Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for January, 2014

Advice for International Students

chemistryTis the season for graduate admissions. Many of the applicants at UniversityofState (UState) where I am a faculty member are foreign. Some of these clearly have a lot of coaching and help, but others are clearly lacking. So, I have asked an International WomanOfScience for some advice on getting to US schools and ultimately an academic position from your CountryOfOrigin. Enjoy! (Remember, you can get email updates by pushing the +Follow button).

About me: I got my B.S. in Physics at a small-ish university in a warm foreign country. While an undergraduate, I participated in two summer research programs in the U.S., and I spent one year as an exchange student at a prestigious university in the midwest where I was also involved in undergraduate research. I attended graduate school in a very cold state, and I am now an Assistant Professor at a primarily undergraduate institution in the U.S.

As an international Science student, you should follow the same advice given to all students: keep up your grades and get involved in undergraduate research.

Two of the main challenges international students have in being admitted to graduate school in the U.S. are that the admissions committee may have a hard time judging the quality of the undergraduate institution you attended, and grades may be reported differently on transcripts. The best way to show the admissions committee that you can be a successful graduate student in the U.S. is to prove that you can be a successful undergraduate student in the U.S. Look for opportunities to come to the U.S. as an undergraduate for a summer or a semester. There are few summer research experiences open to non-U.S. citizens or residents, but they do exist. For example, there is the Internship for Physics Majors at Fermilab. Your home university may also have exchange programs, where you can spend a summer, a semester, or a year abroad. Even if you are part of a language program (like an ESL program) it may be possible to take a Science or Math class (it never hurts to ask!). If you do well in this class you will have demonstrated you are a capable student, and you could then ask the instructor for a letter of recommendation. A program like this has the added benefit of allowing you to figure out if you would enjoy living in the U.S. before you commit to coming here for 5 or more years.

PLAN AHEAD. It may take longer to gather all of the necessary materials for your application:

TranscriptsSome (most?) U.S. institutions will require an official translation of your transcript. At the university I attended, this took quite a long time (4 – 6 weeks).

The TOEFL, GRE and GRE subject tests: Depending on where you live, you may have to travel to a major city to take these tests, and they may not be offered very often. Thus, it is very important that you register early and plan your trip so that you can take the tests before the deadline for graduate school applications.

Paying for Application Processing:Some institutions in the U.S. charge an application fee and some do not. Most of the institutions that charge an application fee accept major credit cards. It is worth calling your bank and inquiring about the currency exchange rate and any extra fees for foreign transactions.

Other costs:In Science, most graduate schools will offer you a teaching assistantship, research assistantship, or fellowship, that will cover your tuition, health insurance, and provide a (small) salary. Make sure you understand exactly what each university is offering and how your salary compares to the cost of living. In addition to moving costs, you will probably have to put one or two month’s deposit down to rent an apartment, there might be university fees that are not covered as part of your “tuition,” and co-pays or a deductible on your health insurance. Also, some U.S. cities have very good public transportation, but others do not, which makes it difficult to live without a car.

VISA issues:These have been numerous in my case. It is probably best to contact the university’s International Student office and/or your local U.S. embassy. You should also try to understand as much about the system and the laws as possible – don’t trust that all of the advice you get is good, or even correct. Once you are in the U.S. make sure you take originals and copies of all relevant documents with you when you travel abroad.

The hidden curriculum:Your goal in graduate school should be not only to master a particular sub-field and conduct original research, but also to become a professional in your field. You need to think ahead to what you want to do after graduate school and look for opportunities that will help get you there. For example, if you want to go into industry, an internship could give you valuable experience and contacts. If you want to go into academia, your university might have a program that helps graduate students and post-docs explore and prepare for possible career paths (research institution vs. liberal arts vs. community college). You should try to regularly attend conferences, both locally (like your state’s Association of Science Teachers) and nationally. In any case, you will need letters of recommendation from several faculty members, so be well-prepared when it is your turn to present a seminar, be on-time for meetings and classes, and when you say you are going to do something, DO IT! In other words, treat graduate school like you would a job and behave professionally.

Culture Shock: There will certainly be differences between your own culture and american culture that you will need to be aware of, but there is also a culture to your particular field. What I found most helpful in graduate school in this regard was mentoring from other graduate students that were a few years ahead of me. If there is a graduate student group at your institution, make time to go to events and meetings, talk to the other students there about their experiences, and ask for advice.

What did I miss? Feel free to post questions in the comments.

I hope you found that post helpful! I am sure this WomenOfScience would be happy to answer questions in posts, so feel free to ask here. Thanks again for that insightful post.

Attributes of Scientists: Perseverance

Christabel_PankhurstI am currently at a fantastic meeting for Undergraduate Women of MyFieldOfScience. I was brought across the country for this event, and today I am giving a talk on my research with some background information on myself. I love these events! The undergraduate women, who are uber-underrepresented in MyFieldOfScience, are so excited to be here. Once you group 10-20 schools worth of women together, it is a lot. Women who are isolated or the only woman in their department can connect with their peers. It is wonderful, and I am excited and honored to serve as their mentor for this short time.

Throughout the meeting, there has been a theme that has clearly emerged to me. Several of the speakers and students have described their perseverance within science, or that perseverance is a key attribute they look for in applications to REUs or graduate school. I was thinking about it, and it is really true. Although, sometimes I might call it stubbornness or pigheadedness, and it can backfire in those forms resulting in close-mindedness. But perseverance is a better term and has a slightly different meaning. It reminds me of Madame Curie’s struggle to discover radium (for a funny post on Madame Curie from another Awesome WomanOfScience, go here).

So, here is one story from me about perseverance. It is about how I got to this meeting for undergraduate women in MyFieldOfScience. It is meant to be funny, and just be a silly example of the stuff scientists will put themselves through to fulfill a promise. Enjoy.

This story starts on Wednesday morning. It was like any other Wednesday morning except the baby was sleeping in. I have two kids – elementary age and toddler age – and we still call the toddler the baby, because he will likely always be the baby. Now, the baby doesn’t sleep in. In fact, the baby usually wakes up far before I want. But today, was different, and the brief reprieve of his late slumber was making our morning cyclone a bit calmer.

I almost was worried I would have to wake him, when I heard his lovely WAIL, and I made him a bottle and was bringing it to him. When I turned on the light, I realized he had puked all down the side of this crib as he was standing over the railing crying. This kicked the morning cyclone up a notch to Kansas Tornado that Brought Dorothy to Oz level. One of us was cleaning the baby and stripping him down while the other was stripping the bed and wiping it down.  And now we were worried. What was this puke about? Was he sick with a stomach bug? Or did he just cough too much and make himself throw up? Or did he swallow too much snot, the evidence of which was still sluggishly dripping from his cute little nose, and that upset his tummy. After the ruckus, he asked for a bottle, and kept it down, he had no fever, so we assumed something besides sickness had caused the puke. We took him to school and they admitted him, despite our story of puke. Hooray for our daycare service – they are the best!

Unbeknownst to us, the puke cleaning job was infecting us with a stomach bug that was biding its time to strike. On Thursday night, my husband got hit. He was up all night evacuating his insides. Most of this I had no idea of, because we have both learned to sleep through quite a bit of noise and motion with two kids.  I was set to fly across the country, and felt totally fine. I woke at 4am, showered, and got out the door for a day of flying and uninterrupted writing time (I love that you can work uninterrupted on airplanes – no meetings, no phone calls, just you and your computer).

During my 4 hour layover, it hit me. A nauseating feeling in my stomach. No, I thought, I can’t get sick. I am already traveling. The second flight offered me a much needed afternoon nap in the *most comfortable of positions* with my mouth drying out as it hung slack jawed while my head was jammed against the window. I woke to the upset stomach and started downing the antacids I always carry when I travel – just in case – and getting a ginger ale from the flight attendant. I was able to ignore the stomach ache while working, and got a bit done. I felt like Patrick Dempsey in Outbreak in the airplane scene (They didn’t have an internet picture of Patrick Dempsey with a sickly sheen and coughing, and I didn’t want to buy Outbreak, just so I could screen capture that image, so here he is playing with the monkey infected with the Ebola virus or whatever):

Dempsey

Luckily, I didn’t actually look like him. Nowadays they won’t let you on the plane if you are sick. Anyway, the stomach thing got worse, but I persevered. I went to dinner. I talked to students. I made jokes. I got into a playful argument with a ManOfScience over whether one should clean your own toilets, or pay someone else to do it, provided they have the money. He thought people should clean their own toilets, and I thought you should pay someone to do it, so you could spend more time with your family having fun. I wasn’t as upbeat as I usually am, but I put on a good face.

It all came down after I got back to my room. I slept upright trying not to puke all night. I felt strangely normal around midnight and was able to sleep for 5 hours when I was woken by my intestines bubbling back into my stomach making me queazy and burpy. These are ominous signs. At 7am, I puked. I puked hard. I have puked enough times to know by now that holding your hair is secondary to holding your nose when you puke. No one ever talks about it, but hard puking makes it spray out of your nose cavity, too, and you have to hold your nose to block that passage. (Helpful tips on puking from your local scientist.) I got puke all over my pajamas. It was nasty. I did feel a a lot better after puking up what looked like last night’s dinner and yesterday’s lunch from my layover airport. How does the body do that?

I bagged my puke clothes, showered, got dressed, and prepared for the day. I went to the hotel lobby, and worked with them to figure out how to get my clothes laundered. The hotel is run by students, and they were not sure it was possible, but after some pleading and creative problem solving on my part, they figured it out, so that I would have clean PJs by 7pm. Note to people who don’t yet travel too much:  Hotels can do lots of stuff. You have to ask, but they will often do it. It sometimes comes with a price. I was willing to pay as much as $50 to get this stuff laundered in a hurry. It ended up costing 15 minutes and $3.

Day 2 was much better, although I was still sick. I ate and kept it down. I mingled, I served on a panel about REU programs. I submitted some letters of recommendation and tweaked my talk based on the format others were presenting. I went to dinner. And this is how sickness spreads across the country. It was holding steady in my state and now I have brought it across the country to another state. I try to be good and wash my hands, but I cannot know who I infected. So I apologize, in advance, to the bright, motivated, young Women of MyFieldOfScience that I probably infected on this trip. Yet, I persevered, and you will too.

So, should I have canceled? Should I have turned around at my layover when it was clear where I was heading with this illness? It would have saved some other people a 24-hour bug, but I made a promise to be there, and I want to help mentor this lovely, bright, smart, wonderful generation of Women of Science. I would make the same choice again. What do you think? Post or comment. You can follow this blog by pushing the +Follow button, and you will get an email every time I write a new post.

Writing a Grant

Power of WordsWe had a nice post previously from Robin about the importance of grant writing. This post had some very good suggestions, and you can find it here. This post is more on the mechanics of writing  grant. Most importantly, you are staring at a blank screen, and you need to get some stuff out because the deadline in maybe a month away. Where do you start? What do you write? What needs to be in there and be included?

Apparently, there is big money to be made in answering these questions, because I get science spam at least once a day trying to sell me books, seminars, and webinars to address these questions. I actually do have one of these books – my university gave them out to us all at some point. I have to say that it was fairly useful because it listed all the parts of the grant that needs to be included. Obviously, if you don’t include a particular part of the grant, it is far less likely to get funded. But, so many people have these books now that the particular style described in these books has become a bit of a joke during review panels. Even so, it is better to follow one of those books and their format than to have no idea and do entirely the wrong thing.

When starting to write a grant, the first step is two fold: (1) read the call for proposals. Many calls, especially special calls, have specific required sections. ALSO, simultaneously (2) get some example proposals.  The last post on requesting proposals from others is a good guide on how to do this. It is best to get examples from the exact agency, division, and panel where you are going to submit.  Use these together to check come up with an outline for the components of the proposal.

Outline. Yes, outline. I know, it is boring and old fashioned to outline, and I am not suggesting anything too detailed. I am suggestions coming up with the headers for different sections of your proposal. To get you started, I am pasting in an outline I use (you can probably tell this is for proposals to the National Science Foundation):

Title

1. SIGNIFICANCE: Why is this important? You need to have the why before the what.

2. HYPOTHESIS: Not all divisions expect hypothesis-driven research. Get an example to see it this section is typical.

3. BACKGROUND:

4. APPROACH:

4.1 Experimental Methods and Preliminary Results: Here we outline our experimental approach and present preliminary results.

Experiment Type 1:

Experiment Type 2:

Experiment Type 3:

4.2 Simulation Methods and Preliminary Results: Here we outline our simulations/analytical approach and present preliminary results.

5. EXPERIMENTAL WORK PLAN:

Objective 1: State it here.

Rationale:  Why do we want to study this? Why is this objective important? Everyone needs a reminder.

Proposed Experiments for Objective 1: No methods. That is all described above. This is just the “what” experiments – not the “how” experiments.

Control Experiments and Alternative Methods for Objective 1: You must have something about controls and alternatives. They will look for it!

Significance of Expected Outcomes for Objective 1: This is where you drive it home why these experiments and results are important. Again.

Objective 2:

Rationale:

Proposed Experiments for Objective 2:

Control Experiments and Alternative Methods for Objective 2: 

Significance of Expected Outcomes for Objective 2:

Objective 3: This is the objective that can be a little more out there with less preliminary data.

Rationale: 

Proposed Experiments for Objective 3:

Control Experiments and Alternative Methods for Objective 3:

6. INTERDISCINPLINARITY, COLLABORATION WORK PLAN, AND TIMELINE:

6.1 Interdisciplinarity.

6.2 Collaboration Work Plan. I will do this. Collaborator will do that. I like to include a ven diagram figure that cartoons the roles of each person.

6.3 Timeline. You must have a timeline. I like to make a chart. Funding agencies requests it.

7. INTELLECTUAL MERIT AND TRANSFORMATIVE ASPECTS:

8. BROADER IMPACTS: Here is where I put grad student training, undergraduate student training, and any other outreach plans.

9. RESULTS FROM PRIOR SUPPORT: This has a specific format. Make sure you use it. If you don’t have prior support, you can remove this section.

10. SUMMARY. Reiterate the significance again.

Another secret to getting a grant done is to take advantage of the time you have. There will always be a time when you have time to work on the proposal, but not the drive to write. If that happens, use the time to work on the myriad of other things that need to be apart of the grant such as the Budget, Budget Justification, Your Biosketch (you the correct format!), your Current and Pending, your Facilities and Resources, your Postdoc Mentoring Plan, and other documents. These documents are pretty boiler plate with tweaks, so they don’t require a ton of thought, but you still need to do them. Or, just get your proposal started on the online submission system and input all the data.

So, this is my method. And, as far as grant writing goes, I have done a lot of it – almost a dozen per year. I might even be good at it. I am batting 1000 on my last 4 proposals. What do you do to actually write a proposal? Post or comment here. Click +Follow to get email updates when I write new posts.

The Best Way to get Copies of Funded Grants…and the Worst Way

PikiWiki_Israel_9290_Gan-Shmuel_-_girls_in_class_1952In the vein of writing, writing, writing, which is the quote on my office door for the past 4 weeks, I thought I would post a piece from another woman of science. This one is about the true first step in any writing process – getting examples. For writing manuscripts, getting examples is easy. You just read a lot of published papers and try to emulate their style (especially clear and nice papers). For other types of writing, getting examples can be more difficult, or downright hard. Perhaps one of the most important types of writing we do in academic science is grant writing.  My advice is always to get examples. Today’s guest post is about how to go about getting examples… and how not… Enjoy!

You’re a brand-new assistant professor, or you’re applying to agency to which you’ve never applied for funding. Where to start? Examples of successful applications are some of the best ways to figure out how to structure your application and to tailor your application to a particular agency or foundation. Where to get them?

Start with your formal and informal mentors. Ask them if they have examples of recent successful applications, or unsuccessful applications if they are willing to share them and to discuss why they think they were unsuccessful. Ask your collaborators and departmental colleagues if they have been funded by the organization you are targeting. Ask them if they know anyone else who has. If that fails, or in addition to those opportunities, most organizations post the names of those they have funded. I recommend looking at that list and finding anyone with whom you have a connection—you were both once at the same institution, you have friends or collaborators in common, anything. Then, contact those people one by one, pointing out your common links to help establish a connection. In addition to really recently funded projects, you might also want to target people who were funded a few years ago, especially if you don’t know them well. With such “older” projects, the work is likely to be well underway and the PI is less likely to feel vulnerable sharing their nascent work. When you send that cold email, state clearly and at the beginning why you are writing, point out your connection, and assure them that you understand that you are requesting a confidential document and you will not share it.

If you can’t find anyone with whom you have a connection, just try asking. You can say something like, “I am planning to apply to X organization. I am looking for examples of successful proposals to this organization and noticed that you are funded by them. Congratulations! Would you mind sharing a copy of your funded proposal or even just some sections of it with me? I understand that this is a confidential document and I will not share it with anyone else.” Sometimes what you really want is an example of a specific type of required abstract or section of the proposal, so just ask for that. Most people remember what it is like starting out in their academic careers or applying to a new agency and are willing to help. Most people are also flattered that you’ve noticed their funding success, which will likely make them more willing to respond to your request. However, everyone is busy and inundated with requests, so allow plenty of time and if you don’t hear anything, ask again in a week or two.

Proposals that have been funded by the federal government are available through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This should be the last resort for obtaining a copy of a proposal. Exhaust your other options first, including cold-calling (emailing) multiple people. Just asking people for what you want will almost certainly yield results, and probably much faster than a FOIA request. When you submit a FOIA request, that request along with your name is sent to the PI. Science is a small world and like other professions, much of your professional success will depend on relationships you build with others. If you receive a FOIA request for one of your funded proposals, this will likely bring to mind several questions, like: why didn’t this person just ask me for the proposal? The proposal probably would have been shared and the requester would have received it faster than waiting for the FOIA request to be processed. The proposer might have removed some sections with personal information or work that is still preliminary, but they might at least attempt to do that anyway in responding to the FOIA request. Some personal information is removed automatically by the agency, too. Then one wonders, what is this person’s agenda? If the requester is another faculty member, are they intending to pursue research that I proposed? If the requester were a private individual, corporation, or certain type of foundation, those suspicions about an underlying agenda would have been even deeper. In general, if someone asks me directly for a copy of my proposals, I send the requested information and offer to read a draft of the requester’s own proposal to try to offer feedback. By submitting a request through a third-party, the requester likely misses an opportunity to build his/her professional network.

Good advice! What do you think? Share in a post or comment. You can follow this blog by pushing the +Follow button and typing your email address. I will try to get back on the blog-writing wagon as I come down from the manuscript/grant writing one.

Writing a Draft Manuscript

typewriterI have been working on a manuscript about some pretty nifty science. I have been working on it for some time, and I finally just submitted it last week. As part of the “how to write” series, I thought I would give my personal process for how to write a manuscript. I am sure there are as many ways to write a manuscript as there are manuscripts that have been written and published. This is my way, and it also how I instruct to my students to help them get over the hurtles of writing.

1. Make figures. Science is all about the data. The data is the story, so the first thing I do is make figures. This can be pretty challenging in and of itself. When working with students, I often have them make the figures – or at least the first draft of the figures. They often don’t know exactly what to do – even if they have presented some nice plots and graphs in group meetings. I usually sketch out the figures with them on the white board before I set them to work getting the data into figure form. Also, I try to get the students to think about the figures as they are taking the data. I usually sketch out plots when we discuss the experiments. If you are already thinking about your data in figure format as you take it, making the figures becomes much easier.

If you figures are missing data, if often become clear at this step. It is obvious that something – some data, some plot – is missing in the figures. We don’t go onto the next step until we have all the data in figure form.

Just FYI, I use Illustrator to make my figures. I hate Powerpoint. It does not allow very much control or good resolution. I know some people love Powerpoint for figures, but I think it is clumsy compared to Illustrator.

2. Long figure captions. After the figures are all made – with ALL the data – we write long figure captions. The figure captions include how we did the experiments, what the figure results show, and what the results mean. The point of a long figure caption is to have an easy way to move from the data to the rest of the manuscript. The “how we did it” becomes part of the materials and methods. The “what the figure results show” become the results section. The “what the results mean” becomes part of the discussion section. The point of the long figure captions is just to help students get over their fear of writing. It is much easier to write while you have a figure to look at and to write about.

3. Methods. I find that the methods are often one of the easier parts to write – especially for students. This is where they get to say what they did. One issue I find, especially when working with undergraduate authors, is that this section can be harder to write than it seems. Yes, it is just what you did, but it has a specific style. For instance, it is not helpful to describe the volumes used in your assays – it is important to describe the concentrations of the reagents. The experiment *should* work the same if you mix up 1 ml or 100 ml, as long as the concentrations are the same.  I have a few favorite papers of my own or from others that I think have particularly good methods sections. I often give these to students to read to help them get the style and tone in their heads before they write.

4. Results. I, personally, find the results easiest to write – especially if you have the figures made up already. Often, each figure is a section of the paper’s results section. Again, this is where one can just describe what the data says. I write as stream of conciousness from the images and describe the data. Doing it this way tends to make the paper a bit long-winded, and it needs a lot of editing, but it is better than to stare at a blank page. It is always easier to cut and edit than to come up with perfect words the first time. A lot of times, I end up writing implications or how the data relates to other work in this section. These ideas are really better suited for the discussion, but it is easier to write them here and move them, if they belong somewhere else.

5. Discussion. After writing the results, I write a discussion section. Sometimes, the results and discussion sections are melded together, and for each figure, I write results and then discussion/implications. If they are separate, I still often write discussion-like ideas in the results and just cut and paste them into the discussion afterwards. These are the starting point, and I expand the discussion from there. At this point, I often have to do additional reading of the literature in order to put my work into context. I add in the references as I think of them with some sort of demarkation that my citation software can recognize. I use {curly brackets} and author name and year. If I know I need a citation as I am writing, I might highlight {cite}, so I can go back and find it later.

6. Introduction. I write the introduction after the discussion. How else will I know what topics I need to introduce and background literature to ground the work until I know the results and implications. I often need to do more reading at this point to make sure I have good and correct references. I insert the citations as I describe above in the text as they come up in the introduction. I often have to read other introductions, especially if I am stuck for words. By this point, I have a good idea of where I am sending the manuscript, so I read introductions from published papers in the same journal to get the style in my head.

7. Abstract. After the paper is pretty much written, I then write the abstract. The abstract is difficult because you need to be brief, for some journals less than 150 words! But, you have to get all the information of why it is important, what you did, and why is matters to the field. Again, I often write something much longer and have to cut cut cut. I think of an abstract as an inverted pyramid – start broad and focus down. You also want to hook the reader – tell them why this work is important early on so they want to read the paper.

8. Other stuff. This stuff I kind of do when the whim hits me. If I am having a hard time writing, then I might write the Acknowledgements section. This takes looking up all the funding agencies and getting the numbers. I had it on a sticky note (an electronic one on computer – not an actual sticky note), but I started being more organized with it all in an excel spreadsheet. Something like the title might change as the paper is being written and different important parts come into view. I like it to represent the results or the implications – it depends on the journal. The authors and author order are usually obvious and depend on the amount of effort, type of person, and the field you are in.

9. Cover letter. The cover letter. I think this is very important, and I think I have been doing it wrong until recently. Once you know the story, the cover letter is the place where you sell it to the editor. The higher “impact” the journal, the more important the cover letter is. This is especially true if the scientific editors are professional science editors and not Principle Investigators acting as editors. You have to educate the editor about how important your field is and why your work is an important piece of the puzzle that was missing until now. You have to discuss what your results are in laymen’s terms – like when you write a proposal for generally educated scientists who might not be right in your field. It must be clear and convincing.  I hope my recent cover letter works. It is far superior to any cover letter I have even submitted before now.

10. References. This is the absolutely last thing I do. Many of the references are being inserted in {curly brackets} along the way, but some will still be missing. They will also be missing from my reference software, so I have to spend some time getting all the citations into that, too. I personally do not use EndNote, but many people do. I use a program called Sente. Either way, I have to get the references into this software system to get inserted at the end. Once my references are inserted in the journal’s style, I cannot modify them or add more, so this is why I wait until the very very last to insert them – otherwise, I am wasting my time.

Before putting in final references, I have my entire lab read and edit the paper. They edit for typos, grammar, spelling, and tell me if things are not clear or confusing.

After all these steps, then I spend a lot of time submitting. The submission processes online are actually easier now than when I was a graduate student, but they still take several hours of inputting names by hand and getting the figures, tables, and writing all uploaded. So, even when you are done with the manuscript, you aren’t quite done.

And there it is, now you have a submitted manuscript! Easy, right? No, but it works, and it is relatively painless – at least for me. So, what are your tricks for writing manuscripts? Comment or post here.

Tag Cloud