Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

Science Advocacy Through Teaching

dumbledores_armyI’m back. Did you miss me?

Honestly, although I had been giving good advice to people one-on-one, I couldn’t put idea to computer for a few months there. You know what helped me? Teaching. The idea that I was now about to teach and, yes, influence young minds. I am excited because I am teaching a cool course that I invented that has a lot of hands-on work, tinkering, and active learning.

I was also assigned an extra course: Freshman seminar. You might have one of these courses in your department. It is the class where the faculty are paraded through to give undergraduate level talks about their research. The goal is to get the students acquainted with the department and oriented somewhat. Honestly, it was always a good opportunity for students to take a nap. Being the sort of person who can never leave well-enough alone and wants to destroy terrible and boring, I am revamping the ENTIRE CLASS. I will NOT have a parade of faculty lulling the students to sleep. Instead, I decided to actually orient and prepare these students for the next 3 years of college, science in general, research, careers, and ADVOCACY. Think of it as Dumbledore’s Army for science (I have been re-reading the Harry Potter series – seriously important reading for these dark times). I want these kids to understand how the scientific process works – including failure, uncertainty, and funding – so they can be voices for change when they go back home.

Will this land me on the Professor Watchlist? God, I hope so! Let’s fill up that list with scientists and engineers.

OK, let’s talk about the class. This is what I am planning (list of topics). I have 12 more weeks. I would love your ideas and suggestions on this list.

  1. What is science? It is a method to find the truth. It is not a bunch of facts we make you memorize.
  2. Who are scientists and how do they think? Why diversity of opinions and ideas is important in science. Scientists are not smart because they *know* a lot of stuff – they are smart because they know *how to find out* a lot of stuff.
  3. Why are scientists never 100% certain? Measurement certainty and precision. How well *can* we measure something? What does that mean about truth and facts?
  4. What is an expert? What is the difference between and “expert’s opinion” and a regular person’s opinion?
  5. The importance of failure in science. Why we try to *disprove* models and theories – not *prove* them. Ethics of reporting true results – even if they are “null” results.
  6. Careers for Scientists outside of the academy. Why a science training is the best training for ANY career.
  7. Where does the money come from for science? Federal funding agencies, Congressional discretionary spending, corporations, foundations. How we write proposals.
  8. Dissemination of scientific results. Why do we need to tell people our results? Different forms of dissemination.
  9. Peer review for journal articles. The mechanics of peer review. Peer review of grant proposals. What does it mean to have expert reviews?
  10. How to discover the truth behind something you read or hear online. Reading a science article. Reading a political article.
  11. How to describe something complicated to someone who doesn’t do science. Dissemination of results to the public. Why does the public need to know about science?
  12. Advocacy and being a spokesperson for science. Talking to everyone about science, what it is good for, and why they should care about it.

So, this is getting me through the day (and night, since I am spending so much time working these days!). How do you feel about this? For me, this is grassroots action. They gave me the perfect class to do this. The course is pass/fail and filled with freshmen. I can’t pass up the opportunity to shape these young minds. I love being a professor sometimes.

What do you think? Comment or write a post yourself. I would love to hear from you! To get an email overtime I post, push the +Follow button and sign-up.

PS. In case you didn’t see it anywhere else: http://www.scientistsmarchonwashington.com

Wrong Kind of Attention

conferenceThe election is bringing out a lot of issues about sexual harassment, assault, and unwanted sexual advances. There has also been a lot of news about sexual harassment in science over the past couple years with the outing of three male scientists who appear to be serial harassers. There have been many, many excellent articles about exactly the kind of harassment women encounter and how is negatively affects the women and makes many women leave science. I am making a little list of some of my favorite and important articles here:

This one written by a cool WomanOfScience blogger, Hope Jahren: “She Wanted to do Her Science…”

This one on TenureSheWrote from a woman who is standing up for the next generation and the follow-up on collaborations with harassers.

A story on NPR: science’s dark secret

And in Nature: astronomy roiled

Last year, one of the big conferences I attend annually,  decided to make a new anti-harassment policy. Because I think this is a very important step in protecting women, I am going to link to the policy at the Biophysical Society. My conference roomie and I were talking about how this is a really good step for the society. Because the society has a lot of young women, it is important to protect them. This policy gives them the ability to stand up for themselves.

At the first session of the first day of the conference, a senior male in my field asked me about the policy. He said that he was worried that men wouldn’t be able to flirt with women anymore without getting in trouble. I joked, but said that I think, if the woman is receptive to the flirting, you are safe. I did say that I, for one, was happy for this change. I briefly relayed a terrible conversation I had the previous year at the meeting where a program officer was very rude and threatening to me at a reception (I haven’t blogged about this, but will if people are interested). It was not explicitly sexual, but it was harassment, and he was using his power over me (as a program officer at a federal agency) to try to intimidate me. I didn’t report it to the society, but I did report it to the funding agency. The guy was actually reprimanded, but not for all that long.

Thinking back on it now, I am troubled by this conversation at the conference with the senior guy. I assume my male colleague was asking about flirting for other men, and not himself, as he is much older and happily married. But, even if he were asking for some other man, what right is there to flirting? Don’t get me wrong, I love flirting. I flirt with men and women in a professional manner asking them about their science and teasing about recent publications and students. But, is there a right to sexual flirting? At a conference? I don’t flirt that way, and I don’t expect to be flirted with that way. I don’t think there is a reasonable right to sexual flirting at a scientific conference.

There is another side effect. When older men flirt with young women, even if it is harmless-seeming, and the woman doesn’t mind, you are putting the woman in an uncomfortable position, nonetheless. Let me explain. When I was in graduate school, one of my peers said that women had it easier in male-dominated fields. I was surprised that he said that, and asked him to explain. He said that when you are a woman, you get all sorts of attention from senior guys. He said he never gets as much attention as cute girls get. So, when a senior guy flirts with a young woman, you are putting her in the position to raise the ire of her male colleagues who grumble that the woman is only getting the attention because she is attractive. This is also detrimental to the woman, who is there to talk about science and isn’t trying to get *that* kind of attention. We want attention for our science – not our looks. Further, for women who don’t want attention for their looks, it can drive them to dress more man-ish – perhaps in a way they don’t want to. So, now the woman has to look like a man in order to stave off unwanted attention, and that isn’t fair either.

What do you think? Do you think conferences should have sexual harassment policies? Do you think they help or hurt? Comment or send me a post. To get an email each time I post, push the +Follow button.

Guest Post: Raise Your Voices

GuestPostThis post comes from an awesome WomanOfScience friend of mine. I hope you enjoy!

This post is about one of my first real experiences with gender bias, as a new PI in {life} science.

During my first year of being a new PI, I was invited to participate in a small workshop in my field.  There were only about 80 of us, with most of us being PIs.  It was an intense 4 day meeting alternating between talks and long, open-ended discussions about important issues in our research area.  In many ways, it was fantastic.

However, I quickly noticed something that I found to be a bit concerning.  While the organizers commended themselves for ensuring that almost half of the participants were women, I noticed that women almost never spoke during the extensive questions-and-answers sessions after each talk, nor did they ever participate in the lengthy “open” discussion periods.  As a new PI in my field, still trying to get the lay of the land, I was hyper-aware of what my female role models were doing.  And I was a bit dismayed that even the full professors who were women were not speaking up.

At first, I wondered, “Am I right about this?  Am I just not noticing when women speak?  Is my own unconscious bias coming through by dismissing their contributions?  Or, are women really not speaking?”  So, during the second day, I began to keep count.  I made a tally every time someone spoke up, whether it was a male or female.

By the end of that second day, it was clear.  Less than 10% of the questions or comments were from women, despite the fact that over 40% of the attendees were women.  And several of the few questions from women were from me, the most junior female PI in the room.  (I have always been pushed to ask questions of speakers, by my graduate and post-doctoral mentors, so I try to speak up as much as possible.)

But I was disturbed that women were not being equally represented in the discussions.  One thing that I noticed was that, oftentimes, the men in the room seemed completely unfazed to spout some random off-the-wall idea that potentially made no sense at all, just to get conversation started.  They weren’t concerned that their idea might sound idiotic.  They weren’t concerned that their words might mean that they were incompetent.

In my (limited) experience, WOMEN DO NOT DO THIS.  Women are careful to only state ideas that they perceive to be “important”.  And since women appear to be uncertain whether their ideas actually are important, they rarely speak up at all.  Why is this?

One answer comes from a really interesting article that I read just before I went to this conference.It discussed how transgendered people who have transitioned can provide interesting insights into how men and women are perceived differently.  My favorite quote in the article comes from Joan Roughgarden, a biologist at Stanford who used to be male until late in her career.  She says “men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise.”

Unfortunately, I have found this to be the case.  I will admit, I was not nearly as aware of this bias when I was a graduate student at a top tier research university.  In my class of around 30 students, 75% of us were women.  I was not even aware of gender bias when I was a postdoc.  Of course, I had heard of and read about unconscious bias.  But I had not seemed to experience it myself or noticed any impact on my own career.  It was only once I became a PI that I began to notice gender bias in my workplace in any real way.

I have long heard that one way to combat gender bias is to make sure that more people are aware of it, when it occurs, so we can at least pay attention to our unconscious bias and figure out ways to deal with it.  Thus, at the bar at the conference that second evening, after I had discovered that only 10% of the questions were from women, I decided to bring it up among a small circle of friendly colleagues.  It seemed natural to do so.  It was a group of just a few of us, people in my sub-field who have known each other for years, a mix of 1 man and 3 women.  Someone else had brought up the fact that women and men were almost equally represented at the meeting, and “Wasn’t that so great?”  So I then replied, “Yeah, it’s great that the organizers did such a wonderful job.  But you know what’s a little funny?  Women are only asking about 10% of the questions, and they aren’t participating at all in the open discussions.”  The women in my group made no reply.  But the man said, “Are you sure?  That can’t be right.”  And I answered, “No, I am right.  I actually counted today.”  The guy was silent for a moment, looked at me right in the eyes, and said, “Well, then I think that you should spend more time thinking about science and less time counting how many questions are being asked by women.”

I was dumbstruck.  I had asked more questions in that group than any other woman in the room, and his response is that I should be asking even more?  And that it wasn’t possible for me to think about science and tally male/female counts at the same time?  And that he didn’t see that it was an issue that women weren’t speaking up?  And that he didn’t respect the fact that I might see it as an issue, as a new woman to the field?  Two years later, this guy is still a close friend and colleague, a true supporter of me and my career.  But he appears to be clearly unaware of gender bias in the scientific world, and how its insidious nature can undermine the confidence of women scientists.

My own response to my observation has been to continue to do what I can – to speak up when I can – to try to be a role model for other, younger women scientists to speak up and not be afraid.  My students are REQUIRED to ask questions at seminars and meetings.  And I teach them to not be concerned about sounding stupid.  That I prefer them to be perceived as engaged and perhaps naive, rather than silent.  Because if you are silent, you aren’t bringing anything at all to the table.

So, my call to other women scientists is to speak up.  Speak your mind.  Even when you are unsure of your ideas.  Share your questions with others.  Isn’t that what science is about?  Asking questions that we don’t know the answers to?

More recently, now that I’ve been a PI for longer, I’ve become even more comfortable asking questions and speaking up.  At the last meeting that I went to (about 300 attendees), I was again the most visible woman.  I probably asked 2-3 questions each day of the 3 day meeting.  I thought that most of my questions were pretty stupid.  But I asked them anyway, especially when no one else seemed to be interested in doing so.  At the end of the meeting, a huge leader in my field came up to me and told me that he had to meet me and share with me that he was so impressed with my “wonderful questions” and that I had been “more impressive than any junior female PI he has ever seen at a conference before in his 30+ years” of being a PI.

While I was glad that he noticed me and complimented my participation, and I am hopeful that my visibility might be a good model for the many, many young women in the audience that asked no questions at all, I do still find it a rather sad state of affairs that this guy had never seen a junior woman ask multiple questions at conferences before (or, at least, not recall seeing it).  I will note that he (and everyone else that I spoke with) was also incredibly impressed by my grad student who accompanied me, as she asked several questions, as well.  She was the only female graduate student to ask any questions during this meeting.

And while I’m hopeful that other women saw our examples, I also am concerned that most women are still too insecure and uncertain to ask questions themselves.  Or, they simply do not realize just how valuable it can be to be visible.  But one thing I’ve learned is that succeeding in academia (and life, really) requires me to confront my fears head on – to run into them.  I used to be terrified – terrified – of public speaking.  My fight or flight response was on full blast when I asked questions, when I spoke in front of people.  But I forced myself to do it anyway.  When I commended my student after she asked questions by telling her how brave she was, she replied that she was not brave, that rather, she “was terrified.”  I explained that being brave does not mean that you are not afraid.  Being brave means you do something EVEN THOUGH you are afraid.

So, I now make it one of my main goals to talk about my own insecurities, my own fears, and the importance of speaking up and being visible, whenever I have the opportunity to speak with students and postdocs. I am hopeful that the more times women hear it, the more likely there will be change.  And that someday, when I go to a meeting, there will be just as many women asking questions as men.

Thanks so much for this awesome post! What do you think? Comment or write your own post! To get an email each time I post, push the +Follow button.

All the Kinds of PUIs

Wellesley_College_Green_HallIf you are reading this blog, you are probably already inside the academic system in some way. As this blog is meant as advice to help you navigate the academic world, and ultimately succeed at being an academic scientist, if you so choose, I thought it would be good to make sure we are all oriented about that environment. Even if you have been in academia for many years, as a professor, you might be surprised at the variety of different types of schools that exist. The reasons why you should know and understand this landscape are:

  • As a mentor of students who aspire to be professors, you should know the different types of schools, and what those types mean so that you can inform and properly guide your mentees into schools that are appropriate for their strengths and success.
  • As a person who might be seeking to stay in academia, you should know the landscape for when you apply to schools at which you might want to teach and do research in the future.

I am currently at a conference for teacher-scholars from both Doctoral Research universities with high activity (often termed, “R1” universities) and Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs) that have high research activity. Schools are periodically evaluated based on the amount of research they do and number of graduate students they have by the  Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, which was just updated in 2015. They do not use the terms R1 and PUI, but most academics use these terms as a sort of shorthand. I encourage you to take a little time to browse the types of schools, and the definitions – especially if you are considering going on the job market this year.

In this article, I want to give an overview of the different types of primarily undergraduate serving institutions of higher learning where you can still have an active science research program with undergraduate students. Any differences of opinion are welcome. Please comment and I will try to amend the article to include these views. Also, the landscape is ever shifting – even the terms change rapidly and schools get reclassified regularly, so it is important, if you are a job seeker and mentor, to keep talking to people broadly about the functioning of academia.

The types of schools that are represented here include:

  1. Private PUIs in the “small liberal arts” category. These types of schools are highly ranked and have a national “brand” that characterizes them and their student body. These schools require research for tenure, and most faculty will continue some type of research, although you will definitely have research-inactive faculty members, too.
  2. Large, public PUIs with some master’s degree students, but not Ph.D. programs. Many times the departments offering master’s degrees or other professional degrees are not in STEM (business schools or law schools), so these schools are still primarily undergraduate in STEM and with regards to NSF funding. These schools have a variable number of research active faculty. Some require extensive research prior to tenure, and some do not.

When you are considering applying to a PUI, especially one that does research with undergraduates, you should understand what that means and what you will be capable of doing. There are a number of private PUIs that are super active in research and expect all their faculty to be engaged in research with undergraduates and publish papers with undergraduates. It is a requirement for tenure, and a rate of 1 paper per year puts you in a the top performers bracket. The national average is a paper every two years. Some of my colleagues are doing research at schools where they are the only one doing research.

In talking to my colleagues here, they say the following:

  • When reading candidate applications, the first thing they do is flip to the research statement. If they read something that sounds like you have no idea what it would mean to do research with undergraduates, they don’t even consider you further. You need to impress that you understand what undergraduates can handle, you understand the time commitment most undergraduates can afford, you understand the time commitment you can afford both during the semester and during the summer, and you understand what facilities you need and can get access to on campus, and perhaps off campus through collaborations.
  • They do look at pedigree. They want you to have a postdoc experience with good, solid publications.  This is important training in research, particularly framing and executing a problem. The hard part might be making sure it is of a scope that can be achieved with you and undergraduate researchers who cannot work full time during the semester.

Hopefully someone who is actually at one of these places can write a blog post about applying to these jobs and reviewing candidates for these types of jobs in the coming months. I will ask around. Hope you found this discussion helpful, especially as the fall application season draws nearer. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post. Comments that critique or amend this discussion are encouraged!

 

Organizing Your Group: Semester Reports

TypingAlthough I have mentioned the semester report in prior posts (management, lab rules, management), I realize that I haven’t made it explicit what the report is for, what it asks for, and how I use it to manage the lab. First, I should say there are lot of ways to do something like this. I started having my students write reports after talking to a very senior WomanOfScience about how she organizes her group. She makes her students write monthly reports. I tried that, but it was too frequent for them and for me. I decided one per semester and one in the summer (3 per year) was a better rate for reporting. I give the students a specific deadline, usually September 1, June 1, and February 1. I also encourage them to take time away from performing new experiments so they can spend time reflecting and writing the report.

Q: Why do this? A: Pedagogy. As most of us are, I am an educator. I noticed that my students were not getting practice with their writing. We would have enough data for a paper, and they would freak out about having to write it. Or, they would write it very poorly. Sometimes they would not include information that they should (data, methods) in the paper because they literally forgot what they did. I decided that the students needed more practice and they needed to routinely recap what they did and their results before it all piled up. I also decided to use this report as a mechanism to help them plan ahead and to do a little self assessment.

Q: What? A: Specific questions. Unlike writing a paper that has a specific format, I wanted the report to be a historical recap of what the students did over the previous semester. I wanted them to think about what their plan had been, what they tried, what worked, what didn’t work, what they accomplished, and give them a place to think about the next 3-4 months. To do this, I ask them to address specific questions in their report. I paste in here the format I use:

  1. A list of goals that the student had for the previous semester/summer;
  2. A description of the experiments the student performed to reach those goals including:
    • The reagents and methods used to perform experiments
    • A description of any analysis you did including the programs you used and the metric you measured and why you measured them
    • A description of the results you found (using words in paragraph form)
    • Figures to illustrate the methods and results you found including images, timeseries of movie data, and plots of quantified data
    • A description of what you think your data means and what the next steps might be
  3. A list of unmet goals;
    • Any problems or issues that the student encountered in attaining those goals
    • Any improvements made or ways that progress can be made faster
  4. A list of goals for the next semester/summer;
    • Is this a reasonable amount of work?
    • What milestones do you expect to meet and when?
  5. A personal statement that addresses the following:
    • What is your personal career goal?
    • How will your work in this lab help you to achieve that goal?
    • What is your personal goal for completing your tenure in this lab? (If you plan to leave the lab eventually – most of you do!)
    • What are your personal goals for achieving your timeline? What skills are needed? What milestones and achievements do you need to make along the way?
  6. A self-evaluation of your progress and work in the lab, what you have done well, and what you need to improve on. For this section, please consider your:
    • Planning and completion of experiments
    • Organization, interpretation and presentation of data (written & oral)
    • Ability to think of “the next logical step” in your experimental design
    • Time management and commitment to research
    • Ability to work independently, troubleshoot & seek outside help when necessary
  7. Any new protocols developed over the last semester, typed, and as separate word documents. The protocols will be posted on the lab website for others to use.

Q: What do you do with these reports? A: Read and comment. I make all the spring reports due June 1, and I get a bunch in all around the same time. Then I have to spend some time reading and commenting. Sometimes I print them out, write comments on the papers, scan for my records, and give the comments back to the student. Other times, I write the comments in a word document and send that to the students. Interestingly, the part that the students are often most hung up on is their self-evaluation. Undergraduate students are especially hard on themselves often saying they are not dedicated enough to the lab. For the more senior students, it is great to see all the experiments they did over the last semester in one place. They often realize how much they did and are proud.

Q: Results? A: Awesome. These reports are super awesome. Here are some reasons why:

  1. The students get a chance to look at what they have done. As I said above, they are often shocked by how much they were able to complete. If they are balancing multiple projects, they are able to look at which projects made progress and which are struggling, and evaluate where to put their efforts.
  2. They get a chance to see what they are going to do. Sometimes students are so excited about taking data, they aren’t thinking about their progress, how much more they really need for a story, or if they might be done. Taking this time to rehash what they did often helps them to sort out where they are and what they still need to do.
  3. They get a chance to self-evaluate. Similar to giving them time to plan, giving time to self-evaluate is really important to stay motivated and keep things moving.
  4. Sometimes we realize they have enough for a paper. This has happened 3 times, in fact. I’m not sure how your science works, but in my field, it often takes a year to figure out how to take the data, but once you figure it out, you can basically take all the data in a couple months. Three different times, when I read a student’s report, there was enough data in there for a paper. Maybe a few new experiments were needed. Maybe a re-analysis, but the meat of a paper was there. Isn’t that amazing?

The only downside of this process is that sometimes I am too busy to do a good job reading the reports. That is bad, and I need to make time to do it. I am going to get many of them on June 1, and I need to make time to read and respond to them. It is especially important during my current situation (sabbatical) that I take the time to read and respond to all the reports.

What are your thoughts? Post or comment here. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post!

 

Organizing Your Group: Group Meetings

WomenTrainingAs I was writing the post about how best to meet with your advisor, I kept looking through my own blog for advice on how to conduct group meetings. I couldn’t find a post just on that topic. How is that possible? How could I have missed such an important topic? Is the problem that the solutions are too varied? Or the topic is too broad? Perhaps. But it is more likely that it was just too damn obvious. I mean, I had all kinds of posts about novel ways to organize your research group including: StateOfTheLabAddressTrainingStudentsLabRules, but nothing on actually having a group meeting. And almost every research group has some kind of group meeting sometimes, so maybe I just thought it didn’t need saying.

Well, I think it does, so here I go. Actually, I am going to have a series of posts on this topic, similar to what I did about advice on when to have a baby. That is because I don’t think there is a single right answer. Different groups have different personalities and need to do different things. I have asked some awesome WomenOfScience to send me some of their group meeting advice, and they did! I will start off with what *I* do, and then I will have some posts about what others do. That way, if you see something new you like to do, you can try it. Also, I would be interested in follow-up posts. If you changed your meeting style, what was the outcome? Was it good, bad, ugly?

Types of group meetings: First off, there are lots of ways to meet with your group. I think when people discuss group meetings, they think of weekly meetings where one person of the group speaks about their work over the last couple months and gives a synopsis. We definitely have weekly group meetings, although I have a different style (see below). But, we also have broader, bigger group meetings with multiple groups and journal clubs. In the summers, we offer coordinated “classes” or lectures on special topics. Below, I describe these different types of meetings we have in our group and share how I personally conduct my group meetings and other such meetings. There is no one right way to do this! This is just one example that works for me.

Weekly group meetings: In my lab, I like to have every person present every week to update everyone else in the lab on what they are doing. This keeps me and others in the loop. I also encourage others to comment and make suggestions, so the team and benefit through our various backgrounds and knowledge bases.

To do this, I have a specific format for the presentations, so it doesn’t get crazy and unruly. First, everyone is limited to ONE SLIDE each. On that slide they must have 1. What they they last week, 2. What they plan to do next week, and 3. An image, picture, plot, movie that represents what they did the previous week. I try to get the slides in advance and put them all into a single presentation file that we can go through quickly. I often fall down on this part of the job and miss one or haven’t loaded them all by the start of the meeting, which is definitely not good meeting organization, but it does give us time to chat and talk about other issues in the lab. Group meetings are also a time to organize one-on-one meetings and discuss general group business.

If a student does not have their slide, there is a mild consequence – they must get up and present their slide as a chalk talk and perform a silly dance. Many students are embarrassed and do not forget their slide again. Some students do not find this to be a deterrent to forgetting their slide, which is a problem. There is a solution: I was chatting with another professor who also uses this style of lab meeting (including the  consequence), but his negative feedback is to have the student do burpees – those jump up push up things from gym class that NO ONE likes. Apparently, this is far more motivating than the dancing.

Journal clubs: During the school year, we have a weekly journal club, usually in conjunction with another lab. Some of my students are required by their graduate program to attend a weekly journal club for credit, so this fulfills that requirement. In our journal club, one person is in charge of picking the paper and distributing it. But, that person is NOT solely responsible for the content of the presentation. Instead, that person makes the slides of each figure, and we cycle through different people who present each figure. This format ensures that others have read the paper (at least enough to present their individual figure). This makes the discussion far better, since more people are prepared. I have seen a number of helpful instructions on how best to present a paper. It is very helpful to give these instructions at the beginning of the semester!

Larger/collaborator group meetings: We are apart of larger groups of researchers that collaborate or just work on related topics and want to get together to present their work and discuss and share issues and ideas. In these meetings, we rotate which group/student presents their work to the entire group in a one-hour format. Many times, we connect with collaborators via skype, which can be difficult. These meetings good for students to get practice with longer-format presentations.

Pedagogical group meetings: In the summers, we often have extra meetings that are basically lectures like one might have in a class. This is to help people learn a little more deeply about a specific topic of interest to the lab. Last year, we went through a book, chapter-by-chapter, and took turns presenting/lecturing on the chapters to each other. This year, I have a couple postdocs who want to teach some basics of some of the techniques we use in the lab. In past years, I have added time onto our weekly group meetings to go over professional development such as drafting a CV or guidelines on applying for fellowships or other things. Since the students organize and ask for these types of things, I think they must enjoy and get something from them.

So, what do you do? Post here in the comments, and I will use them for future posts on this topic. I know there are a myriad ways to have a group meeting – let’s hear yours! To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button. If you haven’t been getting updates, WordPress might have lost you (sorry). Please feel free to follow again!

How to Meet with your Advisor

Conference_de_londresSo, I’m on sabbatical. OK, you know. And, I’ve been having meetings with students over SkyFaceGoogleHangoutTimepe. And, I have to say that, while it is frustrating to be 3000 miles away from the lab which has definitely led to some problems, in general, my individual meetings with students have gotten… better. We have every-other-weekly individual one-on-one meetings, and the students are coming more prepared and more focused than they ever did when I was there in person (exceptions abound, of course). I can speculate all day about the reasons this may be happening, but the fact that it is happening has exposed some best-practices for having meetings with your advisor. I will describe those best practices here, but before I do, I would like to point to a couple posts of related interest including: Effective Meetings, StateOfLab, mentoring.

Bring your notebook: I can’t tell you the number of times I am meeting with a student and I ask a question about their work, results, protocol, and they say, I can’t remember. My response is: no shit. OK, not really. I say that in my head. See, that isn’t surprising because you aren’t supposed to remember everything. That is what a lab notebook is for. The beauty of having a lab notebook is that you don’t need to remember. Indeed, relying on your memory will get you in huge, huge trouble, because our memories are faulty, not everything makes it into long-term memory, and you can only remember about 7 things in your short-term. When the student says they can’t remember, I usually ask if they wrote it in their notebook. That elicits a response of, “oh yeah!” At this point, it is prudent to go get your notebook, but this whole time-sucking activity can be avoided if the student would just bring their notebook to every meeting. So, always bring your notebook to the meeting.

Bring your data: In addition to your notebook, it is best to bring your data with you. Most data nowadays is electronic, so that means bringing your laptop and hard drive. Many labs have some sort of intranet or server to share data. If you upload your data to that well-before the meeting, it will be uploaded and can be downloaded in a timely manner. You may have a lot of data, so you might need to pre-sort. Don’t spend time at the meeting clicking open random files to find the right one. You should have noted before hand in your notebook interesting and remarkable data sets. Also, make sure you have characteristic data sets. It always happens that some look “better” than others, but you should also show the “quintessential” data set. Maybe you are past the raw data part, but there will still be things to show. Show your analysis method. Show your analyzed data. Describe how you calculated the error bars. If the data is a distribution, is it Gaussian? What functional form does the data fit to? Is that reasonable? What is the goodness of fit? Your advisor should not only know how you did this, they should want to know. If you make a mistake, they can catch it early and help you correct it. That is always preferable to finding out after submitting the paper, accepting the paper, or publishing the paper!

Be prepared: Bringing your notebook and data are a part of being prepared for your meeting. But, they are not the only way to be prepared. You should have an idea of what you want to talk about. Do you want to show off your amazing data? Do you have a question about how to analyze your data? Are you worried that a recent experiment isn’t replicating the first couple of experiments properly? Have a list of topics and questions you need to address with your advisor. And make sure you understand how you got the data you are showing. All the questions I describe about data above are things you should be prepared to discuss. Again, you do not need to memorize these things, but be able to quickly locate them in your notebook or within your computer.

Take notes: I can’t tell you how many times I have been talking to a student and giving the most brilliant, insightful information about their work, and then I say, “You got that?” And they look at me, with no pen in hand, no notebook open, no ability to write or recall the rainbows of knowledge I just spewed from my brain. Actually, many times, I diagram things on the white board when I am talking. In a sense, I am taking notes – or making notes, but these are written from my perspective. It is far better if the student takes their own notes. We can always take a picture of the board, and you can paste it in your notebook, but my hieroglyphics might not make sense next week or next month. Best to take your own notes and paste the board in under.

Actively listen – restate and seek confirmation: For any conversation where you want to make sure that all parties are understanding, it is always best to use active listening. This is where you basically double check that you are on the same page. You should restate their ideas or instructions in your own words, and seek confirmation  for what you understand to be the sentiments of the other parties. This is important to do in any conversation, but especially one where instructions are being given or you truly need to ensure that you do the right thing.

Prioritize: Before you leave the meeting, it is best that you prioritize your plan of action and double check that is the right priority for your advisor, too. All too often, a student leaves the office with a long list of action items, but no priority on how to attack them. Best to check the priority before you leave to make sure you are working on the right thing first on the list.

When working from a distance, I have found that, in addition to the things described above, a few extra things are needed.

Send protocols: Because I cannot look at your notebook, I need some information on how you did your assay. I have found with several students over the past semester that I thought I was helping to troubleshoot why their experiments weren’t working. They told me, verbally, what they were doing, but I couldn’t see the notebook or what they were actually doing. The advice I gave them turned out to not help at all. After a couple weeks, and several failed attempts to fix things, I realized that I needed more information on what they were doing. Turns out, the affirmative statements they made when I asked how they were doing their experiments were not the whole story. What I was really lacking was the protocol of how they were doing their experiments. Luckily, all the students were actually taking good notes and using printed protocols. (There is no helping someone who doesn’t write anything down!) Once I got the protocol, I realized why all my advice wasn’t working. The protocols were completely effed. Much of this was either a new protocol or a specific variation of a worked out protocol that drifted way out of the bounds of reasonable. Most of the time, the student was doing something that was fundamentally “unstable” such as pipetting 0.2 ul or something equally prone to uncertainty.

Send slides: Because I cannot look at all your data, it is best when students send a powerpoint with representative data and analyzed data. Most of my students have gotten used to this, because I usually have weekly group meetings where everyone presents every week and they have to have one slide each (meetings, meetings). Unfortunately, sometimes this means they only send me one slide, but it is better than no slides.

Share your screen: Another way to effective communicate and share data and knowledge is to share your screen with your student. I have done this several times, especially when showing a student a new data analysis. But, the students can also do that with me to share data. When doing this, the same rules as above for bringing and pre-selecting the data need to be done. A word of caution – when using GoogleHangouts, you must pick the application, and you can only share that application – it is annoying. Skype is better at this.

Let me re-iterate: Take Notes! Actively listen! It is so much more important for the student to take notes and to check what you heard when the advisor is a little head on a screen. Once, during my sabbatical, I was talking to a student. As I was vomiting pearls of wisdom, the student looked up and said, “Wait! I need my notebook to take notes!” The student ran out of the room to grab the notebook, and began scribbling furiously upon returning. Of course, I didn’t say anything about the notebook, because I had no idea that the notebook wasn’t there. I could tell that notes weren’t being taken, but it didn’t occur to me to say anything. Since that time, this student has never forgotten their notebook again at an online meeting. A lot of the follow-up I have been doing has been taking pictures of my notebook where I took notes and sending that. Often those notes are multi-colored and with illustrations.

So, this is what I have come up with. But, I am sure I am missing something. If so, post here with a comment!! Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

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