Tag: science

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?

Advertisements

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!

DoctorAl Digest

Here’s a list of links that I’ve found interesting this week:

  1. Octopi are cool creatures. A lovely video of new species looking for a name (h/t Malcolm M. Campbell)
  2. Women in Science calling out the whole Tim Hunt debacle using the cheeky #distractinglysexy hashtag on Twitter.
  3. A thoughtful post on making decisions over at the Beyond Managing Blog.
  4. I’m currently reading the book “I Know How She Does It” by Laura Vanderkam. Her website has focussed on associated issues of the work/life mosaic for women the past few weeks.
  5. Jacquelyn Gill’s tweets this week (@JacquelynGill) on her field work have been fascinating!
  6. Tanya Golash-Boza pushing back against the workaholic culture of academia with her refreshing post “Summer Hours: Enjoy your summer and be productive too!”
  7. The importance of “Finding new definitions for career success” over at Tenure, She Wrote.
  8. A reminder that some academic departments are toxic over at the Conditionally Accepted blog

On-line Storage of Lab Protocols

In the labs I’ve been in previously, common lab protocols were stored in a binder in the lab for reference. Usually I’d make a photocopy for my own use as a place to start and as I optimized the protocol for my experiments I’d mark up this copy. Once I had a solid protocol worked out, I’d generate my own copy of the protocol so that it served my purposes. When I started my own lab I wanted to make sure that my students had a binder of protocols that they could refer to for their own experiments. At the same time I wanted to prevent protocol drift (i.e. the inadvertent changing of a protocol over time). I thought about the common protocols that we would use in the lab and generated several binders for these that are stored in the lab. This approach works, but it’s a bit clunky and limited the students to looking at the protocols only while in the lab. I recently decided that it would make sense to generate a central, on-line repository for our lab protocols.

A quick search of the web showed that researchers do this in different ways. Some labs make their own Wiki to hold this information, others use cloud storage or an online protocol repository, and others used a campus intranet or password protected website. I’m currently in the process of evaluating all of the possible options. How does your lab store and manage experimental protocols? I’d love to receive advice and hear about options in the comments below!

Blogs that I read

One of the great advantages to using social media (e.g. blogging, Twitter) is the wonderful people that you can meet and the impressive knowledge that you can acquire in a short period of time. Before I began blogging I lurked for a long time on-line in order to examine the landscape and get a feel for how bloggers go about blogging and how scientists were using Twitter. I’m still learning, but for those of you who are new to the on-line world, or are looking for new blogs to read I thought that I’d share links to the blogs that I read regularly. I list them below in no particular order.

  1. Apple Pie and the Universe

I’ve been reading this blog for several years. The writer is a female astrophysicist who is balancing a professional career with family. She has recently gone back to school to become a teacher and has a strong interest in public science outreach.

  1. Ask a Manager

Alison Green dispenses straight shooting advice on how to manage people. I’ve found her blog very helpful for providing perspective on my role as a professor managing my lab and a group of trainees. The scenarios presented here are sometimes shocking, but the advice is solid.

  1. Beyond Managing

Melanie recently left a job in the information technology sector and has become an entrepreneur. She often posts insightful pieces on productivity, managing people, and women in science.

  1. Dynamic Ecology

I am not an ecologist, but I enjoy most of the posts on this site by Brian, Meg, and Jeremy.

  1. Eat, Read, Science.

Betty posts great summaries of recent, cool science papers! Always an interesting read.

  1. Female Science Professor

This blog was recently referred to as the “gateway” science blog for many women in science that led them into the blogosphere or encouraged them to start blogging themselves.

  1. The Simple Dollar

Trent provides simple ideas for how to manage your money and live a frugal lifestyle without turning into a humourless hermit.

  1. Get a Life Ph.D.

Tanya provides useful advice and perspective for graduate students and those starting out on the tenure track.

  1. Small Pond Science

Terry et al. talk about what it’s like to do research at a smaller, teaching focussed institution. The “Recommended Reads” posts are awesome!

  1. Tenure, She Wrote

A fairly new blog that covers a wide array of topics in frank and honest voices from multiple contributors.

  1. Isis the Scientist

This was one of the first blogs that I read that really spoke to me as a woman in science. Dr. Isis tells it like it is, but offers effective strategies for real world scenarios.

What blogs do you like to read as a scientist? Leave links in the comments below.

Why aren’t more faculty members on Twitter?

Last week I participated in my first Twitter chat and this also coincided with serving as the moderator of the chat. The topic of the chat was live tweeting research talks and we discussed several issues pertaining to the use of Twitter by academics and others. One of the things that came up during the talk is how many faculty are not on Twitter and why that might be.

One reason I’ve often had expressed to me is that some colleagues don’t see the utility of Twitter. I will admit that this was me for a long time. I didn’t really understand Twitter and really didn’t see how it could be advantageous professionally (or personally). At first it seemed like a passing fad.

Another reason that many faculty don’t Tweet is fear of the unknown or fear due to a lack of control over social media. I think many of us are worried that we may not express ourselves well given the limit of 140 characters or that we might say something inappropriate that could have repercussions for our career.

Others may not use Twitter because it isn’t intuitively clear how you go about archiving tweets or how to quantify them in terms of impact. In the sciences, impact is usually a numbers game. Tools to do this like Storify etc. certainly exist, but there is a learning curve in figuring out how to use them.

These thoughts transitioned into how you might encourage colleagues to join Twitter. Suggestions included helping them set up a Twitter account, showing them how easy it is to do, providing tip sheets, giving examples of Tweets, and providing evidence of its impact and usefulness. The role of institutions and organizations was also seen as important in terms of increasing the adoption of Twitter by faculty.

I started using Twitter in December 2013 for fun. I didn’t have a goal or purpose in mind and just wanted to explore using it. Being connected to others through Twitter has had many advantages and outcomes that I would never have imagined in the beginning.

What are your thoughts on Twitter? Do you Tweet? Do your colleagues? Why or why not?

Tips for designing experiments

One guarantee of being a scientist is that you perform many experiments in your career that do not work. I always warn trainees just joining my lab that this will happen and that they should expect it. This is an issue that I discuss in particular with undergraduate students because often the only lab experience they have is through undergrad labs run as part of a course and those experiments are designed to work and have already undergone extensive troubleshooting. I make sure to tell my students that they will run many failed experiments and that this is a normal part of doing science and is a cornerstone of the scientific method. I tell them that so far in my career I’ve only had a few experiments that worked out perfectly the first time and that a failed experiment can happen for reasons other than their abilities or talent for doing science.

That being said, there are things that you can do to decrease the chances that an experiment will fail right out of the gate. I offer some tips below:

1) The first thing that I suggest to students is that they do extensive reading of the literature and established protocols related to their experiment before starting to design it. I’ve heard the phase “one hour in the library can save you one month in the lab” and I absolutely believe it! It’s really important to understand the rationale behind a particular protocol and the nuts and bolts of why you are doing each step. In the days of commercial kits I think that many people forget this crucial step and it often causes issues later.

2) Make sure that you are including all reasonably possible positive and negative controls as part of your experiment. From talking with several of my colleagues recently it has become clear that many undergraduate and graduate students have not had explicit training in how to determine what the appropriate controls should be for an experiment or are simply not including them. By including controls in your experiment you allow yourself the capability of narrowing down where problems cropped up in your experiments. When an experiment fails, this step can save you a massive amount of time when it comes to troubleshooting and determining what went wrong. The presence of control and experimental groups also ensures that you will be able to conduct statistical analyses of your data in an attempt to demonstrate whether your results are significant.

3) Write up an extremely detailed step by step protocol for your experiment. Try to think about what might go wrong and where key steps are in the protocol. Attempt to troubleshoot the experiment before you even do it. The plans for your experiment should be written in your lab notebook and not on paper towels, scrap pieces of paper, etc. This will ensure that your experiment will be reproducible and will help you to identify potential issues before you get rolling. If someone in the lab has done the experiment or protocol before, go and talk to them. They may have tips or tricks that are not explicitly written down that are valuable. Write out the protocol in your own words with as much detail as you can. I tell my students that if they needed to perform the experiment without thinking about the steps, the protocol should be detailed enough that they could do this.

4) Ensure that all of the materials and reagents that you need for your experiment are available and ready to go before you start the experiment. There is nothing worse than getting part way through a long protocol only to realize that you’ve run out of Tris buffer and have to order more in from the supplier. Complete any prior steps that are needed before starting the experiment. Do you need to culture cells, wrangle critters, grow plants, etc.?

5) Conduct a small trial run of your experiment. Starting things off with a pilot experiment allows you to save money, time, and can allow you to discover problems with the design of your experiment before you fully commit large amounts of resources to it.

Designing good experiments is an art form that requires years of practice in order to get better at it. I am still working on designing the perfect experiment, but I have certainly improved this skill by extensive practice over the years. Due to the challenge of designing an effective experiment it is truly amazing when an experiment works beautifully on the first attempt. This is one of the eureka moments that scientists live for!

A thank-you to Mr. Leonard Nimoy

I was sad to hear on Friday that Leonard Nimoy had died. I remember discovering Star Trek (the original series) in Grade 7 while channel surfing one day after school. I was amazed by the show in terms of its positive setting in a universe where humans explored the vastness of space in the Enterprise. I also thought it was amazing that the ship had a Science Officer and that he was an alien. The use and study of science was interwoven with the issues explored in each episode and Mr. Spock generally played an important role in the plots. It was, as he would say, fascinating.

From that point on I realized that you could make a career out of doing science and that it could lead to the exploration of new frontiers and places. Mr. Spock helped me to see the usefulness of logic and generating hypotheses to explain phenomena in the universe around us. Star Trek helped me to see science as something useful, cool, and exciting and it is truly one of the reasons that I’m a biologist today. Spock had a highly successful career and had many friends on the show despite the fact that he was an outsider and continuously struggled to find out where he belonged. The child of a human mother and a Vulcan father, he wrestled with honouring both civilizations while making his way in the world. I have a great deal of respect for that and it was one of the many things that I liked about Mr. Nimoy’s nuanced portrayal of the character.

Thank-you Mr. Nimoy for opening a young girl’s eyes to the possibility of a life of science and the hope that the future can be a bright one for humanity.

Weird Science

James O’Hanlon has a cool post up right now on his website about the strange things that scientists do for science. It made me think about some of the weird things that I’ve done in the course of doing some of my research projects.

The first funny experience comes from when I was doing my Ph.D. I had discovered the enzyme that I work on, alternative oxidase (AOX), in animals for the first time using bioinformatics. I wanted to do some wet lab experiments in order to confirm that AOX was actually present in the DNA of an animal and that it was transcribed. At that time, I had AOX sequences from three animals: the sea squirt Ciona intestinalis, the nematode Meliodogyne hapla, and the Pacific oyster Crassostrea gigas. The sea squirt is an invasive species on the east coast of Canada, so getting my hands on tissue would have been tricky. The nematode is very tiny and a plant parasite, so that would have been a difficult sample to obtain. Pacific oysters are commonly eaten by people and I figured that would be the way to go. I called a wholesale seafood supplier to confirm the availability of Pacific oysters and drove about 1 hour to go and pick some up. When I arrived there were no Pacific oysters in the store front, so the owner had to take me into the warehouse to get them. It was pretty intimidating as this involved walking through several large pieces of plastic sheeting that separated the store front from the warehouse. I felt like I was in an episode of the X-files or a murder mystery and that I was being led to my doom. We got to the bin that was housing the oysters and the owner asked me how many I wanted. I figured that 24 oysters would get the job done. He started putting the oysters into thick plastic bags and we started chatting. Was I running a restaurant? Nope. (I guess that it’s unusual for individuals to buy 24 oysters at a time). Was I having a large dinner party? Nope. Well, what was I going to do with these oysters then? I said that I was a scientific researcher and that’s when things got weird. The guy completely panicked and started going on and on about how the oysters were safe to eat and were o.k. for human consumption. It turns out that he thought that I was a government scientist who was doing an unannounced, random inspection for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency! In retrospect it’s a hilarious story, but at the time I paid for my oysters and ran! The project was awesome by the way.

The second funny story is from my time during my post-doc. The university where I was working had a great arboretum (collection of trees) and I’d obtained permission to take leaf samples for a project that I was working on regarding the taxonomic distribution of AOX in non-flowering plants. When I went out to sample I used an ice bucket, lots of little tubes, scissors, etc. It would certainly look weird to anyone walking by. A few times I had curious people come up and ask me what I was doing and I enjoyed talking to them about my science. It was a great and unexpected opportunity to do some public outreach.

Head on over to James’ blog or follow the #strangethingsforscience hashtag to hear about some great science adventures!