Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘Undergraduate education’

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!

Why I Love Undergraduate Research

IMG_0104I train a lot of undergraduate scientists in my lab. I have already discussed all the managerial methods I devised to train them including the bootcamp, state of the lab (orientation),  lab rules, and writing/presentations. But, I am not sure I have mentioned why is enjoy working with undergrads so much. So, here is a list of the top-ten reasons why I love working with undergraduates (in no particular order):

1. They are funny. Obviously not all people are funny, but every now and then I get a really extroverted and funny person in the lab. Maybe because the undergraduate lifetime in the lab is shorter (0.5 – 3 years) than a graduate student (4-5 years) or postdoc (3 years), so there are more of them in general coming through the lab, but there have been a higher frequency of funny undergrads. I realize that some people don’t like when students have a sense of humor, but I do. Mostly the students are self-depricating, and are not making fun of other people. Sometimes they rib the other students, but they are often too shy or scared to make fun of anyone much more senior to them in the lab hierarchy. Of course, there are times when the humor should be turned off, and they are able to understand that and act professional when needed. But, I love that they are funny.

2. They are brave. Approaching a professor about doing research in his/her lab – especially a professor you have never had for class – can be very daunting, yet undergraduates do it frequently. In my lab, most undergraduate researchers work on independent projects without the direct supervision of a postdoc or grad student. In a sense, they do science without a wire, but there is always a net. They often come into the lab not knowing what to expect or what they will do. But, they overcome these anxious feelings because they are wonderfully brave.

3. They are shy. Despite their bravery, many undergraduates are introverts or just shy. This is quite an endearing quality, especially when they put it aside to present their work and truly get into talking about the science they did. Being shy is not the same thing as being disengaged. They overcome shyness for science, even though, they are shy.

4. They are honest. Since they don’t usually know much about the science, undergraduates present what they think honestly. Sometimes knowing too much can be a hazard to discovering the real answer. They present what they see, even if they are shy or even anxious about it. I often give undergraduates high-risk problems that we have no idea what will happen. These problems are great because they sometimes result in very cool, unexpected results. If they had some idea that what they were seeing wasn’t right, they might be persuaded to alter their presentation of their results, but their naiveté helps them stay honest.

5. They are resourceful. Since I give my students new problems with unknown answers and no direct mentor in the lab, this allows them to own their projects. The goal is to teach them that they can learn these things on their own, and many times, they realize that they can use anything and anyone to help them. Through the process of doing independent scientific research, they become resourceful.

6. They are driven.  It is so easy for students to not do undergraduate research. At UState, we have no requirement for research in any major. Driven students seek out research opportunities and can get an immense amount of work done. The student who seeks out research is often very driven.

7. They are young. I love that the undergraduates are young. I love working with young people. It keeps you young. I don’t want to get mentally old. I want to learn new things, and so do they. Sometimes being young means they can be immature, but many of my students are very mature – it’s all apart of them also being driven. Mostly, they are fun and open because they are young.

8. They are smart. Undergraduates can be very smart. What does it mean to be smart? It can manifest in so many different ways: having a good memory, ability to represent complex information clearly, ability to explain things verbally, ability to make connections from old content/knowledge to new content/knowledge, ability to do math in their head… These are all good attributes for someone doing scientific research.  Do not confuse a lack of knowledge of content with smartness and ability to learn. Undergraduates don’t know everything or anything, but that is not the only marker of smarts; undergraduates are smart.

9. They are pliable. One goal of doing undergraduate research is to learn. It isn’t just about learning concepts or skills of the research, but learning many other types of professional skills such as writing, presentation, communication, and working in a group. College, in general, is a time we use to also learn who we are and who we want to be. Luckily, unlike us old-timer professors, undergraduates can still alter their personality. You can help them to identify what type of person they are and what type they might want to be. You can help them to become that new person inside and out, and this is only possible because undergraduates are still pliable.

10. They are open to fun. The main reason why I have so many undergraduates is because they are fun and open to doing crazy/fun things. When I say, “Let’s make a lab music video,” they say, “Yay! What song?” When I say, “Let’s try this experiment,” they say, “OK. How should I do it?” When I say, “Let’s have a party,” they say, “Woot! When?” I want my lab to be a fun place to be and a place people want to come to work. Undergraduate researchers are essential to that formula because they are open to fun.

So, what about you? What is your favorite reason for doing research with undergraduates? Post or comment here. To receive an email every time I write a post, push the +Follow button.

Should Personal Statements be “Personal”?

typewriter This topic came up recently on the Physics Forums site. A number of people responding said essentially what I have said here in the recent past in this post. You should make it about your research, but it should not be too personal about yourself. Online resources such as this one in The Guardian don’t make sense to me. I have a feeling that this is specifically for applying to undergraduate level in Europe and the UK. They have a very different situation – you must apply in your field, but you are also applying to undergraduate level, so they do want to know more about you. An undergraduate application essay is more personal because undergraduate admissions want to make interesting and well-rounded classes. Graduate schools in the US do not care to do that – except maybe trying to diversify with more women and minority students (hopefully).

As I said before, your application to graduate school is a professional application. Graduate school is a professional school.  It doesn’t matter so much to me when you got excited enough about science to want to do it for a living and go to graduate school. As one person writes on the Physics Forum, your interest in Prof. Proton as a child really has no baring on your success as a graduate student. Your success as a graduate student, and beyond grad school, are our only concern.

Here are some really good reasons why I don’t care about your personal reasons:

1. I should not care because it enters a bias. If one student says they have had a passion for science since they were 4 when they looked to the stars and wondered how many there were and how big the universe was, is that any meritorious than the person who didn’t realize it until high school? Or better yet, the person who entered college wanting to do history, fell in love with a science gen-ed course, changed tracks, took an  extra year to finish with a science major and now really wants to go to graduate school? The when you decided to devote your career and life to science does not matter. And it should not matter because I have no way to evaluate it objectively, so it isn’t even fair to put in. I usually just ignore it all together, trying to skip past until you get to the real information I need.

2. It wastes time and space you could be saying something real. By making your first 1 – 3 paragraphs about personal drivel that I cannot, by good standards of judgement, use to evaluate you for graduate school, you are wasting my time and your personal real estate in the statement. I have to spend time getting past it to the real information I need. You are wasting words from your word count to tell me things I don’t care about and cannot use.

3. Another indicator that it is not what you should do. In all my years serving on graduate admissions, no one has EVER said, “Well, this person has wanted to do science since they were in junior high, so we should accept him.” No one uses the information. In fact, it is often a source of negativity within the discussion. I have heard people say, “Not another one of these quotes! Did they at least quote a scientist this time?” or derisive comments about what the applicant writes. Again, this is not the best thing for YOU, the applicant, so why give them this information.

I hope this information is helpful to some of you preparing your applications to graduate school. I am serving on admissions again this year, so maybe I will read some of them myself. If I can even get one student to remove this useless personal information and give me what I really need, it will be worth it. Feel free to forward this post to your friends and colleagues. Make comments or post here or at the Physics Forum to continue the conversation.

Application Season: Advice on the PUI

Science on a Sphere exhibitThanks for this post on Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs)  – what they are and how to apply from an excellent WomanOfScience:

In honor of the most recently passing holiday (Halloween), I thought I would try to demystify the application process for tenure-track appointments at Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs). Over 85% of professoriate jobs are at PUIs, so more than likely and right about now, you are weighing your options and trying to decide if that second or third postdoc is right for you. I know that some people have a misconception about what it means to be a professor at a PUI, and I’ll admit my family does too. They think that professors at small schools don’t do research, they only teach and that they only have to work for 9-10 months of the year. This is just not the case! We do teach, we do research and we perform extraordinary feats of service. We just can’t usually do research at the pace of a research one school, or like we did when we were postdocs. At PUIs, we usually don’t have access to graduate students, lab technicians, or postdocs to run our labs while we teach. There are at least three tiers of teaching institutions and maybe more depending on whom you ask. Here’s the skinny on what I know…

There are the elite liberal arts colleges, where one teaches on average two lecture courses per semester, about 8 contact hours. At these schools, one is definitely expected to conduct research with students. There’s the middle-tier school where one has about 12 contact hours per semester. A typical schedule maybe split over some combination of one to two lectures, along with the labs associated with that lecture course and an advanced majors lab type course. There is still an expectation that one will perform some student-centered research. Here’s an option which might be a nice bonus if you are at an institution or in a department where they built-in research release time into their teaching load. This is the case at my institution. And then there is the high-contact-hour liberal arts college department. At these schools one is in contact with students for about 12-15ish hours. At these schools, there is not the expectation of research. Some professors have even told me that they are even discouraged from doing research. Here’s some application material to think about in preparation…

You will need, at the least, a curriculum vitae, a teaching statement, and a research statement, all wrapped up in a cover letter. Some schools will ask for names and contacts of references to phone later, others will ask for formal letter. Some will also ask for student evaluation forms or course material, as well. If you are going to a place where you are expected to start a new class, you should feel free to submit your syllabus along with any course outline or material you may have on hand.

Although the vita is pretty much self-explanatory, I will share with you a few tips to adjust your vitae depending on type of teaching institution you are going for. First of all remember to highlight your teaching. You should probably not really change the order from highlighting the research first, especially if you are applying to the upper-tier liberal art institutions. Just remember, “This group of schools really want good researchers who can learn how to teach.” Move the teaching sections right below your educational background. If you don’t have any teaching, which is pretty much a must have for the middle and lower tier school, you should try to highlight any TAing or guest lecturing you’ve done in the past. If you have been associated with any outreach, perhaps it can be mentioned there or if you’ve lead any activities. The biggest difference for the two resumes for elite and middle is that the closer the institution is to the elite schools, the more they will be interested in your research and deciding if it fits into their department. For the lower tier school, they want to see that you can teach and that you can hit the ground running. So make your resume reflect that.

The teaching statement should reflect that you’ve given some thought to teaching. It should show that you are conscientious and care about your students and it should convey how you intend to get this point across to your students. It’s basically a statement of how you teach, what techniques you use in your teaching (pedagogy), how you reflect and improved in your teaching, and perhaps a summarized list of your courses taught throughout your teaching career. I also like to include some statement about how I also use my lab to mentor and train students in research. If you have been asked to teach a new class at the institution you are applying to, I would integrate that into my teaching statement as well. You can also add any teaching ideas you would like to introduce or classes on the books you would like to teach from. This will show your diversity.

The research statement should reflect projects that are student centered.  Then you should introduce the reader to your line of research and detail, without being jargonny or overwhelming, noting the fact that the reader has a Ph.D. in your general field, but perhaps not in your specific topic. Use the opportunity to teach them about your research. Being careful to convey how you would interact with a student in your research group. If you have supervised or mentored any students’ prior, you should highlight your achievements. You should convey how students can access your work and list specific projects they can work on in your group.

The cover letter should tie your application together. It should highlight your activities from you resume, research and teaching statements. And most of all remember it has to speak for you to the application reader.

So get your interview suit cleaned and get ready to start interviewing. Carpe diem!

Thanks for this great post! Do you have suggestions for applying to PUIs? Comment or send a post!

Organizing Your Group: Training Students One at a Time is a Waste of Time

1114_universe-crop-500x416Earlier, I had some posts on organizing your research group (here and here) and mentoring students (here and here). I have mentioned that you can train students in a bootcamp setting.  Here, I will describe the general method of a bootcamp and the benefits of group training. I am happy to give our examples of specific topics I cover in my bootcamp, but you can probably think of your own for your own research group.

What is the Bootcamp? Each year, the same time of year that is convenient, I run a  5-day bootcamp to train students in all the activities of my lab (I do experiments, in case you couldn’t tell). The camp is set for 9am – 5pm Monday through Friday for one week. The number of contact hours in the week-long course in the same as those for a normal course for an entire semester. Thus, the students get a concentrated dose of lab training. We start with how to keep a lab notebook and go through all the important experimental techniques needed to work in the lab.

Some days end early, but others go late. No day is really 9am – 5pm. This is to teach them the lesson that science does not proceed 9-5. It is a strong lesson. The training includes basic bench work needed for the lab, performing certain routine tasks specific to our lab, and performing new experiments and data analysis.

Benefits to Students:  I train students in cohorts in the bootcamp – at least 3-6 at a time. This gives them a group of students who all went through the camp at the same time. I make it fun for them. I put them in groups. They work together in small groups to answer questions during morning “lectures”  and to perform experiments in hands-on afternoon “experiments.” I make t-shirts for each team. They typically have a theme – such as Scooby Doo – and each group is a different character and color. The over-sized t-shirts act as lab coats for the week.

After the students take the bootcamp, they are considered trained and ready to start their own research projects. They take off with a lot of confidence knowing how to work in the lab, who the people are who can help them, and having a set of students to turn to for simple questions (their cohort). The next year, students who are still around and took the camp already are welcome to join again, or serve as TAs to train the next cohort.

Benefits to Me: Saving time, saving money, saving effort. As the title says, training students one-at-a-time is a huge waste of time. By training many students at once, I save a lot of time. I found, when I first started my lab, that only 1 in 4 or 5 students would pan-out. Unfortunately, you never know who those students will be before you begin training. By training all the students at the same time, I make sure to train the good with the bad. I save money because I can properly and personally train the students, and don’t have to leave the training to others, who might miss things or miscommunicate. Sometimes the TAs say incorrect things, but I try to be around to correct them immediately, which teaches both the bootcampers and the TAs. I save money by not paying bad students who don’t want to stay and by having more-respectful students. Although, at first, only about 1 in 5 students stayed and was productive, I have found the bootcamp and the cohort to be a powerful tool for recruiting and retaining students in the lab. Students who weren’t sure about research in the lab, decided to stay after having a lot of fun in the bootcamp. Thus, I am actually able to recruit more and better students.

So, what about you? Are you still training students one-at-a-time? Is it hit-or-miss? Do you have additional activities or improvements to be added to the bootcamp idea? If so, post or comment!

Organizing Your Group – State of the Lab Address

I was just visiting with my former postdoc at her new tenure-track job to give a couple talks. I had the opportunity to talk withchemistry-glassware a few other relatively new female faculty members, and I was giving them a laundry lists of things that I figured out to do with my lab to make training students, setting expectations, and overall communication a bit smoother. Mostly, these are things that I didn’t start doing right away, but eventually figured out and they work pretty well. As always, if you have any suggestions of organizing tactics for your lab, please post or comment. To get updates from this blog, push the +Follow button. Today, I will describe an orientation I do twice a year in the lab, called the “State of the Lab Address.”

Frequency:  I give this talk twice a year to reinforce and to orient new people, mainly undergraduates, who start in the lab.

Social Orientation: I first go through a sort of social orientation for new lab members. I name and describe all the types of people in the lab: professors, postdocs, grad students, undergrads, high school students, high school teachers, technicians, or whomever. It depends on who is in the lab at the time.  For each type of person, I list the expected behaviors and tasks that they are supposed to do. I even do this for me, the professor. There is a chapter in the book “At the Bench” that goes through some of this. Remember that many young students have no idea the trajectory of an academic professor. By educating them, you can help people get along with each other and show each other the proper respect they deserve for achieving the level of education they worked hard to achieve. I set social expectations for respect to each other in the lab.

Lab as the Small Business: I relate the environment and structure of the lab to something they hear more about in the media – the small business. I state that we are shareholders of a small business called, “WomanOfScience Lab,” and we create knew knowledge and smart people who go off to do other great things. I say that I am the Principle Investigator (PI) of the lab, but my role is that of CEO. I have to make sure there is money to pay you, but it is also my job to promote the lab and make us all look good. So, I write lots of proposals for grants to pay people, and I go to give lots of talks to promote our work, so it is easier to get grants. They are the shareholders, and they need to work hard, so I can have something good to say to the grant agencies. Here, I set up expectations for professional behavior. Call in when you are sick, so we know not to expect you. Turn in assignments on time. Do you work in a timely manner. Make time for lab work (undergraduates need help with this).

Job Expectations: I specifically outline the expectations for each level of person in the lab. I make it very specific about how I spend my time (writing proposals, writing papers, traveling and giving talks, teaching to education people and recruit good, new shareholders). I find that, as a woman, people see you sitting in your office, and they automatically think you are goofing off, and not working. So, I make it really clear that, if I am here, I am working. It helps them understand all that goes into the job of being a professor, in case they are thinking of going the academic route.  I also describe all their jobs and expectations. For instance, I say that it is the job of undergraduates to try to learn, try to do experiments, and make sure that the work is fun, and you want to stay with science. Our goal is a paper, conference abstract and presentation either off-campus or on campus, and likely a capstone/thesis report. I also make it clear that their classes come first, and there are always times when you have 3 midterms, and can’t make it to lab. I remind them that missing the lab for other things is fine, but they need to report in via email or phone, so no one is worried they got in a car accident. When you give this talk, you can make your own definitions for each position, as they should work in your lab. Just make sure you are clear on these expectations.

Science of the Lab: I do an overview of the science work in the lab. I try to tie it together with a broad introduction, as I might do in a talk to undergraduates. I specify each experiment, the progress made by people in the lab (SoAndSo is writing a paper on this now). This is the easy part, because it is the stuff you think about often. I try to update it, but don’t have to update the front matter. I also explicitly discuss the money situation of the lab. In this, I am showing my personal belief that students need to understand “how the sausage is made.” It does no good to protect them. I tell them straight out, “We have a grant for this from FederalFundingAgency for this amount, and this covers one graduate student’s salary for 3 years.” Or, “We ran out of funds for this line of research, and I am working really hard to get a grant to cover X’s thesis project.”  Again, I want them to respect the fact that getting funds is difficult, and I am working hard to fund our science.

Rules of the Group: At the end, I go through any rules of the lab. For instance, I have weekly group meetings. If people can attend (if they don’t have a class), I require everyone to present weekly and each person must have 1 slide with a picture/movie/figure that illustrates what they did over the past week and describes what they will do over the next week. I make it clear that participation is not optional, presentation is not optional. If they are present, but don’t have a slide, they must do an interpretive dance of their work. I also try to establish that they need to be respectful of the equipment, materials, and physical property of the lab. Again, I am not afraid to bring up money. I tell them how much stuff costs, and how much we spend on materials and supplies. I also tell them that I often go without pay in the summer. This opens their eyes. In following posts, I will discuss the Rules of the Group in detail, so stay tuned for more.

So, why do this? I find that this 1-hour presentation helps to avert problems in the future and helps everyone understand each other. This is a time-saving mechanism. Further, it helps to head off questions and misconceptions about expectations. This presentation does not cover research training on what we actually do in the group. I train students on research skills as a group in a “Bootcamp” setting, which I will describe in future talks.

My question for you, is what am I missing? I have developed this de novo, but what else should I include? Comment or post to discuss.

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