching a 3 hour class Monday evenings and it’s given me a lot to think about in terms of my teaching, classroom management, and pedagogy.

 

Personal Productivity: Meal Planning and Grocery Shopping

Personal Productivity: Meal Planning and Grocery Shopping

At my house we are pretty good about eating dinners at home together every night. My partner and I decided early on that we were going to make it a priority and it allows us all to chat over a meal and find out what is going on in everyone else’s lives. My kids have activities several nights a week, but thus far we have still managed to do this by eating earlier on some evenings.

Over the years we have gotten better at planning, buying food, preparing, and serving dinners at home. A great deal of the credit goes to my partner, who does the actual cooking, while I am on clean up duty. It’s a split of chores that works well for us.

On Saturday mornings we update our finances and determine how much money is available in the grocery budget for that week. Our goal is to come up with 6-7 dinners for the upcoming week. Once those are decided, we go through the recipes and our cupboards and freezers, in order to determine what needs to be purchased to make the meals. I enter the required items into an app on my iPhone called Flipp. This is an awesome app as it allows us to have a grocery list and the app shows us where each item is on sale that week. You can circle the sale items in the store flyers right in the app and this makes price matching so easy! We buy the bulk of our groceries at a store that price matches and this easily saves us several dollars each week.

Once the menu is planned for the week, we list the meals on a white board in our laundry room. This allows our kids to see what the dinners are for the week and this means that there are no surprises and a lot less whining about what’s for dinner. On the white board there is also a place for the kids to make requests for meals for the upcoming week, and a running grocery list where they can request that certain food items get purchased. If we run out of a type of food, everyone is pretty good about putting it on the list to be bought the next week.

The 6-7 meals get made the next week, but we don’t slate them into particular days. On days where someone has an activity or event in the evening we often make something easy in the slow cooker. On days where there is more time, my partner will make a more complicated meal. The dinner list also helps us to remember to defrost or marinate food the night before in preparation for the next day’s meal.

Most weeks my partner and I do the grocery shopping together. The kids usually don’t come and that is an advantage as fewer impulse items make it into the cart. We often shop on weekends, but are playing around with going during the week in order to avoid the crowds. We select our own items, but have toyed around with the idea of shopping for groceries online and picking them up at the store, but we haven’t tried that yet.

This pre-planning and purchasing cuts down on a lot of stress and has mostly gotten rid of the dreaded “What’s for dinner?” question in our house. It also saves us a huge amount of money as we are less tempted to eat delivery, take-out, fast-food, or at a restaurant during the week out of desperation.

Doctor Al Digest #25

bacterial-diet-spotlight

Poster by Dr. Tristan Long

Some great articles in the past few weeks…

The Feminism of Black Panther vs. Wonder Woman

We are All for Diversity, but… How Faculty hiring committees reproduce whiteness and practical suggestions for how they can change

Addressing issues related to child-care at conferences

Pushing back against the quick turnaround to serve as a reviewer for journal manuscripts

How some relationships are ending because of the #metoo moment and current politics, and it’s not due to the reason you think!

My colleague and I talk about our #Scicomm efforts.

 

Career Benefits of Blogging as a Faculty Member

I’ve been on Twitter and blogging since the fall of 2013. When I first started, I didn’t really have any goals other than that I wanted to help early career scientists navigate academia and I wanted to become part of some communities that I didn’t have access to in my daily life. Both of these activities have led to some unexpected positive outcomes.

I would say that the top benefit has been increased visibility of my research and my ideas to a broad community. This has involved interactions with other scientists, various academics, and members of the public. For example, a blog post from April 2015 called “The Advantages of Live Tweeting a Research Talk” led to an invitation to moderate a live Twitter chat comprised on Knowledge Mobilization officers across Canada and the U.S.

The second benefit is the honing of writing and communication skills. These skills are transferable to many other facets of my job and are valuable. I took a stab at writing an article for The Conversation Canada called “The Force of biology is strong in Star Wars” and my aim was to talk about mitochondria and cloning with a general audience. To date the article has received over 17,000 views; nothing else that I have written in my career has received so many reads.

The third benefit is that the blog allows me to share my opinions and to offer advice to early career biologists. The blog allows me to quantify some of my outreach activities and include them as part of my university service. My blog post on “Research Budgeting for Scientists” from March 2015 was re-published on the University Affairs website the next year. I’ve been interviewed for two articles for the journal Nature; one on networking in 2017 and one a few weeks ago called “Why science blogging still matters”. More recently I was invited to join the Science Borealis blog network that features Canadian bloggers who focus on various scientific fields.

I’ll point readers to this fantastic article written by several of my blogging heroes that explores this topic in more detail and talks about other impacts that science blogging can have for an individual and the broader community.