16 September 2014

Monocot sightings in Tyler Rose Garden

Evidence that there were, in fact, roses.

My mother visiting me for the first time here in Texas was a prime opportunity to indulge myself in some idle plant gazing. Tyler has the nickname of "Rose Capital of the World," due in part to Tyler Rose Garden. Despite being late in the season after a summer of odd weather (cooler than usual, and comparatively wet), there were still quite a few roses in bloom. I even managed to stop for a moment to smell one and snap a picture.

Rain lilies, or Zephyranthes

Leave it to me to go to a garden specializing in roses, which are eudicots, and pay the most attention to a few flowering monocots. Hence, the rest of my gratuitous plant pictures are a few exemplars of the diversity of late summer flowering monocots.

Onions, glorious blooming onions!

I found all of these plants in the IDEA garden, sponsored and maintained by Smith County master gardeners, so they certainly accomplished their mission of inspiring visitors.

Side-by side comparison of monkey grass varieties.

As an ardent admirer of plant diversity, I was delighted to find no fewer than four varieties of Liriope (monkey grass) growing in close proximity. Here you can see variation in leaf color (green, variegated, dark purple), leaf morphology (long, leggy vs short, compact leaves), and growth habit (clumping vs spreading).
Several varieties of agave

Given all the rose bushes in sight, it was a pleasant surprise to come across a xeric rock garden with several interesting varieties of agave. I'm working on a computational project with agave right now, so it's nice to be inspired by seeing the plants growing. I know there are lots of other resources in Texas for these and related species!

11 September 2014

In which I admit new depth to my dorkiness: knitting and teaching.

Greg Wilson did a great job during Software Carpentry instructor training this afternoon of using interesting examples and analogies to explain the psychology of learning. Long time readers of this blog might remember my use of analogies to explain research and teaching (sandwiches and DDR?). This is a habit I picked up from my first class on college science teaching, during my first year as a graduate student. My professor was the incomparable Sandi Abell, without whom I likely would not have achieved my career aspirations. Although she is no longer with us, I think often of her and the time I spent in her classes. One of our course requirements was to write a teaching philosophy using an analogy for teaching. I didn't do very well on the assignment. I tried to compare teaching to the scientific process or ecosystems or something similarly silly, given that the point of the assignment was to make our views on teaching more accessible to a layperson.

When I started applying for jobs a year ago, I pulled that teaching philosophy out of my file archives, blew off the metaphorical dust, and wrapped it in fluffy, wooly goodness. Indeed, I spent a good-sized paragraph describing how teaching and learning are like knitting. I know you're dying to hear how I made that work, so here you go:
Much of my leisure time is spent knitting. I'm not surprised anymore to meet other scientists and educators who play with sticks and string. In fact, knitting possesses many parallels to the process of teaching science in particular. Yarn represents content knowledge like vocabulary that forms the foundation of learning. Knitting needles are like questions offered to students to assist in connecting together loops of yarn to form fabric. A student's misconception is like dropping a stitch in knitting; the instructor must backtrack, correct the mistake, and then pick back up with the previous pattern or lesson. The knitted product represents the goal of learning: a cohesive object which unites together different aspects of knowledge and imparts functionality. In my opinion, science learning is a multidisciplinary, dynamic process that requires flexibility, and instructors who approach science teaching actively and inquisitively are most effective. In the same way, some of the most entertaining knitting projects include many different types of yarn, use interesting stitch patterns, and produce objects which are both functional and beautiful. Both teaching and knitting are skills which require time, effort and continual assessment to yield successful outcomes.
I probably could've written another five pages! Of course, that was just the introductory paragraph to my two-page statement, which was tied up nicely at the end with this hum-dinger of a line:
I hope to continue helping students “knit” scientific concepts together in an interesting, engaging manner.
See what I did there? I'm SO (or maybe just mildly) PUNNY. I'd totally take a class from me.

Gratuitous wool picture, spun and knit by me!
I was halfway through the application season, having submitted at least a dozen applications, before I started to wonder if that was really the best way to present myself as a serious, authoritative scholar. I chalked it up to job-season jitters, though, and persevered. Apart from the analogy method being Sandi-approved, I sincerely believe the analogy to be about as accurate as I could devise. And as I learn more about pedagogy through new faculty orientation and the SC instructor course, I'm finding that things which seem silly to me in the moment are actually an effective way of communicating about science.

I sally forth with my renewed commitment to knitting + teaching. I consider fiber arts and science to be sometimes contradictory but more often complimentary parts of my life. I'm comfortable with that, and I'm extremely grateful to have found a new group of colleagues who can appreciate it as well (I couldn't help it...I knit during my first faculty meeting last week).

02 September 2014

Fall 2014 semester preview

As of yesterday, I'm officially an employee and noob professor at UTT. As a way of previewing my plans for the semester, I decided to outline my plans for the semester. The bonus side effect is a feeling of accountability for me to report back about said plans as they come to fruition!

I'm fortunate as a new professor to have a semester reprieve from teaching. However, I'll be teaching bioinformatics (a lecture and lab) next semester, so I'm doing some professional development homework to give myself the best start possible to developing the course. I'll definitely be doing a lot of writing over the next few months about my preparations for teaching this course and related professional development workshops.
I'll be traveling a bit this semester, too. I've tried to limit myself to one work trip a month, and the resulting schedule reads like "Kate Visits Places She Used to Work":
  • September: Visiting U of Missouri, where I did my graduate work.
  • October: Departmental seminar at Western Kentucky University, where I did my Bachelor's.
  • November: Catalysis meeting (long term experimental evolution) at NESCent, which occurs right before a meeting to celebrate accomplishments of sponsored scientists and projects.
Of course, this is all in addition to the plethora of other routine tasks that I'm learning are a part of the professor job package: writing manuscripts, analyzing data, consulting with students and colleagues on projects, applying for grants, attending meetings, etc. My goal here is to have a decent balance between development of my educational and research job responsibilities. Will I manage it? Stay tuned to find out!

29 August 2014

Greetings from Texas, and my new office!

It's been quiet around here lately. My excuse this time was moving halfway across the country. I announced a few months back that I'm starting as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Tyler, and I'm happy to report that I've arrived and am adjusting to this new role. Five days of orientation and other meetings last week was followed by a week of getting settled in to my office here on campus.

Getting an office of my own was high on my list of things to gleefully anticipate after moving. I'm very invested in having a working space that is comfortable with my commonly used materials readily accessible. That seems common sense, but it's a bit more unpredictable in practice. To be frank, my sense of aesthetics is somewhat...weird. I was assigned an office that formerly belonged to a group of graduate students, complete with a wealth of academic detritus to sort and clean. Rather than being disgruntled at the extra work, I was delighted! I enlisted the help of my kind partner, Matt, to rearrange furniture and bring in my books. What treasures did we unearth?

Hiding behind a bookcase was an old-school bulletin board. My office it near a main entrance for the building, so a campus map is handy for directing brand-new students to their classes (most of them are looking for another building, of course). I'm also adding some obligatory cat cartoons and geeky science pictures (top right is a sticker from Craig McClain's wood fall project).

Dum Dums....
of the chewy variety
Lurking in desk drawers were various electronics. I'm the proud new owner of a Dell desktop, three scanners, a printer, and too many other peripherals to count! I'll be setting them up in my lab next spring for students to use.

I've also learned that Chewy Dum Dums are a thing. I have a 2 lb bag, although I only keep a portion of them "on display" in this lovely fall-themed container (there's a This Is Public Health sticker on the other side). In the interest of public health, I'll probably eat the entire bag of candy myself...who knows how long they've been there!

The blood II
The pièce de résistance of my new office finds is a poster aptly titled "The blood II," made in Soviet Occupied Germany. It suits my pseudo-vampiric aesthetic quite nicely. On the wall opposite that masterpiece is one of my most prized possessions...a microbiology lab report in quilt form, made and gifted to me by my dear friend Katy. I have a few other posters and pieces of art to hang in here, and am planning on adding at least one wall hanging of my own (which has yet to be created...I'm thinking something knitted with needle felted elements, with nature motifs?). 

Katy's quilted microbiology lab report
So far, I'm satisfied with the setup of my space for now. I don't have any windows, so I might add a desk lamp (see my post about headaches and the importance of lighting). I also want to add some plants, and I have a few cricket "pets" hiding beneath my desk right now. Regardless, I'm very much looking forward to finally getting back to science after too many weeks of moving and administrative work. 

01 July 2014

The value of a few kind words in academia and science.

At the last Evolution poster session, I came across a first year graduate student whose short research grant I recalled reviewing last spring for a professional society. Like all students (dare I say all scientists?), her writing was a bit rough around the edges, but I could tell she was doing interesting, important research. I paused as she walked another conference attendee through the theory and figures on her poster. It was a delight to hear her explanation of the work she'd accomplished; she was animated, enthusiastic, and clearly invested in the science she was highlighting. Afterwards, I introduced myself and told her I'd enjoyed reading her proposal. Her face lit up and she told me a bit more about future research directions.

I often reflect on the tension in academia (especially science) between being objective researchers but also effective mentors and peers. Science demands we interpret evidence without bias, which requires a cold, detached mindset. However, science is also an intensely personal, and therefore subjective, enterprise (myself and other #ScienceFAIL storytellers highlighted some of these topics). I was lucky to have a graduate advisor who helped me stay optimistic about my research and career trajectory. After leaving his lab and communicating with other early-career scientists, however, I've started to realize how rare that type of support can be.

Let's be honest. The job market sucks. Funding is abysmally competitive. Student evaluations of our teaching can be brutal. There's the cliche about reviewer #3 being a total meanie. We're trained to be skeptical, and that sometimes translates into an unfortunate type of cynicism that permeates our work. The result? The suicide prevention hotline is listed as a "Useful link" on the notorious Ecology Jobs Wiki, and if the comments on the rant page are any indication, there are folks who actually need it.

Don't get me wrong--the evolutionary biology and bioinformatics folks with whom I work are fantastic, happy, awesome people. It just doesn't seem to occur to most of us to offer personal, meaningful words of support. I took the advice of another early-career scientist and started to compile bits of encouraging correspondence to bolster myself in times of self-doubt. I'm shocked at how discouraged some of my peers feel at times. Often, these are people I deeply respect and even view as quite successful. As I've started to transition to my next career stage, I find myself in the position of being able to offer small bits of encouragement to other scientists, too.

The upshot is that not everyone needs this type of encouragement. However, I suspect a few kind words can make a huge difference in improving diversity in science. Women and minorities of any sort (racial, ethnic, sexuality, etc) are already fighting an uphill battle against implicit (and even explicit) bias. It's worth a few moments of my time every once in awhile to help ameliorate those effects.

27 June 2014

Con drop and lessons learned from Evolution/iEvoBio 2014

I'm in the midst of processing the aftermath of seven very full days of scientific conference. After almost twelve hours of sleep, I'm feeling a bit of a science hangover.  It occurs to me that this post-conference experience is not unprecedented or unfamiliar. Con drop is pretty well documented by other attendees of a variety of conferences and conventions (look here and here for a few examples), and is generally related to the let-down accompanying the return to real life following submersion in a large group of like-minded people. I don't recall seeing much discussion about post-science con drop, but it makes sense. Especially this year: I was on my home turf, seeing lots of folks I already knew and meeting lots of new people, all of us exuberant on the fumes of scientific progress. In the days following Evolution, I found myself relieved at the relaxation of my scheduled obligations but simultaneously bereft. As I slowly return to "real life," I decided to note a few of the big take-home lessons from Evolution 2014 and iEvoBio. A few other folks have written similar posts (I particularly like Rob's lessons and Jeremy Yoder's tweet synopsis).

First, my time limit for conference science-ing is six hours. I do a passable job of stifling my introverted nature for a time, but it means I need to pace myself. If I do a full morning of talks and lunch meeting, I'll have to take a break mid-afternoon and spend some time along. I'm really glad I have a tangible, quantifiable amount of time that seems to be consistently manageable for me…makes planning easier next time!

Second, I participated in two informal lunch-time gatherings: one tweet-up and one LGBTQ meeting. We tried two different models for these. For the first, we met at the registration desk and wandered elsewhere to find lunch. For the second, we had a lunchtime venue planned. Neither seemed satisfactory, as finding a place for 15+ people to eat is difficult, regardless of the amount of planning involved. I'm thinking about better ways to achieve future meetings, such as contacting conference organizers to have a room assigned. I don't know if I want to manage a formal discussion like the one I attended for AWIS at Evolution, but I like the idea of providing a venue to facilitate interactions between groups of likeminded people.

Of course, there are plenty of other things I'd like to break down in more detail, but fomenting ideas about these main topics seems sufficient navel-gazing for now.

20 June 2014

Decreasing conference awkwardness.

If we're very honest with ourselves, we'll likely agree that academics, particularly scientists, are quite an awkward bunch. Put a few thousand of us together in an unfamiliar environment, and we spend lots of time searching for people we know (or need to know) amidst a sea of quasi-familiar faces, trying to promote our science, while simultaneously attempting to keep track of our laptops, phones, conference programs, bags, etc.

I've been thinking about ways to alleviate the unpleasantness while maximizing the fun. It's kind of ironic for me to give advice like this, given my own tendency towards awkward, but if it works for me…?

  1. Don't be afraid to take a look at someone's name tag/affiliation, and even to let them know you're doing so. At a conference with hundreds/thousands of people, it's normal to need a moment to recognize everyone! There are even some folks with face blindness or who otherwise struggle to place faces in the absence of names. There will be a few folks who will act like jerks because you don't know them, but you don't really want to be their friend anyway, eh?
  2. Addendum to #1: Don't let your name tag hang on your stomach. Tie a knot in the string holding it so it's closer to your face. This is especially important for short people (so tall folks don't have to bend over) and women (because boobs).
  3. Second addendum to #1: Add your twitter username to your name tag. Some conferences (like ScienceOnline) do this for you. You might be surprised how many folks recognize you for your twitter handle (for me, @k8hert) but not necessarily your name (Kate Hertweck).
  4. Extension of #3: Make it easier for folks to talk to you about your poster or talk. My first (title) and last (acknowledgement) slides of my talks include my twitter handle, Google+, blog address, and Slideshare address. I decided recently to include my twitter handle in a footer at the bottom of every slide (with my name, affiliation, and short title), in case people want to tweet mid-talk. Post your talk or poster online (like at Slideshare) and tell the audience…way easier than expecting someone to take notes instead of listening, or printing off small copies of a poster.
  5. I depend on my resealable travel coffee mug, because I'm really good at accidentally spilling things but like having water/coffee with me (someone already knocked over a cup of water in front of me yesterday in the morning sessions). Evolution this year told us ahead of time we're all getting water bottles, which helps you plan when packing!
  6. I also adore my external rechargeable cell phone battery. I like tweeting at meetings and can also take notes on my phone, and this gadget sure beats trying to find an available outlet. I've been seeing them at big-box stores for $10.
  7. Of course, here's my obligatory note that I'd be quite lost without twitter. There's no better way to find people, events or information. I know some folks who use it as their conference notes.
For a few more of my favorite conference tips, see my post from last year. Anybody else have ideas?

Some folks from Twitter had great ideas:

That reminded me of another of my tricks: I keep business cards face-out behind my name tag. I always forget to give them out, and it helps to have a few handy.