18 December 2014

Formal address.

Right after finishing my PhD, I started preparations to move to North Carolina to begin a job as a postdoctoral researcher. My mother accompanied me on a preliminary scouting trip to find an apartment. I was baffled and a little amused when she made sure potential landlords and leasing agents knew I was "Dr." Kate Hertweck.

My title has never really felt comfortable to me. I certainly feel like I earned it, but I don't necessarily feel compelled for other folks to address me as such. I added "PhD" to my email signature, along with my affiliation, and that seemed to suit my electronic communication needs. It took over a year before I stopped laughing when people introduced me in person using it. Now that I'm a professor, I still don't introduce myself using that title. More often than not, however, I find myself needing to clarify to various folks on (and off) campus that I am, indeed, a Doctor of Philosophy.

I've taught classes as both a graduate student and postdoc, and until now I've been comfortable with students referring to me by my first name. As I'm writing the lab manual for my class next semester, though, I'm constantly second-guessing my choices in how to reference myself. The generic "your instructor" seems so sterile and unnecessary, given that I'm writing documents specifically about me and my class. But what is a better option?

Of course, I'm a resource junkie, so I took a few minutes to look at what other folks think about this topic. I grabbed blog posts from NeuroDojo and Small Pond Science and articles from Slate and Inside Higher Ed. I was really serious about learning things, so I even read the comments. Here are the options I've discovered for how students may choose to address me:
  1. Dr. Hertweck
  2. Professor Hertweck
  3. Doctor Professor Hertweck
  4. Dr. Kate
  5. Kate
  6. Dr. Hert (pronounced "hurt")
  7. Ma'am
  8. Ms. Hertweck
  9. Mrs. Hertweck
With such a plethora of options, I definitely feel like I need to at least narrow it down for students. I find the last two to be unacceptable, and #7 to be somewhat distasteful (although I often feel compelled to address other folks as such, and it's rather unavoidable here in the South). #3 has too many syllables, with #2 almost too many. #6 exists only to amuse me. But still, I'm straddling the fence over whether to prefer formal or informal names. I've even considered offering all remaining options to students, and keeping track on which they choose (I really do like collecting data). 

I recognize all the arguments for different forms of address. The argument from NeuroDojo resonates with my personal philosophy of science. However, I'm a young, early-career female, so I may need to impose more authority on students. There doesn't seem to be a clear standard in my department, either. Moreover, when my mom introduced me as a doctor when looking for apartments, it actually made a difference (my application fee was waived). I dislike using that type of privilege, but I need to admit that it does occur.

I suppose I've spent a lot of time thinking about this particular topic because it represents a very tangible manifestation of my uncertainty with my new job description. What's appropriate clothing for me to wear to work? How formal should my language be? Moreover, how do all of these considerations interact with my own personal preferences and sense of self? If any of this sounds familiar, it's because I pondered the same issues of personal feelings vs. perceived expectations in my last post. I suspect that this current post will also not be the last.

15 December 2014

Struggling with assessment.

I'm in the final throes of course design for my bioinformatics class next semester. I've already written a bit about planning the course, and a little about my problems convincing students to take it. I've spent a lot of time getting the computer lab up and running, and a lot of time preparing course materials. Although I still need a few more students to enroll, I'm fairly certain I'll actually get to teach the course (and hey, if it doesn't make this semester, there's always two years from now? *eye roll*).

Here's where I am in planning. I've got a lecture that meets for three hours a week on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, and a lab that meets for three hours Thursday evening. Lecture is about general theories and concepts, while lab is about implementation of that content in coding and data analysis. The course content is split into two sections: the first six weeks is what I call the Bioinformatics Framework, where we talk about bioinformatics as a field of research/applications, managing data, developing pipelines, and hypothesis testing. The second part of the class is Applied Bioinformatics, where we'll cover several "vignettes" of bioinformatics applications, like sequence alignment, clustering/phylogenetics, and genome assembly. I'm pretty comfortable with this plan, including how it relates to my objectives for student learning.

My last big hurdle in course preparation is finalizing how I will assess student performance (i.e., giving grades). Because the class is based on skills development but also incorporates interdisciplinary thinking (biology + computer science), I'll need to implement a variety of assignment formats. I'm planning at least one formative assessment for students to turn in each week to make sure everyone's on the same page. I'm also going to have each student do a class project: researching a type of bioinformatic analysis not covered in class (like protein structure/folding, network analysis, metabolomics, etc). They will present their findings on the major challenges, methods, and applications in that topic to the class, so we'll get a broader feeling for research topics than what I'll have time to cover.

My problem is that I need to be able to explain exactly what students learned during the semester (summative assessment). This is partly for my own ability to track student performance, but also for reporting to departmental and university groups. However, I appear to have developed an allergy to things called "exams" (the most common form of summative assessment). I get anxious just thinking about having to write, administer, and grade an exam.

Azuki beans. They are pretty,
but I am no bean (or point) counter.
(thanks Wikimedia Commons)
I met with a fantastic instructional designer (Leslie Lindsey) from the aptly-named Office of Instructional Design last week, and we talked about different approaches to evaluating student performance. She validated me in my belief that I can give a course that does not include exam-based assessment. She helped me realize that my aversion to exams seems to be a fear of the reductionism of simply counting points to assess student learning, which seems to be required to give a final letter grade in the class. What she said to me blew my mind: "Think of assessments as a way of collecting data about student performance."

Oh, the irony! I'm teaching a class on using computers to analyze biological data and I failed to realize that assessing student performance and assigning grades is just another data analysis problem. I was getting bogged down in my imagined obligations as a professor, and not thinking about this enough as a data analysis problem. My problem is largely semantic, and perhaps I just need to think about offering a different kind of exam, designed to emphasize the things I value as a professor. I value steady, consistent effort by students throughout the semester, even if it means I need to keep up with grading on a weekly basis. I value student comprehension that allows conceptual synthesis and connection between topics, but understand this may take more time than is allowed in a class period. I don't want my need for data collection to adversely affect student grades when there are other, better means of assessing their understanding.

Ultimately, I've decided to use an evaluation strategy based on "units of assessment" that are graded on a similar (but adjustable and specifiable) rubric. Weekly assignments in both lecture and lab will count as 1 unit each. Research projects for each class will have multiple parts, each of which counts as 1 unit. For lecture, I'll have a day each for both the first and second part of the course for students to perform summative assessments. These assessments will include two parts (one in-class, one out-of-class) which count as 1 unit each. That means the summative assessments are weighted as a bit more important than weekly assessments. I'll average the rubric scores throughout the semester and convert to a letter grade. This seems much more palatable to me than assigning absolute point values or weighted percentages to every type of assessment. Also, I'm hoping it will capture student performance much more authentically than grading based on exams that occur on a few days throughout the semester.

I don't know if this makes sense to anyone else, but it's starting to make sense in my head?

12 December 2014

Departmental holiday parties, then and now.

My PhD advisor, Chris Pires, sent me this picture via email a few days ago. It's the two of us at our first holiday party at University of Missouri, during my first year of graduate school in 2005. I think we won trivia or something, and got an awesome grab bag of "prizes" that included slightly broken garden shears?

Picture courtesy of Melody Kroll

My first UT Tyler Dept of Biology holiday party was today at lunch. I must not have really changed much over the last decade, because I still took leftover food (mainly dessert, because priorities). I'm also dressed a bit better than in the picture above, not necessarily because my fashion sense has changed, but so I can go to commencement tonight. I haven't participated in commencement since I graduated from high school (although I did attend my big brother's Ph.D graduation last spring). Onwards and upwards!

Now if only I could finish my class plan for bioinformatics next semester...

06 December 2014

Geeking out about acorns on the local news.

My university has a pretty decent relationship with the local news. Reporters fairly frequently contact the public relations office, seeking out an authority (i.e., professor) on the topic of the story they're preparing. A few folks in my department appear in news stories on a semi-regular basis, mostly offering facts and opinions on issues tangentially related to their areas of expertise.

I wasn't entirely surprised, therefore, when I got a phone call from the public relations office a few days ago, asking if I'd be willing to talk to a reporter. I was initially apprehensive, as I'm still trying to get my bearings in my new home state and wasn't sure I wanted to be put on the spot if asked about something controversial. I had no need for fear, though: I'd been recommended as someone who could talk about why it was there seemed to be such a large acorn crop this year.

"Heck yeah!" I thought, and calmly agreed to meet with the reporter that afternoon. I spent a few minutes doing a quick literature search. As I suspected, there's a decent amount of literature on that very topic. I made a list of talking points, including a few general notes about plant biology/ecology:

  1. Acorns are the fruit of the oak tree, created by the fertilization of a female flower by pollen from a male flower.
  2. Multiple factors can affect the development of an acorn, including how many flowers of each type are produced, effectiveness of pollination, and whether the tree has resources to dedicate to developing lots of fruits.
  3. The factors above are, in turn, dependent on temperature, amount of sunlight, and levels of precipitation.
  4. Acorn production (masting) also varies temporally (through years), spatially (across geography), and by species (some oak species produce more/larger acorns).
  5. This summer has been particularly cool and wet compared to the past (I checked average temperature and precipitation for the month of July for 2011-2014), so perhaps those conditions favor more acorn production.
  6. Trees are large and can't move, so resource allocations from previous years can affect acorn production in subsequent years.
The interview took about 15 minutes. We went outside and stood near some conveniently located oaks near my building. Of course, the talking points I had planned were shuffled around and reframed depending on the questions he asked, but I think I covered everything listed above and more (acorns are food for wildlife, they do eventually grow into trees, etc). Then the reporter grabbed a totally awkward shot of me walking down a path looking at leaves.

It's totally cringe worthy, but I know at least my dad will want the link, so you can see how my talking points above translated into the final story here: KLTV News, Why so many acorns this fall?

Lessons learned: keep makeup and a blazer in my office, to prepare for next time. Be a more careful about preparing appropriate sound-bites. I was also surprised to learn how much trouble the reporter had getting someone to talk to him about this; a number of arborists in town completely blew him off. I thought it was super cool! That's probably a good thing, because the public relations representative said at the end of the interview, "Great! I can add you to the list to talk about plant stuff!"

Great, indeed. Let's call this "service to the university." 

04 December 2014

A catalysis meeting on long term experimental evolution.

Travel makes it easy to let blog posts slip away without being fully formed, written, and posted. Now that the semester is winding down, I'm going to try and follow through with writing the backlog of posts that have been piling up from my adventures over the last few weeks. Today's report is about the first part of my trip back to NESCent and North Carolina the week before Thanksgiving.

The catalysis meeting I attended on long term experimental evolution (you can read a little more about the meeting and participants here) was not only fantastic but also the last NESCent will host (more on this in a later post). Although the topic is outside of my main research interests, I answered the solicitation to participate in this meeting because of some research I've been doing with Joe Graves, Michael Rose and colleagues on experimentally evolved Drosophila populations. Moreover, there seem to be some really interesting opportunities to explore robustness of analytical methods using experimental evolution data, which is of particular interest to me.

Here are the things I found compelling about this meeting:
  1. Meeting organizers set the tone. Rob Lanfear, the main organizer, put together a fantastic webpage and started a Mendeley group so we could share literature beforehand.
  2. The participants were diverse. Forty four percent of attendees were female. There were graduate students, postdocs, early career scientists, and senior researchers present, and folks came from all over the world. Model systems included microbes, invertebrates, fish and trees. 
  3. We capitalized on the group's diversity. As an early career scientist, I was pleased to develop relationships with a number of other folks starting faculty jobs at similar institutions. As a group, I was gratified to hear well-respected, senior scientists describing junior scientists' research as "brilliant." There were multiple types of interactions incorporated into the meetings such that folks who were hesitant to speak in full-group discussions could still contribute ideas. In short, this meeting exhibited many aspects of scientific discourse that are overlooked, but which I value deeply.
  4. Attendees were invested in the meeting itself. Part of the meeting was structured (or perhaps more accurately, unstructured) as an "unconference," with participants determining topics for talks and group discussions on the fly. Despite this free-form format, folks in this group were very interested in talking about broader research ideas, rather than pushing their own agendas.
I left the meeting with a much wider and deeper understanding of experimental evolution as an active field of research, as well as a better grasp on different ways of thinking about the process of science and its limitations. I was also grateful to participate in one last meeting of this type at NESCent...stay tuned for my next post to hear more about that!

07 November 2014

How did I get here? Learning to love research.

I grew up in southern Indiana, in an area stuck mid-way between small town and big city (Evansville). I thought biology and music were both pretty cool in high school. I applied to colleges in a haphazard way, auditioning on flute for some schools, and checking out biology programs at others. I eventually ended up at Western Kentucky University, mostly because of the generous academic scholarship they offered me and the WKU Forensics (Speech and Debate) team. I had competed in high school, and had lots of friends who were also on the team, so it seemed like fun thing to do. After spending so much time my first semester practicing, traveling, and competing for speech, I declared my major in my second semester as something like "corporate and organizational communications," although I really lacked an understanding of what a job in such a field would entail. I stuck with a minor in biology, since I'd already taken a semester of introductory classes. My reasoning for this adjustment was that, although biology was interesting, I didn't want to be a doctor. Moreover, I literally couldn't imagine spending years of my life working on the same biological research question. 

That spring, I went to a departmental seminar for biology because I thought it sounded interesting. My professor for introductory biology, Larry Alice, saw me there and suggested I start working for him doing research. Not one to balk at offered opportunities, I relented and started learning how to sequence DNA to determine the evolutionary relationships among species of grass. It only took a semester of actually performing research to realize how gratifying it can be. I switched my major to biology within a few months, this time keeping communications (and also history) as minors.

05 November 2014

Casting a wide net.

I was fortunate as a post-doc at NESCent to have a huge community of like-minded scholars to help me develop intellectually. I'm still very fortunate to be surrounded by folks doing awesome research, but I was hired specifically to fill a missing niche (bioinformatics) in the department. That means I need to work extra hard to find ways to connect with my new students and colleagues. While my skills are definitely desired and I have lots to contribute, many things I'm doing simply haven't been done here before, so I'm thinking creatively about how to fit in on campus. I'm doing my best to think broadly (cast a wide net), while at the same time focusing my time and energy on tasks that will have an impact (and hopefully catch a few big fish).

The benefit of working as a bioinformaticist is that I can work with anyone who has data (hint: that means pretty much everyone). My specialty as a genomicist also makes me well suited for the emerging interests of other folks on campus. I've been sitting down to talk to lots of folks about opportunities for collaboration on such projects. It's incredibly interesting to learn about different model systems, and gratifying to know that I can contribute to such a breadth of projects. At the very least, I can save folks time by providing a bit of information in current genome assembly methods, for instance.

It's easy enough to work with folks in other science departments, but I've been casting an even wider net. I was delighted when a friend from the history department came over for a chat about filtering data. He had a large digital dataset of documents and was looking through them for a particular type of data. Luckily, that type of data was always described with a particular string of text. Three lines of bash scripting later, and we managed to save him days of work. I've long been interested in these broad approaches to academia, and even attended a THATCamp meeting at NCState several months back. My brain works best when building connections between seemingly disparate ideas, so a little bit of my time in pursuing small projects like that helps keep me happy.

The unexpected returns are also nice: getting to know folks over in nursing, for example, let me know about better ways to teach in ways for which they are distinguished: applied methods (for which bioinformatics certainly applies) as well as online classes. At the risk of extending the metaphor too far, casting a wide net is making the fishing expedition of research and academia more appealing to me.

27 October 2014

Value judgements and scientific results.

As scientists, we like to think that we are objective in the interpretation of data. As humans, our personal value-based judgments creep into these assessments far more than we might realize. I often think of these biases in my career, both as a researcher (when writing papers or reviewing manuscripts) but also as an educator.

I mentioned at the beginning of the semester that I'm obligated to watch student presentations for a class on science communication. As the semester progresses, I'm getting a better handle on how students (at least in our department) are starting to think about scientific arguments. A few students have made what are, at least to me, surprising statements about the strengths and weaknesses of the primary literature they discuss: they relate that failure of results to support a hypothesis is a weakness of the paper (also vice versa, that "supporting the hypothesis" is a strength).

One of the first lessons I learned while doing scientific research is that (more often than not) unexpected results and questions can emerge from our experiments. You can learn something from any experiment, even if it's simply a better way to perform the experiment in the future. Unfortunately, research on science research (I know, so meta) indicates that results which fail to support the hypothesis are often discarded by researchers as "useless" or "no good" (you can read more about this phenomenon in association with the formation of the Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine here). Albeit unfortunate, this behavior makes sense in the face of the competitive realm of science research, where a nice, concise story can make the difference between publishing or wallowing in academic purgatory.

It gives me pause, however, when students indicate such a value preference for results that support a hypothesis. In my mind, results aren't "good" or "bad," they simply...are. Is devaluation of negative results innate in our educational mindset? On the other hand, students vocalizing negative results as a weakness of the paper may be more semantic than scientific; for example, students aren't nuancing their argument to discuss particular experimental drawbacks, which is a completely justifiable concern. Alternatively, they might just be saying what they think we (the instructors) want to hear, and hoping we'll give them points for covering all the required topics listed on the rubric.

Regardless of the direct causes of such reasoning, I'm going to be keeping an eye (ear?) on such comments as I continue developing classes. When operating in isolation, these judgements about the value of results can be a starting point to some interesting discussions about epistemology and hypothesis testing. More often, though, these mindsets work in concert with other scientific misconceptions, which can result in huge problems for me as an educator. Fortunately, there are sections in my bioinformatics class that I'm explicitly developing so we can have discussions about whether the results we're obtaining are accurate and meaningful. I'm looking forward to embedding these higher-level reasoning skills into the regular content of the class.

24 October 2014

The art of asking in science.

I posted some love for Neil Gaiman's spoken words a few weeks back, so it only seems fitting that I follow up with inspiration from his partner, Amanda Palmer. She did a TED talk (the video is slightly NSFW at 10:49) last year that explored the relationship between artist and fan, emphasizing that we need to think less about how to make people pay for music and more about how to let them. She relates that asking people to help us is hard because it makes us feel vulnerable and shameful, but that asking for help can also create a profound connection with other people that allows a mutually beneficial transaction to occur. But watch the TED talk...she says it much better than I ever could.

I am not a professional artist or musician, but life in the ivory tower of academia does not shield me from the need to reach out to other people. I'm lucky that I don't have to ask people for financial help to pay my bills, but there are plenty of other circumstances in which my professional success rests on my ability to appeal to other people for assistance.

Learning to ask other people for help was a major stepping stone for me during graduate school, as I realized the need for assistance in troubleshooting lab techniques, designing experiments, and proofreading papers. As an assistant professor, asking for help is becoming even more of an art. I wouldn't be able to navigate the logistical issues of university bureaucracy without running to the office next door every few days. I belong to a small department, so connecting with other academic units on campus and at other schools is important to have access to resources for teaching and research. An important part of my job right now is applying for grants, which is really just another way of saying "asking for money to fund my research." Some scientists are taking an even more Amanda-style approach to paying for research by launching crowdfunding campaigns for particular projects. Moreover, my job as a bioinformaticist means I rely on other people for data, so asking for research opportunities is essential. I knew my job would require me to engage in asking, and even persuading, my peers to help me. I'm only starting to realize, however, what it means to ask students for help.

Am I really asking students to help me? That seems counter-intuitive to the stereotypical role of a professor, but indeed, we rely on students to take our classes and do research with us. As a newbie, I can't rely on my reputation to attract students to my class or lab. I have to ask students to consider it (hence my post from a few days ago: Student motivation, AKA please take my class). Sometimes that requires educating students about what I have to offer, like the ability to obtain marketable skills. Moreover, it makes me consider another question Amanda ponders: "Is this fair?" For my job, that means asking whether this student has the capacity to succeed, and whether it will be beneficial for them to spend the time, energy, and money to do so.

Framing my professional, scientific interactions as "asking for help" appeals to me on a fundamental level. It gives me the responsibility of finding the things I need. Moreover, it allows choice and freedom on the part of the audience, whether it's a student wanting to work with me or a funding agency deciding to award a grant. We pursue science because we think the work is interesting, but we're fooling ourselves if we think everyone will innately feel the same. Making an art of asking is a way of starting a conversation, and opens the door to persuade without being overbearing.

There is also a benefit in the act of asking a question. I wouldn't've ended up in graduate school if one of my professors hadn't asked me to consider it, and you certainly have to ask (i.e., apply) to receive a grant. I'm practicing asking questions as way to start a conversation about obtaining the things I need.

Can you fund my research?
Would you like to work on a project together?
Have you thought about going to graduate school?
Are you interested in taking my class?

22 October 2014

When a computational biologist yearns for the field/lab/greenhouse.

A darling little rose bush.
I'm a sucker for cute little plants on sale at the grocery store. I saw these delightful miniature rose bushes when I first started shopping, and waffled for the next 15 minutes as I circulated the store about whether to take one home with me. I ultimately relented, because I decided that it was a small price to pay to feel more connected to my new home city (Tyler has a thing for roses, including a pretty nice rose garden!).

My compulsion to surround myself with plants started during my undergraduate education after taking plant taxonomy and beginning to work in a molecular systematics of plants lab. I enjoyed working in the field, but realized during graduate school I was more suited to computational work. After three years as a NESCent postdoc, during which my work was exclusively computer-based, I found myself yearning to physically get my hands on some live organisms (hence the compulsive purchases of houseplants).

Happy Commelinaceae in the greenhouse.
The problem is that I've been hired as the resident bioinformatics/genomics person, which brings with it certain expectations about how I spend my time (mostly, analyzing data that other people collect). As a scientist, though, I think it's important to still maintain a connection to my study organisms. My plants a source of inspiration and wonder, as well as a resource for future research questions, and I'm loathe to permanently pigeonhole myself as a "computer person." How do I balance these opposing expectations?

My research mindset right now is one of nearly infinite possibility. I want (and need) to be productive as a scientist, but it's up to my discretion exactly how to make that happen. I work at a small, regional university, which means I may need to be creative (financially and with other resources) about how to set up research projects for my students in the future. I have some of my Commelinaceae living collection growing quite happily in the greenhouse here in town, and access to growth chambers on campus if I want to do hybridization or selection experiments.  Even though I don't have immediate research plans for my plant and DNA collections, I'll keep them as long as I can to keep my options open.

From a teaching perspective, I'm really excited about designing courses which capitalize on either computers or live organisms. I've already written about the bioinformatics course I'll be teaching next semester, and I'm considering offering a class on plants of Texas (taxonomy and systematics). I helped teach plant systematics as a graduate student, and find myself really excited at the prospect of getting back into the business of instructing students about the local flora.

Ultimately, I know trying to balance these opposing forces are making my life at least a little harder. It's more work to figure out effective pedagogy for classes based in the field and on computers. Oddly enough, my educational and work experience has set me up for precisely these tasks (see references to my experiences above), and there are quite a few other academics who successfully split responsibilities between different projects. What's the main reason that I remain committed to being a jack-of-(plant and computer)-trades? It makes me happy, of course.

21 October 2014

Student motivation, AKA Please take my class.

My current homework for Software Carpentry instructor training is to think about a time when I lost my motivation to learn. I posted my response to the SWC blog, where you can also poke around a see other folks' stories (click on the "Motivation" tag).

The other part of our homework is to work on a three-minute pitch to motivate students to learn a particular topic. The timing of this assignment is fortuitous, as I'm also promoting the bioinformatics class I'm teaching next spring as well as an undergraduate minor in bioinformatics and genomics. I took to twitter with my attempts at persuasion:

Disclaimer: I am not planning on physically harming students if they have a different shell preference than bash, and I don't particularly dislike perl. I'm really just rather fond of word games.

A few other folks chipped in with their own token words of wisdom:

It's not surprising that my motivation for getting students to take bioinformatics differs from their reasons for enrolling. I am personally passionate about teaching next semester because I think I can help students be better scientists and thinkers. I'm hoping to convince them that it will help them be more marketable (taking additional biology and computer science classes will certainly accomplish that). 

At times, these persuasive attempts seem like fighting a rather uphill battle. Convincing students to take extra classes that bridge boundaries between different types of knowledge is difficult, especially when students who might be interested are already quite overwhelmed by courses required for their major. I come across lots of folks who are intimidated by large datasets or using a command line interface. 

I spend a lot of time talking to folks about my experiences, and how I'm planning on teaching. 
Here are my talking points in encouraging folks to step up to the plate and learn some bioinformatics, from the perspective of a biology student who has little computation experience: 
  1. You can do this. Not too long ago, I was in your shoes. I didn't know a lot about computers, how they worked, or how I could use them to answer questions. I don't have a ton of formal training in computer science, and my degrees are all in biology. Writing computer scripts may seem really different from other things you've studied, but...
  2. Learning a little can be very powerful. Learning to work on the command line and write computer scripts will take work. You will be surprised, however, at how many tedious, mundane tasks you can accomplish much more quickly and efficiently with a little bit of shell scripting. Better yet...
  3. These skills are transferrable. You may not end up working in a job where you need to assemble genomes or build phylogenetic trees. It is possible, though, that you'll need to manage large numbers of files or answer questions about large data sets. You can apply these skills to lots of other practical tasks, but in addition...
  4. The topics are interesting. Technological advances are producing genomic and other large-scale biological datasets at an unprecedented rate. The applications of these data include empirical research, agriculture, and medicine. 
At the very least, I hope to convince students the first point is true. Nothing is more frustrating than hearing students declare, "I can't do that." A student saying "That's too hard" is a student who's hit a motivational brick wall, and can't even ask themselves whether it might be beneficial for them (or, heaven forbid, that they might enjoy it!). If they can do that, hopefully one of the last three points will be appealing.

On the other hand, I'm still trying to figure out effective ways to appeal to computer science students. The fourth point above definitely still applies, and they can arguably improve (or at least broaden) their job prospects by gaining some understanding of biology. More importantly, they can learn to answer hypothesis-driven questions, which seems to be less of a focus in their curriculum than in biology. 

As always, this is a work in progress. What am I missing? I'm planning a few mini-workshops on for students (graduate and undergraduate) on campus, which will certainly allow me more opportunity to pinpoint more effective pitches. These students are not motivated by the same factors that convinced me to pursue higher education, and bioinformatics for research. I need to find out what they need. However, I struggle with how much I should cater to student interests. That, however, is part of a broader discussion about the purview of higher education, and is perhaps left to another post.

15 October 2014

My office is a pit fall trap.

A real conversation starter.
If you couldn't tell from the entire post I wrote dedicated to my new office, I'm very committed to the space where I do the majority of my professional work. The items I choose to display in my office are used by students and colleagues, both consciously and subconsciously, to assess me as a person and scientist. Given that I'm trying to recruit students for research but also depend on other people for data, I'm invested in making sure visitors see my office as comfortable and welcoming (despite the dulcet tones of the toilet flushing next door, which are very audible at times).

To foster a sense of openness, I prefer to leave my office door open. I knew from the start that it would invite random visitors to drop in. What I didn't realize is how many such requests I would receive. I started keeping track of them: 

Most of the requests are innocuous (students looking for a particular classroom or office). I get pretty annoyed when students stop and ask for things like staplers, or for someplace ambiguous ("Advising?" For what department, pray tell?) as it's obviously a lack of foresight on their part. I was amused when a guy offered me a turtle that he found in the mechanical room (because OF COURSE a biologist would want a turtle, even if I don't actually have a lab yet or do wet lab work? I told him to take it outside to lake where DOZENS of other turtles live). 

While in the process of writing this post, a student stopped by and we had the following conversation:
Her: I know I don't have you for any classes, but you're a biologist, so can I ask you a question about inductive and deductive reasoning?
Me: Why me? It's just because I'm here? You have an exam today, don't you?
Her: Well, yeah... 
I've asked my colleagues, and I know they get far fewer questions like this. I sometimes wonder if students would interrupt my work so frequently if I were male, or 30 years older. But then I thought about how my office looks if you're walking down the hall:

That door is admittedly awkward, sticking out into the hallway. Then I realized how much my office looks like a pit fall trap, a commonly used method for capturing animals in the field:

As animals are wandering around, they hit the fence and walk along it until falling in the trap....just like what happens when someone is walking down the hallway, lost and confused. The location of my office is also partly to blame; I'm the first room inside the door to a confusing connection between buildings.

There aren't any easy solutions to alleviate my periodic irritation at having to answer random questions from strangers. I can open my door all the way to prevent the "drift fence" effect. I'm talking with campus facilities about putting up some signs to help direct folks to the appropriate building/department. I can remind students each time they interrupt me that they have the capacity to think ahead (i.e., look at the syllabus to find an instructor's office). 

Every once in awhile, though, I assist a student who is legitimately frustrated and I feel better for having alleviated their anxiety a little. Our university has a lots of first generation college students, and I empathize with folks who have little experience on which to base their interactions with folks working in higher education. As a result, there are a number of programs set up to help alleviate these issues and promote better students learning. It's easy for those of us from privileged backgrounds to view these efforts as hand-holding, but there is plenty of evidence on the efficacy of such programs in student retention and success.

If I challenge myself, I too admit the impact of a few individuals on my academic success, and how getting a simple question answered quickly makes a huge difference when juggling work, school, and family responsibilities. Besides...I wanted to work in academia because I like interacting with students! Ultimately, a handful of interruptions to my workday each week are a small price to pay for helping a student succeed.

14 October 2014

A trip back to my ol' Kentucky (and Indiana) home.

Historic buildings on Franklin Street are framed by neon
lights for one week a year.
As promised in my semester preview, and as a follow up to my Missouri trip a few weeks back, I had the opportunity to head back home to southern Indiana and central Kentucky last week. The timing of my trip was fortuitous, as my hometown of Evansville, Indiana was celebrating a momentous yearly event: the West Side Nut Club Fall Festival. More than a street fair, the Fall Festival marked the official start of autumn during my childhood. It's been probably ten years since I last partook of the food and frivolities. However, I was born and bred on the west side of town (my high school is less than a mile from the festival's location), so I fell back into old celebratory patterns without much trouble.

My happy face at
Fall Festival food.
As a kid, I was pretty invested in the games and rides at the festival. As an adult, I didn't even step foot into those areas, instead preferring to walk along the 4+ blocks of food vendors (each booth is a fundraiser for a group in the community, including several of my old school groups). My mom was kind enough to accompany me on my meanderings, which makes for great food-grazing because we could share twice the number of different menu options. I could wax philosophical about the virtues of various chili and cheese covered, deep fried concoctions, or you could take a look at the index of foods from this year's Munchie Map. Some items, like brain sandwiches and burgoo, are regional specialties. Some booth attract patrons with weirder options, like pickle juice slushies. I stuck with more traditional choices, like turkey burgers, stromboli, and cobbler with ice cream.

Of course, watching people is my favorite pastime at these events. The best overheard comment this year was from a family that stood in a semi-circle sharing corn dogs. One woman remarked (ever so sagely and without accusation), "Well, if one of us has ebola, I guess all of us do now." Indeed.

A rather large gingko tree.
The purpose of my trip was to give a seminar for the Department of Biology at my alma mater, Western Kentucky University. Part of the reason I'm enjoying my new job at UTTyler is because, as a regional school, it feels familiar to WKU. Campus has grown since I left, and the science folks have some great new teaching facilities. Despite these renovations, I was pleased to see this fantastic old ginkgo tree still standing between buildings.

It was a pleasure to meet with both mentors from my undergraduate years as well as with other assistant professors. After my graduate education and postdoc work at R1 universities, it's refreshing to talk to folks who are making a real difference in under-served parts of the country, both by helping students conduct science research as well as teaching classes in evolution.

It was gratifying to see a lecture room near full to bursting with students for my seminar that afternoon. I'm sure it was due in part to extra credit being offered for classes, but I hope a few of them gleaned some sort of benefit from my discussion linking the evolution of organisms to that of genomes and transposons (the powerpoint is available on Slideshare if you'd care to take a gander). After all, I graduated with my bachelor's degree from WKU less than ten years ago; if I were to believe the words of several folks I've encountered lately, I'm a shining example of a "success story."

Historic letterpress prints from Hatch Show Print
Why do I feel the need to qualify my "success" with quotation marks? For now, suffice it to say that I'm way too excited about developing classes and proposing new research to feel like I've accomplished anything more than the promise of more work! As my undergrad advisor, Larry Alice, reminded me when I saw him last week, I also need to enjoy myself. Recalling my previous obsession with mosses, he remarked: "Don't forget to stop and smell the bryophytes." In the spirit of following his advice, I allowed myself to make my travel back to Texas a little less miserable by sipping a caramel latte and perusing the Hatch Show Print display of historic letterpress designs in the Nashville Airport. Mmm...whole hog sausage.

13 October 2014

Managing your academic identity.

A friend from Facebook posted today that she stumbled across another academic with her same first and last name, working on similar research topics, and remarked that mistaken identities were bound to happen.

There are few other Hertwecks out there, but I still do what I can to manage and maintain my academic identity, so that other folks can find this blog, the papers I write, my research website, etc. There are social media style sites for maintaining your research products (Academia.edu, ResearchGate), but here are my favorite alternatives:

  1. Get an account on ORCID. It's free, and you'll get a unique identifier to include when you submit grants, manuscripts, etc. This is also a nice segue into checking out your Scopus author identifier (if your organization has access).  
  2. Curate your Google Scholar profile. This is another free tool, and there's nice documentation and explanations if you click through the link. Citation tracking tools and the ability to manually adjust which articles show up in your profile makes this a quick go-to for academics, plus there are other functionalities built in (i.e., citation alerts for topics which might interest you).
  3. Sign up for Impactstory. This is a great option if you have an active presence in social media or invest energy in other types of non-traditional academic deliverables. Although they recently transitioned to a paid subscription service, they are a non-profit and your money goes towards keeping the data and software open-source.
These were the first options that came to mind, although there are others which might be of interest. What am I missing? Who's got a better resource for maintaining your academic identity online?

06 October 2014

Two of three.

I believe in borrowing professional inspiration from any available source. My partner, Matt, and I were talking about working effectively with others awhile back and something he said stuck with me.

To be successful, you need to do two of three things:

  1. Have brilliant ideas
  2. Meet deadlines
  3. Be pleasant in working relationships
I think the simplicity of it is what appealed to me. Academics are expected to be outstanding researchers, effective teachers, and committed to service. Doing even one of those tasks well can be a full-time job, so performing all three brilliantly seems nearly insurmountable. Conceptually, meeting two of the three listed criteria above is very much in line with my personal philosophy: it implies plurality (multiple paths to success) and allows for imperfection (you don't have to do everything well all of the time).

Most importantly, it seems attainable. Indulge me a moment while I break these criteria down for myself. Can I have brilliant ideas? Well, I must have something ok to say every once in awhile to have finished my dissertation, published some papers, and gotten a job. I think I can keep doing the brain-thinking-stuff the way I have up until this point. Can I meet deadlines? I think so! See above comment related to past precedent. Can I be a nice person to work with? Hmm. I'm loathe to admit that this last option is the hardest for me at times. I've worked really hard to moderate my attacks of grumpiness, especially when dealing with students. Presenting myself as friendly, open, and approachable is still a struggle at times (especially if I'm distracted by some program debugging or it's allergy season), but I can do a decent job at ameliorating my intensity.

Like all recipes for success, this one is by no means fool-proof. I won't be including a personal assessment of each of these things in my tenure packet. But as a way of thinking about my day-to-day interactions, I find it a fairly workable solution. After cogitating on this advice for a year or so, I finally asked Matt where he found it. I was immensely pleased to learn it came from one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman. You can read his full speech and see a recording here (the excerpt listed below starts at 14:10).

From Neil Gaiman's keynote address at the University of the Arts, 2012:

People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today's world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don't even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They'll forgive the lateness of the work if it's good, and if they like you. And you don't have to be as good as the others if you're on time and it's always a pleasure to hear from you.
Of course, he's talking about succeeding in the arts, but I'd like to think the general framework is transferable to other types of professions. As a science educator and researcher, there's perhaps less flexibility in adherence to these criteria than if I were a freelance artist. For example, when a grant application is due or a classroom of students is depending on me, deadlines are not negotiable. But when I think about the variety of successful scientists I know, they actually do fit into this "two-of-three" framework. There are actually even cliches about scientists that follow this rule. Think about the friendly, absent-minded professor (pleasant, brilliant, but misses deadlines), or the acerbic and curmudgeonly professor (brilliant, insists on deadlines, but won't show up at happy hour).

Personally, I'm going to aim for doing a pretty good job at all three things, at least most of the time. "Two of three" will be my mantra to cut through anxiety fueled by perfectionism. Next time I'm a day late returning a manuscript review, I'll be able to forgive myself bit more easily, because I know the review will be thorough and polite. Two of three...not too bad.

02 October 2014

Developing a bioinformatics class as a part of a new bioinformatics/genomics minor.

Since I've been waxing philosophical about the small tasks I've been performing for students this semester, it seemed opportune to talk a bit more in depth about my big job for the semester: designing an undergraduate bioinformatics lecture and lab for next semester (spring 2015). This is actually something I'm really excited about, so I'm willing to expend quite a bit of time and energy being mindful and deliberate in how I set up the class schedule and assessments.

While I figure out particulars about hosting my own website, I've started a research webpage through Google Sites as a stand-in. This page includes resources related to a new undergraduate minor in Bioinformatics and Genomics created by my department chair, Srini Kambhampati. I'll eventually end up teaching genomics as well, but am mostly focused on developing the bioinformatics class material right now. I've got lots to say about the general premise of bioinformatics/computational biology education, but will save that for a later date.

I've talked to lots of folks about how they teach (or would like to teach) bioinformatics. Some are deeply rooted in a particular programming language (like perl), or focused on a particular type of bioinformatics (i.e., next generation sequencing analysis). I'm trying for a wider approach to capture a variety of student interests. Here's my first shot at explaining what my class will be like.


  1. Students will represent a mix of levels of computational and biological expertise, from folks who are rather computer-phobic but biologically savvy to computer science folks with relatively little biological knowledge. Lots of other biological research here at UTT is ecologically focused, and there's a lot of health professionals on campus and in the community
  2. I want to leverage extant and familiar educational technology (Blackboard, GUIs) while introducing students to more efficient and useful interfaces (Github, CLI, etc).
  3. I'm not expecting students to be expert programmers in any particular language at the end of the semester (with the exception of unix shell scripting, which is a necessary baseline for functionality).
Primary course objectives:
Students should be able to:
  1. Describe the scope of bioinformatics research and applications (including but not limited to next-generation sequencing, comparative genomics, ecological informatics, metagenomics, extensions to health informatics, etc)
  2. Design and implement bioinformatics pipelines to answer pre-defined questions from a variety of biological disciplines.
  3. Validate results from bioinformatics algorithms using hypothesis testing, correcting for multiple comparisons, etc.
  4. Characterize the limitations of data to answer questions of interests.
  5. Obtain resources to learn new languages and algorithms (i.e., be self-directed in learning more on their own).
How I'm doing it (which is mostly a list of questions I need to answer):
  1. In addition to the quick overview pages on my research website (which I'm hoping to transition over to the UTT Biology page when they are completed), I've set up a Github repository for the class that includes a modular syllabus (following the guidelines here) and will eventually include the materials used for in-class (lab) exercises. I'll still be posting grades on Blackboard, and haven't decided how to share lecture materials and assessments (Github, Blackboard, Slideshare, Wiki?).
  2. I'm not requiring students purchase a textbook. I will be relying on published scientific literature for objective 1, and (free to download!) OpenIntro Statistics for objectives 2-4 (in addition to examples from published literature). Of course, objective 5 teaches them to find and evaluate resources on their own.
  3. UTT Biology has a new building addition which will be completed by the end of this semester, and I've been put in charge of getting the computer lab set up. I'm hoping class sizes will be small enough that each student can work on their own machine. I'm still trying to decide if and how to include HPC/cluster usage, given that most analyses can run locally if the appropriate software is installed. There is the opportunity to get an instructional allocation from TACC, and I know other folks who have used Amazon Web Services Cloud Computing.
  4. I'm visiting classes taught by my colleagues this semester (both in computer science and biology) which may include students who are interested in taking my class next semester. I'm hoping to get a better idea of student desires and educational background to be able to craft materials that are both relevant and useful to them. I'm also considering cross-listing the class at the graduate level, as a few folks have asked me about that possibility (Sidenote: I'm brainstorming ideas for graduate level classes on my research page, too).
If you have ideas or experiences that you'd care to share, I'd be happy to hear them! Stayed tuned here, on my research webpage, and the Github repo over the next few months to see how the class develops.

30 September 2014

Pleasant surprises: teaching edition.

The first few weeks of my new professor life were absorbed by a long list of small tasks that, although unrelated to my main teaching and research duties, were still important and necessary for my work. You might remember my documentation of one such task, organizing my office. While plenty of these little tasks that are obnoxious to manage (learning how to order equipment, navigating Blackboard's abysmal interface, etc), I was pleasantly surprised to engage in a few satisfying duties. I'm going to take the opportunity right now to talk about two such additional tasks that are useful for students but also personally important to me.

My first obligation is to perform mid-semester teaching evaluations on a few graduate student teaching assistants. I've been thinking a lot about peer evaluations, in part because of its importance in the Software Carpentry Instructor Training in which I'm participating this semester, but also because the university is starting a peer-assessment teaching program. I wish I'd had the opportunity to have more structured assessments of my teaching during my graduate education.

My second obligation is to mentor and evaluate students as a part of our department's science communication class. Two semesters of the course are required for biology majors, during which students select a topic, work with a faculty mentor to shape empirical research into a 10-12 minute presentation, and formally present their ideas to a class of their peers. The faculty involvement is admittedly a bit time consuming. However, this seems like one of the best efforts I've encountered to embed in-depth scientific thinking and inquiry into a class project, so I consider it time well spent.

The two low-key responsibilities I mention here definitely serve students. On the other hand, though, they're also essential for me to develop a familiarity with a broad sampling of students and their educational backgrounds, especially as I continue developing new courses. I'm very fortunate that my department and college protects new professors from being overloaded with too many teaching and service obligations, allowing us to settle in and get our research programs started. I'm also lucky that the small tasks I have been assigned so far are helping me accomplish my other goals.

29 September 2014

Returning to my old stomping grounds.

I mentioned in my semester overview that I was doing a bit of traveling this fall. Last week I made the long drive from east Texas to Central Missouri to visit University of Missouri. My Ph.D. advisor, Chris Pires, was incredibly kind to store some research materials for me while I was working in North Carolina as a postdoc. Now that I'm starting my own lab, it seemed appropriate to resume custody of my plants and DNA stocks that were taking up valuable real estate in the greenhouse and freezer.

Lots of plants...the backseat was full, too!
Major life transitions (like moving halfway across the country and starting a new job) make me a bit nostalgic, so the drive back to Missouri was surprisingly emotional for me. I drove through the Ozarks several times as a graduate student as I collected plants from Arkansas, Texas, and Mexico for my dissertation research. This time, instead of returning to MU with a truck full of plants, I was leaving there with my Kia Soul packed with Commelinaceae goodness. Maintaining a living collection of plants takes a lot of time and energy, and I'm happy to see that so many of them survived. While my new university doesn't have a greenhouse on site, Tyler Junior College has a beautiful conservatory and have offered to house and maintain my collection. I'm looking forward to having my plants nearby again as I start thinking about developing them for research and/or teaching.

Perhaps more important than obtaining plants and DNA was the mental recharge I experienced by seeing some familiar faces and getting a much-needed pep talk from Chris. More pondering on reframing my mindset as a professor will assuredly occur over the next few weeks as I continue to develop my master plan (cue comically ominous chortling and cackling).

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.