Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for the ‘Service’ Category

Networking at Grant Panels

WomanNetworkNetworking is so very important!! I cannot stress this enough. This is true at all levels. At early levels (student), it helps you to establish connections and can even get you a job (see this post). Pretenure, it is essential to get the word out that you exist and are doing things that people should pay attention to. You gotta go to conferences (old post) and network on campus (recent post). When you are senior, lack of travel and often result in lack of recognition, and getting back out there can be essential to re-starting after a long absence due to childcare or other issue (see this awesome post).

When you are a professor, another important place to network is on grant panels. Serving on grant panels is so important for so many reasons:

  1. You get to read grants. Good grants, crap grants, many in between grants. When I read grants, I not only try to evaluate the science, but I also use the time to think about how best to write grants. Of course, you have to get rid of the grants afterward, but you can think and even write down what was good about the writing, the style, the format. All these things matter to writing a great grant that gets funded.
  2. You get to meet other scientists. On grant panels, you spend an intimate 1-4 days with a group of scientists talking about science that can be funded, using your expertise, learning new things you never knew before, and basically interacting. You are also together at meals where you spend time talking about your family, your pets, your house, and all the other lifestyle stuff. Scientists have similar lifestyles no matter if you are from California, Texas, or Michigan. This is the networking. This is the close kind of network that you often only find at very small meetings. Grant panels are the smallest of meetings.
  3. You get to meet program officers. In addition to working with other scientists who may or may not be in your field, you also get to work with the program officers who will presumably have the opportunity to fund your research. You can figure out what types of science they like to find and how they like to interact with scientists. Different program officers like to hear more about motivation or technical stuff or diversity impacts. Plus, if you are already at a funding agency, you might be able to visit other program officers while you are there.

What is a grant panel like? I have a lot more experience serving on NSF panels and foundation proposal review panels, so that is what I will describe. If you have information about NIH, DOD, DOE, or other, please comment here! At NSF you have to come prepared and be early. Most program officers want you to have all your evaluations uploaded over a day early, so they can prioritize the discussion list. Be prepared – it takes over an hour to review a single proposal and write a review, so make sure you start early enough.

At the panel. The program officer will start with a little background or information you need for the panel. Good ones will describe implicit bias and how it is important to be aware of biases, so that you can avoid them.

Reviewing. The panel will begin to review each grant. Some panels prioritize the grants so that the obvious ones (all highly rated or all low rated) are discussed first and taken care of. Sometimes the bottom ones are completely triaged – not discussed at all. Most program officers will try to keep you on track by giving you only 12-15 minutes to discuss the proposal. One person will be the “lead” discussant and describe the strengths and weaknesses of the proposal. The second and possibly third reviewers will describe and additional and not previously described issues. Typically, a third or fourth assigned reviewer will serve as the scribe who will record what is said at the panel to give some inside information about what was said in the room and write up the panel summary that also goes to the proposers.

Serving as a virtual panelist. In a recent panel, I served as a virtual panelist. In this, I used my computer camera to interact with the panel. Frankly, I didn’t like it. It was harder to interact and network with others. I felt like it was also more difficult to be convincing. Most of the other virtual panelists had cameras, but not everyone, so I couldn’t use facial cues to help me be more convincing. Also, I realize that I typically use these meetings for networking – specifically with the women scientists on the panel. I am not sure if I will be a virtual panelist again.

Anything else I missed? Post or comment here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Management: Delegation

I was feeling pretty down about how crappy my meetings are. I am glad to hear that not all academic meetings are so bad from readers and friends. It gives me hope that my meetings will go better if I try and practice good meeting habits.

The same week, we also talked about delegation. As bad as my meetings are, my ability to delegate was inversely awesome! We took a little quiz, and I scored great on it. Take the quiz here:

Delegation Quiz:

YES NO
1. I spend more time than I should doing the work of my students. Y N
2. I often find myself working while my students are idle. Y N
3. I believe I should be able to personally answer any question about any project in my group. Y N
4. My inbox mail is usually full. Y N
5. My students usually take the initiative to solve problems without my direction. Y N
6. My research group operates smoothly when I am away. Y N
7. I spend more time working on details than I do on planning or supervising. Y N
8. My students feel they have sufficient authority over personnel, finances, facilities, and other resources for which they are responsible. Y N
9. I have bypassed my students by making decisions that were part of their job. Y N
10. If I were incapacitated for an extended period of time, there is someone who could take my place. Y N
11. There is usually a big pile of work requiring my action when I return from an absence. Y N
12. I have assigned a task to a student mainly because it was distasteful to me. Y N
13. I know the interests and goals of every student in the research group. Y N
14. I make it a habit to follow up on jobs I delegate. Y N
15. I delegate complete projects as opposed to individual tasks whenever possible. Y N
16. My students are trained to maximum potential. Y N
17. I find it difficult to ask others to do things. Y N
18. I trust my students to do their best in my absence. Y N
19. My students are performing below their capacities. Y N
20. I nearly always give credit for a job well done. Y N
21. My students refer more work to me than I delegate to them. Y N
22. I support my students when their authority is questioned. Y N
23. I personally do those assignments one I can or should do. Y N
24. Work piles up at some point in my operation. Y N
25. All students know what is expected of them in order of priority. Y N

 

Scoring:

Give yourself one point each if you answered “Yes” for #5, 6, 8, 10, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 20, 22, 23, 25

Give yourself one point each is you answered “No” for #1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 9, 11, 12, 17, 19, 21, 24.

Score 20-25: You have excellent delegation skills that help the efficiency and morale of your research group. You maximize your effectiveness as a leader and help develop the full potential of your students.

Score 15-19: Your score is adequate, but not excellent. To correct, review the questions you did not receive a point for and take appropriate steps so as to not repeat the mistakes.

Score <14: Inability to delegate is reducing your effectiveness as a leader. This results in lower performance. Determine if you are unwilling to relinquish power and why. Inability to delegate can cause dissatisfaction among your students. They will not develop job interest and important skills unless you improve.

How did you score? I had a 22/25. The other classmates, who all work in regular offices or as crew managers, were grumbling about my awesome score. One person said, “I know what the correct answers are, but I answered honestly,” (not meanly, but in a dejected sort of way). The thing is, delegation is essential to running a research group. If you do not properly delegate, you will probably not succeed at running a research group in academic science.

The reason for this is two fold:

1. You cannot do all the things to get this job done by yourself. You will not be able to do all the research, write all the papers, make all the figures, write all the grants, teach all the courses, review all the papers and grants, serve on all the committees, yadda yadda yadda. Delegation is a matter of survival.

2. Your job is to train people. The best way to train someone to replace you is to give them some parts of your job to try out. This means not just doing the research, but all practice writing the papers and making figures, practice giving the talks, even practice reviewing papers. These things will have to be done with more or less supervision depending on the student’s abilities and maturity in research. But, by delegating tasks, the student will learn, feel apart of the team, and you will get more work done.

Another reason why I can delegate more than my peers in the management course is that running a lab is like running a small business. I can run it how I see fit. Delegating certain responsibilities of the job to my students make me more effective and efficient, so I take full advantage. I can also hire and fire, which many of my peers cannot do. If someone really can’t handle any task I give them (including research), I let them go. I don’t think it does anyone any good to keep someone in the lab who cannot make any contribution at all.

What do you think? Is delegation important? How well do you delegate? Is there a difference between delegation and training? Post or comment here. To receive an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Management: Effective Meetings

hold-a-meetingThis week at my supervisory management course, we learned about something I wish every single one of my colleagues would learn: how to have an effective meeting. As I am one of only a couple of faculty members in this course, it was quite startling to compare/contrast the types of meetings I am used to, to the types of meetings my colleagues on staff have. I would say that many faculty meetings have a lot of talking. In fact, in recent meetings that I have run (poorly), all I did as the meeting lead was stand at the front, mentally note who raised they hand when, and make sure people spoke in order and didn’t trample over each other. We spoke for over an hour! Just talking one after another. I also took notes in a notebook or on a black board so that I could transcribe them later. There are so many things wrong with how I run my meetings, it is ridiculous. But, these meetings are weird, because they are between a bunch of people who are basically equals who all like to talk – a lot, and all think that they are the smartest person in the room. That makes faculty meetings harder. When I have a lab meeting, where I am clearly the top of the hierarchy, they run very differently – maybe more like my counterparts’ meetings. I run the meeting, I set the agenda. People talk and comment, but I control it and don’t let it derail. Actually, sometimes I do let it derail because I like to make a fun environment and chatting is part of that.

What is the definition of an effective meeting? Meetings are effective when the goals of the meeting are achieved using a minimal amount of time and all participants are satisfied. Most meetings can be classified into two types: Information and Decision Making. Information meetings are used to convey information to a group or convince a group of something. Decision Meetings are used for goal setting, problem solving, and action planning. Most of the meetings I seem to have in academia, both with my research group and with colleagues on committees seem to be the second type. Straight information is (thankfully) usually conveyed in email format. Although sometimes it is useful to convey information in verbal forms (if it might get people upset, for instance).

Below are 10 characteristics of Effective Meetings. Here is a fun exercise: score your typical faculty meetings using the following rubric:

0 points if this never happens/never done for meetings,

1 point if you are not so good at this or this rarely happens in your meetings,

2 points if you are OK at this, or this occasionally happens in your meetings,

3 points for being generally good at this and this normally happens in your meetings,

4 points is your meetings always have this.

Score       Attribute

____     Seating in the room is arranged so that every person can see everyone else.

____     Equipment is available at the front of the room to record ideas/plans.

____     Your meeting has an agenda.

____     The agenda has time estimates for discussing each topic of the meeting.

____     At least 1-2 times in the meeting, there is a probe into how effective the meeting is going.

____     During the meeting someone records the ideas and decisions of the meeting. The data is prepared and handed out afterward to all concerned.

____     Meeting notes indicate who has agreed to do what before the next meeting.

____     Dates of future meetings are set in advance so people can arrange to attend.

____     Those in attendance decide who else should be involved for future meetings and those people are included.

____     At the end of the meeting, people review and confirm who is doing what.

 

So, how did you score? I score quite badly (about 13 out of possible 40) – getting a zero in many of the attributes. I often do not have an agenda and it certainly doesn’t have times set for each part. We always have a place to write notes – chalk/white board and projector, but most of the time someone doesn’t take note. I usually take notes, but sometimes I don’t have the time to transcribe and distribute them. Have you ever been to a meeting where it was stopped and someone asked how it was progressing? Big, fat goose egg on that one for me. Never, ever happened ever. Dates of meetings set in advance. Does 24 hours ahead of time count?

Are these things feasible to do at meetings in academia? I think they are, and I think it would make meetings more useful and less dreaded. I am going to endeavor to implement these attributes into my meetings from now on. I hope my colleagues say, “I love having meetings with WomanOfScience running them. They are so efficient and effective. We get stuff done without wasting time!” OK, that might be wishful thinking! What do you think? Post or comment here. To get an email every time I post, click the +Follow button.

Miscarriages Happen

ICSI_WebAlthough a lot of the advice and stories on this blog are not necessarily for women only, there are some issues that are specific to women. For instance, I should have taken more bathroom breaks during my recent seminar trip. I was saved by wearing very dark jeans… The women know what I am talking about.

During my seminar visit, I had an explosion of women’s issues emails from 3 different women. Many of these were really specific women’s issues, and this post is one of them. Please enjoy!

I’ve had three miscarriages. There, I said it. I asked to write this guest post to highlight the cultural taboo against discussing miscarriages and infertility, and argue that this is a BAD THING. It’s a double standard that hurts women, especially those in academia with the special time pressure associated with being on the tenure track.

I am an assistant professor at Average Private University; this is my fourth year on the tenure track. Overall I really like my job and my department is great and friendly. My husband is also an assistant professor at APU, so we managed the two-body problem, which is a whole separate post. I have one wonderful daughter who is a year and a half old. Between her and the three miscarriages I’ve been pregnant or breastfeeding for about 3 of the 3.5 years I’ve been on tenure track.

Only two of my department colleagues know this. I have generally been fairly sick during the first trimester of pregnancy: vomiting, dizziness, extreme fatigue. But I didn’t feel comfortable telling most work colleagues about these issues, because you’re not supposed to tell anyone you’re pregnant until the second trimester. Why? Because what if you miscarry?

All three miscarriages also happened late enough in the first trimester that my doctor recommended surgery. In some sense I was lucky; I can’t imagine having a miscarriage or stillbirth in the second or third trimester. But in any case, I had to go in for outpatient surgery three times over the past three years. Of course, all three had to be scheduled during important faculty meetings. Did I feel comfortable explaining to my colleagues why I was absent from these important faculty meetings? No. Now I wonder how many of them think that I’m flaking out on faculty meetings and shirking my responsibilities as a faculty member.

This is bull. If my non-pregnant colleagues had the same symptoms I did, they would definitely go see a doctor, perhaps even take a few days of medical leave, and most of them would be perfectly willing to explain to other colleagues that they were behind because they weren’t feeling well. They would certainly tell a colleague they missed a faculty meeting because they had surgery.

This is not just academic. I know of a colleague who struggled with infertility (which can also be a taboo subject) and missed a lot of department functions/meetings while dealing with testing and treatment for that issue. Her department did not strongly endorse her for tenure, and the tenure process turned into a mess. While of course there’s a lot more to the story, I think the fact that she was dealing with infertility instead of a different medical issue made it more difficult for her to get the time off of work and the empathy and understanding of her peers.

And its not just work colleagues. Over the past three and a half years, I’ve turned down countless social invitations and opportunities to have fun because I was too “morning sick” to go or I didn’t want to explain why I wasn’t drinking alcohol or I was too emotionally/physically exhausted from the miscarriages themselves. In many cases, people have just stopped inviting me because I never say yes, and I don’t blame them. I’ve also heard more than a few stories of women who went to great lengths to hide the fact that they weren’t drinking due to pregnancy; one friend would fill up an empty beer can with water and carry it around for an entire party. Can I just say that THIS IS INSANE? I – we — should be able to explain to social acquaintances and potential new friends that we are sick and/or pregnant and provide some context for our absences or behaviors.

Why are miscarriages and infertility such a verboten subject? Many reasons, of course. It probably ties into our society’s general ambiguity about the human status of a fetus throughout pregnancy. I think it mostly ties into the fact that for almost all of human history, women who couldn’t (or chose not to) have babies were third-class (or worse) citizens. Women were supposed to have babies, and if they couldn’t, it was due to an inherent flaw in their womanhood. While most of us would acknowledge that this is complete crap, that narrative persists in our collective inability to discuss miscarriage and infertility.

It’s certainly not uncommon; unfortunately about 50% of conceptions end in miscarriage. To me as a scientist, it’s amazing that something as complicated as human development works out at all. (Of course, if it didn’t, we wouldn’t be here.) According to the US Department of Human Health and Human Services, about 10% of women struggle with infertility.

The statistics on miscarriage and infertility especially suck for academics. As discussed elsewhere, we often have to make difficult choices about when to try to have children, if we want them. Many folks (including me) decide to postpone until we get a tenure-track job (typically late 20’s, early 30’s) or get tenure (typically mid-to-late 30’s and beyond). This puts us at greater risk for miscarriages and infertility issues, and it also puts an increased pressure to keep trying NOW despite the emotional and physical toll of dealing with these medical problems.

So, what can I (we) do? I think that if I do have another pregnancy, and I have medical symptoms, I am going to openly tell colleagues early in the first trimester. It may make them a bit uncomfortable, and it will be difficult if I have to tell them that I miscarried again, but I think it beats the alternative, which is worrying that I might have a problem with tenure because of it. It also means that I can finally explain to people why I’m turning down social invitations, and say that I’d sure like to be invited again in about three months.

In general, I think women (and their partners) should be more willing to talk about our miscarriages/infertility and the way it affects our lives. By talking about it, we can make sure that women who experience these issues get the support they need instead of falling behind. Miscarriage or infertility is not something to be ashamed of, and it certainly shouldn’t hurt a person’s career.

So what do you think? What would you do? Tell early so people understand your medical conditions? Or not let them know because it is really none of their business. It is a tough call, but one we all have to make. Comment or post here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Daily Choices

GoodSenseCorsetWaists1886page153I read an interesting article from another science blogger, Rigoberto Hernandez, on his blog EveryWhereChemistry. He had a recent interesting blog entry about what to spend your time on daily, where he compared the choices to Horcruxes and Hallows. Please go to read it. But, it got me to thinking about the different types of tasks we have presented to us daily, and the choices we make. The specific tasks depend on what level you are at, but the fact that you have to make the choices never changes.

Graduate School: In graduate school the choices should be easier, but they still exist. Should you attend that friend’s defense, or work on your paper? Should you take more data today, or analyze the data you already got, but aren’t sure if it worked? Should you spend a few months learning how to program to make your data analysis automated, or should you analyze it by hand to get it out faster, and will it really be faster?

Postdoc: As a postdoc, you are still focusing mostly on research, and you might have similar daily decisions similar to graduate school. Presumably, you figured out which are the right choices to keep advancing. As a postdoc, especially if you are fairly good, you are probably offered the ability to work on multiple projects. This can be very good for your career and your training. Good for your career because you could possibly get more papers out faster, which you need to get grants and get a job. Good for your training because as a faculty member, you will have to manage multiple projects that your students will work on. On a daily basis, you will have to decide which project to work on. Maybe you already tackled this issue as a senior graduate student, but postdocs are usually given more responsibility and more projects than graduate students. With multiple projects comes all the same decisions as on individual graduate projects, except multiplied.

Pre-tenure: Starting this job is like jumping into cold water. Now you have to teach, manage, write/obtain grants, initiate new research, train students, and on and on. That makes your daily choices so much harder. Should you spend your time working on your new class, writing a review article, writing a grant, working on research, meeting with students? The myriad of choices are endless. I would often divide the days into halves or 2-hour chunks and work on one thing for a set time before moving on to the next thing.

Post-tenure: If you made it past tenure, presumably you spent your time doing the right thing to achieve tenure – congratulations. With tenure comes a relaxation of the pressure to do what you have to do in favor of being able to do what you want to do.  So, what will you do? What will you choose to do each day? Somedays I find myself just putting out fires – doing a lot of things that are urgent but not important. Other days, I opt to work in the lab with students when I probably should be writing that next grant. The daily choices are a bit harder when you don’t have the pressure or the excuse of looming tenure. It is harder to say no or to prioritize the way you did before. You often get piled upon with more service and larger teaching loads. Unlike at the other stages, when you are still trying to make it, there is less advise for this stage, so you try to do the best you can, but are you making the right choice? Should I work on that paper to resubmit it to a new journal, or write that new grant, or work with that new student in the group?

I don’t know if I have advise here, since we all navigate these waters alone. What do you think? Any good ways to keep your priorities straight after tenure? Post or comment here. Follow this blog but hitting the +Follow button.

Leadership, but not Administration

808px-Queen_Elizabeth_I_by_George_GowerAs I have lamented before, with the coming of tenure seems to be the loss of mentoring. There are a number of new pursuits one can attempt to achieve after attaining tenure, but before Full Professor. For instance, you can begin to take on leadership roles within larger, multi-PI grants or center grants. You will likely be assigned to lead some committees within the department or within the college. You might need to organize a conference. You might get elected to a national or international organization or committee. You can become an editor of a journal or edit a compilation book. You can write a book of your own. Indeed, fulfilling some of these activities may be required to become a Full Professor at your college or university. All of these endeavors require the ability to organize and lead other professors, researchers, or investigators.

In order to achieve this next level, and to enable better leadership and management within your research groups, we should learn some management and leadership skills. Presumably, we all manage our research groups, so we have some kind of management experience. We may or may not be good at it, though. I had a couple of good advisors from whom I picked up some better management techniques (through osmosis and not through any guided instruction). Likewise, I learned how not to manage a lab from a couple of bad advisors. But managing a group of younger, less-experienced researchers (despite the fact that they might not be physically younger than you, as my first postdocs were actually all older than me) is not the same as leading a group of peers or even senior colleagues.

I am looking for guidance on leadership, but very few leadership workshops or courses for academics are geared toward “normal” leadership, such as those I describe above. Most are pointed toward new or up-and-coming administrators. They are meant for aspiring Deans, Provosts, Presidents, Chancellors. Of course, we need leadership skills far before we approach that level. In fact, we should not be attempting to go for Head/Chair of the department, Dean, or other administrative position until after you are already a Full Professor. Being a Full Professor is often a requirement for many administrative positions, although there are a number of lower-level administrative positions that do not require you to be a Full Professor, but you will be limited.

So, how do you gain the skills you need to take on the next level of leadership? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Find and attend a leadership conference. These can be expensive and are often specific for those aspiring to become an administrator. Some are specific for women in administration, such as HERS, or the COACh program. General academic leadership workshops conducted by the American Council on Education (ACE) also exist. Many of these are EXPENSIVE, and you are not going to fund yourself to go. You need the university to support you to go.

2. Use a leadership workshop or conference on campus. More and more universities and schools are seeing that leadership skills are important for their faculty members. A number of schools have been having on campus workshops or short courses. From what I hear, you need to be invited and somehow picked at your school. This is where making sure that your on campus network is in tact and strong is very important.

3. Check your local business school. Many of the schools where you work have business or management schools. Business schools almost always have a leadership course. If you get to attend or sit in on a course for free, take advantage. Contact the professor and ask if you can audit the course. Unlike a short course or workshop, which might only be a week at most, a semester/quarter-long course will give you more time to learn management over a longer time. There will be assigned reading which you might not get to in a timely manner, but will be a good reading list for what you will need to know.

These are my thoughts, but what about yours? Do you have more management workshops that you know about that I missed? It might be good to have a better list. How about other ways those of us without access to special and costly workshops my attain some leadership skills? Any good books we should know about?

Getting It All Done

TimeManagementv2In science, there is a lot to be done. When you are an undergraduate, you had problem sets, lab reports, maybe even a capstone to complete. You were maintaining your grades while having some fun and doing some extracurricular activities. As a graduates student, you passed classes, TAed, performed novel research, became the world’s expert in your exact experiments, perhaps organized some science-related on-campus activities, attended conferences, made posters and talks, wrote papers and a thesis, and got a postdoc. As a postdoc, you juggled multiple projects, learned new techniques, wrote proposals for fellowships, mentored graduate students and undergraduates, perhaps juggled multiple mentors, wrote papers, edited papers, edited theses, attended conferences, networked, gave talks, wrote papers, applied to jobs, interviewed, got a job, and wrote papers.

Now, as a faculty member, your job tripled because in addition to doing all the stuff above, you are now having to manage other people (posts), get enough funds to support other people (write grants, see post), teach courses (perhaps some that you never took yourself, see post), work on service for the department and college (post), and take on larger and larger service roles for your scientific community. Each of these has a huge number responsibilities and components to it, and could be a job unto itself. So, how do you do everything?

I have had some posts about starting a new job here and here, but at the beginning, the job isn’t as much. It definitely ramps up over time. I have one post that is good for helping to organize yourself over a yearly time frame, but there is also something to be said for a monthly or weekly schedule that is conducive to getting everything done. One extra issue with academia, is that your schedule changes throughout the year depending on when you are teaching, what you are teaching, who is in your lab, and other what naught. I will give some examples of weekly schedules that worked well for me over the years, in a hopes that they will help you to organize your schedule, too.

Example 1 – 10am class for 1 hour. Several semesters, I taught at around 10am for about an hour three days per week. This time slot was pretty close to ideal, which is probably why they are so popular in the schedule. The students were awake, I had time for last minute prep before class, and I took the entire morning for “teaching.” Here is how I actually arranged my schedule. On the days I was teaching, I got in around 9am and did some last minute psyching up for class, making sure I had demos, and my computer was set up. I would print off and make copies of anything needed for class. I would go 15 minutes early to the classroom to set up projectors and demos and also talk to students as they came into the lecture hall. After teaching, I would go to the gym for an hour to get exercise and decompress after teaching. After the gym, I would shower and go to lunch. I would spend the afternoon working on leftover class stuff, like scanning and posting my notes or homework solution sets, office hours, and meeting with students. On the other days, I would try to take the entire day for writing grants and papers. In the evening the day before I would teach, I would spend a couple hours in the evening re-writing my lectures.

Example 2 – afternoon lab course. Other semesters, I taught afternoon lab courses two times per week for several hours in the afternoon. Lab classes take less preparation because there are not lectures to make up. I usually try to keep all the teaching stuff on the same day, so any preparation, photocopying, or equipment set-up that I might need to do would be done in the morning. Again, the other days are reserved for research. I would also try to go to the gym first thing in the morning on research days before going into work but after getting the kids to school. Sometimes working out was a great way to kick my brain into gear and get it working for the rest of the days on research days.

The key to all of these ideas is to give myself the time I need to do what I need to do. I block out full days for research and I do not allow committee meetings to be made on those days. The days I teach classes, I put other meetings and office hours, so that it is all on the same day. Although I have been failing recently, I also try to get to the gym 3 days per week. Also, I eat lunch with friends almost every single day, and I try to sleep 7-8 hours per night.

Also, none of this includes any family stuff, which happens outside of 9-5. But, here is the key, by giving myself time for stuff like rest and the gym, I have some slack that I can take up with family stuff happens. The week when the baby has a fever and he has to stay home, I cut out gym and some other stuff so that I can still get the important stuff done take the time I need to be with the baby at home. (My spouse and I split days off with sick baby, and negotiate which days/times we can be home. We often don’t schedule important, non-rearrageable meetings at the same time not he same days, so we can do this. We have a joint-shared set of calendars.) If my time is already stretched to the breaking point, a sick kid or other family emergency will wipe me out. If I am giving up going to the gym for a week, so I can get more research done, it isn’t as bad.

So, what do you think? Do you have a way to arrange your time that enables you to get it all done? Post or comment. You can receive an email every time I post by pushing the +Follow button.

Public Science: Importance of COSMOS

1114_universe-crop-500x416So, are you watching COSMOS? We are. In fact, we are watching it twice each week – once live and once with our kids because they didn’t get to see it (their bedtime is too early). It was fortuitous because our daughter was just asking about where babies come from (she is in elementary school). Since we don’t like to lie to her we were giving her the scienciest explanation we could must with very little information on the dynamics of S-E-X. So, we were talking about DNA with a lot of hand-waving. We were super excited to watch COSMOS after both kids went to bed, and see the DNA illustrated. We were recording it, and are watching it tonight to show the kids. Both kids are super excited about it! I couldn’t be prouder. (We also watched Gravity this weekend, and my daughter thought it was scary but exciting and cool.)

I was also ecstatic because some of the science I work on was mentioned in COSMOS in episode 2! It was awesome to see it illustrated in beautiful graphic arts and brought to life. When it came on while my kids were watching, I ran to the TV, pointed at the stuff I study, and said, “That is the science I work on!”

I am super excited about COSMOS because I think science outreach to the public is so important. It is important to educate our representatives in government to ultimately improve science funding. It is important to educate people who deny evolution and global climate change. It is really important to educate future scientists to get them excited about discovery so we have enough hard working people to make new breakthroughs in science.

Also, I find that people are really jazzed and excited about science in general. I do a lot of random science outreach. Mostly, I do a lot of talking about it on airplanes, in airports, in taxis… I’ve been doing a lot of traveling, lately, have I mentioned it? When people sit next to me and ask what I do, they are often excited to learn I am a scientist. I have taken the opportunity to explain some of my science, why it is important to them, and what we could learn. They are often really excited and impressed.

Also, it is a great way for me to learn better ways of communicating my science not just for the public, but also to my classes. Teaching big service courses to hundreds of students is an essential way to make a science-literate public. For some, especially those taking ScienceForPoetsCourses, this may be one of the last times they come into contact with science in a class in college. The experience should be a positive one, and it should make them literate of what science can do for them.

Another place I have been doing a lot of outreach is to my Representative in the U.S. Congress. I have been going for the last several years to a Capital Hill visit day with one of the ScienceSocieties I am a member of. The first year I visited my Rep, I was happy to see that his office had pennants from the universities and colleges in his district. He was taking over our region due to an “ungerrymandering,” so I made sure to bring him a pennant from UState when I went to visit the second year. Mostly, I spent a lot of time talking to his staffer responsible for science, and informing her about how science works. I told her about how federal funding works, which she didn’t realize. I told her how the university only gives a research professor money to start a lab, but after that, we have to sustain it ourselves with outside funding. I told her how we don’t get paid to do research in the summer unless we bring in enough money. I told her that after we figure out how much we need to budget, we multiply it by 60% to determine how much overhead we give to the university. I told her how funding agencies typically still don’t give you what you ask for in your budget, and you get cut and have to make tough choices. Most importantly, I have kept in touch. When I get a grant funded, I email the staffer and let her know. I offer to show the representative around, if he should want a tour of some labs on campus. I offer to help with any science policy issues that might come up. The staffer knows my name and work enough to email me when she sees an announcement that my research got funding.

The next step, in addition to this helpful blog, is to try my hand at OpEds. I tried one, but it didn’t go anywhere. I was told by an expert that it wasn’t personal enough. I actually hate personal OpEds. Who knew I was supposed to like them?

I am not advocating that everyone, especially those pre-tenure write OpEds of even blogs (unless you want to write an entry here…), but emailing or visiting congress and talking science to random strangers is relatively easy and important. I do advocate that we all try to advocate a little more in our daily lives. COSMOS should help. It is easy to strike up a conversation about, “Did you watch COSMOS this week?” Then, you can talk about the stuff that was on there, if and how it pertains to your research, and the significance of the work for human-kind. What do you think? Post or comment. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I 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 Letters of Recommendation

Power of WordsSorry for the delay in posting, but grading, the holiday, and trying to get a paper submitted caught up with me. I just had an email asking for mentoring on how to write letters of recommendation for graduate admissions and REUs and even a few for faculty jobs. After answering that email, I had a lot of fodder for a post, so here it is. Think of this as a possible outline for how to write a letter of recommendation. Hopefully it will help make sure we are including everything we should to give a complete picture of the student for the recommender. I am sure I am missing something from here, so please add any other suggestions for important parts or items by comment or post!

1. Use letterhead. Is this obvious? Maybe, but it is probably still worth mentioning. Best to make up a letterhead in Word or LaTex with the school seal and your information instead of trying to print onto letterhead. Also, it is good to have a scan of your signature to add to the bottom.

2. Introduction. Like other forms of writing letted of recommendation need an introduction. An obvious way to write is to introduce yourself and say you are excited to write this letter of recommendation for Student X. Then, you can say in what capacity you know student X: as the research advisor, as the student’s instructor in a course? as some other type of mentor or advisor? You should probably also say how long you have known the student in this capacity. Some of my research students were also students in the courses I have taught, so I  have to describe both.

If the student is from a class you taught, describe the class. Was it required for the major? Was it an advanced elective? Was it a lab course that would showcase research skills? What was the level of difficulty of the course?

If the student was a research student in your group, describe the research of your lab in general.

3. The student’s performance. In the second paragraph, I describe the performance of the student in the capacity that I know them. For a course, I list the student’s ranking in the course (i.e. “this student was in the top 3 of the 53 students in the course, earning 93% of the total points for the course”). For many of my students, I have interacted with them personally in class, in homework sessions (office hours), and outside of class activities. I describe the student’s  hard work, dedication, and scientific ability and intelligence, as I saw it from these interactions. I use specific examples to make my points and as evidence for my opinions. For instance, I might say, “Student Y had exceptional ability in the course, which I noticed during in class small group work and during homework sessions. In particular, Student Y was the first one to complete assignments and was often able to describe the solution clearly to her classmates to enable them to learn the material, as well.”

For a research student, I describe the student’s specific research project in the group in my words. The student should have also described their research in their own words, and these two descriptions should match up, more or less. The student’s description is often less precise than mine, but it is important that the person reading the recommendation has an idea of what the student was meant to accomplish. As for a student from a course, I describe the student’s work ethic, dedication, and scientific ability to do research using specific examples to back up my personal claims about the student. This is easy for a successful student who has a publication or has attended a national meeting and presented there, as there is direct evidence of success in research that is verifiable. For students who are not quite at that level, I use examples from the lab where I interacted with the student to demonstrate the student’s abilities. Why use examples? Our only way to assess future performance is based on past performance, at this point.

Interestingly, recent studies have shown that personality tests or “employment tests” can accurately assess a person’s ability to do a certain job (see recent story from NPR). As far as I know, these tests have not been tested for success in graduate school in science, but it would be an interesting thing to look at – maybe some Discipline Based Education Researcher should test this out? The benefit of these tests is that they remove inherent biases of “knowing someone who knows someone” and biases against certain genders and races. Kind of like when they started doing blind auditions for orchestras and realized that women and minorities can play just as well as white dudes. Also, these don’t have the same issues as Subject GREs, which are terrible for women, minorities, and people from SmallLiberalArtsColleges. Just FYI.

4. Personality and Social Skills. For each student, I try to describe the personality traits of the student that demonstrate an ability of the student for the position being applied for. I also point out the other non-scientific skills the student possess that will make him/her successful at the next level. Some important personality traits include: work ethic, perseverance and determination, follow-through (completing tasks), anxiety, niceness, etc. Some examples of important social skills include: ability to work in groups, ability to learn from mistakes, ability to take direction, ability to express oneself  in oral presentation, ability to write scientifically, ability to represent data graphically, ability to lead and mentor others. I know that some people shy away from discussing personality, or only discuss it for females and not males, but I include it for all because it is an important consideration when hiring or bringing in someone. If their personality is not a good fit, the person may ultimately  fail even if they are the smartest person in the application pool. Fit is important and social skills are important – not just if the person is a genius.

5. Personalization for each school. Some people think this is ultra important. But, if you are like me, and you have 4-5 students applying to 20 graduate schools each, that is way, way too much work. I might personalize a few if I particularly know people at the school, but for the most part, I just make it general. For faculty positions I always personalize every letter, and it takes forever, but you have to do it.

I am sure there is something I usually add, but haven’t included here. So what did I forget? Post or comment to fill in the gaps.

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