29 August 2012

And so it begins.

My silence here over the last few weeks is attributed to a common source of consternation among academics: the beginning of the semester. I've taken on a new role for work this academic year. For the first time, NESCent has teamed up with Duke Biology to sponsor a postdoctoral position. The responsibilities are half-time teaching and half-time research (regular postdocs at NESCent spend are full-time researchers on their independently directed projects). I was fortunate enough to apply for and obtain this position, and August 1 marked the transition to these new responsibilities. Thus, I've spent time over the last few weeks preparing for the start of classes this last Monday.

Several other postdocs in my cohort expressed disbelief that I would choose to sacrifice a portion of my research time over the next year. NESCent is an idyllic place for postdocs. We choose our own research activities and have a great deal of freedom in balancing projects. I also have quite a bit of teaching experience. What was my impetus for pursuing teaching, then?

Well, I really like teaching. I'm also assisting in teaching a class I find very compelling for both intellectual and research purposes. There are two introductory biology classes here at Duke: cell/molecular and ecology/genetics. The latter class, which is a spot-on match for my own research pursuits, is the class with which I am involved. I'm teaching a lab section and helping with curriculum development for the lab and lecture. There are several facets of this experience I'm hoping will give me some perspective as I start applying for faculty positions, including interacting with a different demographic of student than I am accustomed to teaching, observing a variety of lecturers, and integrating on-line class components. That's even before I start helping modify any course content! I expect to teach genetics and evolution courses in the future, so I'm totally jazzed about thinking about setting up such courses right now.

Part of my job this year is observing class lectures three times a week. I've both taken and taught classes that have covered similar material in the past. It would be easy to settle into a mindless stupor instead of remaining engaged. Instead, I'm taking the opportunity to think about broad concepts of evolution and teaching, and think about connections in my contextual framework of scientific knowledge. It amuses me that I keep getting mini-epiphanies throughout the course of these lectures, reinforcing my belief that thinking about education is well worth my time.

14 August 2012

Twilight Sparkle is my favorite My Little Pony

The following picture showed up in my Facebook feed this morning:

I joked that I would have to write a blog about why this pony, Twilight Sparkle, is my favorite. Turns out my friends actually want to read such a thing, so here we are.

As a highly educated, childless adult, you might wonder why I even care about children's cartoons currently in production. First, there's the whole "Princess" thing in my blog title. But there is also a precedent for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (MLP:FIM) being popular with a non-target audience (look here for research or here for a fan supported wiki). Short story: I don't feel the need for any more validation, and I've got a few moments to spare while my data processes.

So here we are! The following is a list of reasons why Twilight Sparkle is my favorite.

  1. Um, read the picture up above. Yeah, that.
  2. She's a unicorn.
  3. She's pink and purple.
  4. She knows magic.
  5. She reads a lot.
  6. She solves problems by using her knowledge and skills.
  7. She is sometimes socially inept and a bit dense, but her ability to introspectively analyze her thoughts and behaviors allows her to continue growing as a pony.
Yeah, I kind of identify with her.

13 August 2012

My other keywords.

Scientists quickly grow accustomed to characterizing their research using a handful of words and/or phrases. My research can be pared down to a collection of terms comprising methods, study systems, and research approaches:

  • genomics
  • transposable elements
  • comparative phylogenetic methods
  • diversification
  • life history evolution
  • monocots
I've written a bit about my goals for this blog, mostly involving writing about the larger issues associating science with other research fields and major patterns in research. As a result, I find myself also describing my research interests in terms of broader, seemingly vague issues:
  • uncertainty/error
  • scale
  • scope
  • specificity
  • rules
  • definitions/semantics
These are topics that arise repeatedly in the course of my research, as well as at conferences, in meetings, and during conversations with my colleagues. I'm starting to realize how important it is for me to acknowledge how variations in viewpoints of these alternative keywords shape the scientific enterprise.

03 August 2012

Inexpert advice aiding expert research.

I had some sudden flashes of brilliant SCIENCE while driving to a friend's house for dinner last night. Upon arrival, I spent a few moments jotting these thoughts down while he finished cooking. I started grumbling about a few things not making sense. He told me to talk him through it.

My friend is not a biologist, but he is knowledgable and clever, and interrupted me frequently as I talked to ask questions or make comments. Is that assumption valid? That train of logic makes sense. I didn't have all the answers I needed at the end of the process, but I certainly understood the problem better.

A few moments of an inexpert but willing brain was productive and interesting time spent. I was reminded of the time I spent in graduate school with a group of students who, although not researching the same topics, still frequently conversed about out research and pitched ideas for experiments. As scientists, we settle into our intellectual niche and sometimes find it difficult to break out of this very specific area of expertise. We can help each other by offering a bit of insight from a different perspective, and we can help ourselves by asking for this assistance.

We can't possible know the small, minute details of all areas of science. We can, however, use our training in critical thinking and logical reasoning to process even very disparate research topics. The process of scientific research is nuanced in different fields, but even these small variations can inform our own research. There is no shame in talking about problems that don't quite make sense. There should be no pretentiousness in our responses as well.