Sarah Hosler passed her Master’s of Science these defense (we knew she would succeed)!! Sarah has worked incredibly hard over the last two years to broaden her research skills and conduct four completely different pilot projects. Her defense presentation focused on the two main projects, but was a wonderful way to see that progression all at once and to reflect on her growth as a lab manager and researcher. She has also earned the designation of “second Ishaq Lab grad student to defend”.
The defense was attended by her thesis committee, students in the Ishaq lab, collaborators on this project, friends and family, and Izzy the dog (pictured, and yes, Sarah preferred this picture of her at her defense to a portrait of herself. Sarah will officially pass after a few revisions to her thesis and a formal acceptance by the committee members, which is standard for graduate defenses.
After wrapping up a few things in Maine, Sarah will be heading to Pennsylvania to take a position as Student Program Coordinator for middle and high school aged students at Albright College, where she obtained her Bachelor’s of Science. Congrats on the defense and on the next stage of your career!
“Weaving An Interdisciplinary Microbiome Career Using Threads From Different Ecosystems”.
Johanna Holman passed her Master’s of Science these defense (we knew she would succeed)!! Johanna has worked incredibly hard over the last two years to broaden her research skills and conduct several experiments, and her defense presentation was a wonderful way to see that progression all at once. She has also earned the designation of “first Ishaq Lab grad student to defend”. The defense was attended by her thesis committee, students in the Ishaq lab, collaborators on this project, and friends and family (who brought her a flower and broccoli bouquet that can be seen in the picture below). She will officially pass after a few revisions to her thesis and a formal acceptance by the committee members, which is standard for graduate defenses.
Johanna has been accepted to the Nutrition PhD program at UMaine, and will continue working with Dr. Li and I, as well as the full research team. Based on those preliminary results, Johanna’s doctoral work will focus on developing that new mouse model, synthesizing information from both models, and using those results to develop diet intervention trials in human patients. After her PhD, Johanna intends to conduct research at an institution here in Maine, and to continue her work connecting the biochemistry of nutrition with gut microbiology and human health.
Prevention of Inflammatory Bowel Diseases by Broccoli Sourced and Microbially Produced Bioactives.
Sarah officially joined my lab and started as a Master’s of Animal Science student at UMaine in fall 2020, which was during an extremely tumultuous time in history, and was only a year into my Assistant Professor position here at UMaine and before the lab had built up protocols, collaborations, samples, or momentum. Collectively, this meant that Sarah was part of my work to establish a laboratory and has been blazing that trail along with me. As such, in addition to the technical and analytical skills she has been learning, she has obtained a massive amount of professional development and leadership experience.
Sarah’s research interests are the interaction between the microbial community associated with various animal species, animal health or productivity, and the environment. This work is highly interdisciplinary, and requires extensive imagination and forethought into experimental designs which can capture biological, microbiological, and environmental data. This research theory is directly in line with the One Health in the Environment research group at UMaine, as well as the Microbes and Social Equity working group – an international research collaboration which I lead-, both of which Sarah has obtained mentorship from. This graduate work has focused on developing pilot studies and new research collaborations for three major projects/lines of scientific inquiry.
The first project centered around the tracking of Cryptosporidium parvum in different-aged dairy cattle populations as well as their pens at the University of Maine’s J.F. Witter Farm. Cryptosporidium is a small protozoan; a single-celled organism, and it is found in and around water and soil, as it spends most of its life cycle in those places. Humans and animals may ingest it through contaminated water or the fecal-oral route accidentally. In very young (such as calves) or immunocompromised individuals, an infection can occur, causing diarrhea and dehydration, and leading to death in many cases. Sarah has trained multiple undergraduates on sample collection and processing, as well as cell staining and microscopy, and the project has already collected dozens of samples. As this project will proceed for at least two years, it is not the main focus of Sarah’s thesis, however she will be an author on the eventual publication and she is leading a review manuscript on cryptosporidiosis which we will submit for peer review by fall 2022.
The second project investigated pathogens in wild rodent populations in Maine, in the context of heat stress and northward-shorting range changes due to climate changes. A pilot project collected biological data and samples from live-trapped flying squirrels and white-footed mice in six locations across Maine over summer 2021. The pilot project involved three additional investigators with complementary expertise, as well as their associated student mentees. To investigate disease potential, free catch fecal samples were collected from trapped animals to identify carriage of specific pathogens, and to isolate bacteria and assess heat tolerance. Sarah coordinated the training of undergraduate students in my and other labs, including sample collection and processing, microbial culture, DNA extraction, and more.
The third project project, and primary focus of her second year, investigated the microbial communities associated with sea scallops at different life stages and associated with tank surfaces at different points in a hatchery production run. Overall, there is a dramatic lack of research into the microbial communities involved in aquaculture and fisheries and how these might impact production as well as local ecosystems. Sarah processed a large number of samples for DNA extraction and sequencing preparation, as well as microbial culturing and biofilm assessment, and trained an undergraduate on the culturing work. This project and the piloting work Sarah did has led to a small grant award and a multiple-institutional collaboration. Sarah presented some of this preliminary work to aquaculture and fisheries industry professionals at the Northeast Aquaculture Conference & Exposition/ 41st Milford Aquaculture Seminar in Portland, and the American Society for Microbiology Microbe meetings. Sarah is currently writing this manuscript which will be submitted for peer review by the end of this summer.
This graduate work was highly collaborative, and required a great deal of professionalism. Each of the three research projects that Sarah had been working on involves a primary team of faculty or animal science professionals, most of whom are on campus at UMaine but some of whom are remote at external institutions. Each of the three projects also involved 1 – 4 undergraduate students participating in the research. Not only did Sarah help me organize project team meetings, and facilitate those meetings, but she coordinated data collection and file management for those projects, as well as trained and oversaw undergraduates in the laboratory. These skills are so often overlooked in research training, and are often considered part of the background in science. However, as tenure-track faculty, I would argue that these organization and research coordination skills are the most valuable for advancing complicated projects.
I met Johanna in the fall of 2019, when I was just establishing myself as a new Assistant Professor at UMaine and she was looking for an advisor for a graduate degree. Right away, she impressed me with her background and enthusiasm for research. I learned that Johanna began her undergraduate study as an art student before transitioning fluidly to science. The ability to design visual aids and graphical representations of data is hugely important to science and sadly, not always a skill that scientists are trained to do, and Johanna has made some incredible art for her research.
Once she became a science student during her undergraduate study, she worked in the laboratories of Drs. Yanyan Li, previously an Associate Professor (of nutrition) in the College of Science and Humanities, and Tao Zhang, Assistant Professor of Basic Pharmaceutical Sciences, both of Husson University in Bangor. There, she performed nutritional biochemistry, worked with mouse models, and developed an idea of what she wanted to study in graduate school and pursue as a career. Johanna continues to work closely with both researchers, especially now that Dr. Li has taken a position at UMaine.
Johanna and I continued to plan her graduate work and career goals, she officially joined my lab as a Master’s Student of Nutrition at UMaine in fall 2020, and immediately got to work. Not only did she begin preparations for the massive undertaking that is part of her project, but she began mentoring several undergraduates on and off campus, and started as a first time teaching assistant for the Chemistry department, which required navigating virtual labs. She served as a chemistry TA for academic year 20/21 and 21/22, with up to 60 students per semester. For the last year and a half, she has been coordinating a large-scale research project with investigators at 4 different institutions and undergraduate researchers from 3 different institutions, involving hundreds of samples – while being a masters student, a graduate teaching assistant, and mentoring undergrads in the lab, and all during a pandemic! She managed that all so well, that despite being a first-year graduate student, she was awarded a 2020-2021 University of Maine Graduate Student Employee of the Year award, and the 2022 Norris Charles Clements Graduate Student Award from the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture.
Johanna’s project focuses on whether consumption of specific broccoli sprout preparations will elicit changes in the gut microbiota, to the effect of improving the production of microbiota-specific bioactives that have local anti-inflammatory effects, and promoting intestinal homeostasis by reducing dysbiosis. Broccoli sprouts represent an effective, and accessible way to add dietary intervention to existing treatment and prevention strategies for IBD patients. This project is a continuation of previous research on bioactive compounds in broccoli, completed in the labs of Drs. Yanyan Li and Tao Zhang at Husson University in Bangor. While some of the work may be similar, the skill set she has gained in her graduate work is entirely new. For the 2020/2021 winter break, Johanna was managing a 40-mouse study looking at DSS-treatment and different preparations of a broccoli sprout diet for 5 weeks, which resulted in hundreds of samples collected, hundreds of data time points, and enough follow-up laboratory and analysis work to keep her occupied for an entire year. She has learned how to culture bacteria in an anaerobic chamber, which is a notoriously fussy machine that requires regular attention, as well as to grow them under different conditions for biochemical analysis and enzyme activity. She is currently learning additional histology skills, DNA extraction, DNA sequencing library preparation, DNA sequence analysis, and more. Recently, she has participated in a pilot study to develop an immunological model of IBD, using IL-10 knockout mice. While IL-10 mice have been used to study IBD, they have never been applied in this way to study the interaction of diet, microbes, and disease.
She has presented this work at the American Society for Microbiology annual meeting, and at the UC Davis Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) symposium, and has several conference presentations planned for 2022. Johanna has an author on a paper in early 2022 for work she contributed to as an undergraduate, and is preparing 3 manuscripts generated from her masters work which will be submitted for peer review at a scientific journal in 2022.
Johanna has been accepted to the Nutrition PhD program at UMaine, and will continue working with Dr. Li and I, as well as the full research team. Based on those preliminary results, Johanna’s doctoral work will focus on developing that new model, synthesizing information from both models, and using those results to develop diet intervention trials in human patients. After her PhD, Johanna intends to conduct research at an institution here in Maine, and to continue her work connecting the biochemistry of nutrition with gut microbiology and human health.
I frequently receive requests for advice on choosing graduate programs, or to work in my lab, and have conversations with graduates who are struggling with program, department, or university policies which they were not aware of when they began. I decided to put those thoughts and conversations in one place, to create a non-exhaustive list of advice and considerations for choosing a graduate program. This will mostly be applicable to STEM programs, but some aspects will be universal.
Some of this will be discouraging, because graduate school is not a thing to be entered into lightly. But, I also believe that anyone can participate in science, and that many times when people think they couldn’t succeed in science, it’s not because they aren’t good enough, it’s more of a problem with an environment that selects for just one type of researcher.
Define your goal.
What do you want to do with your career and why do you need to go to graduate school to accomplish this?
I spend more time talking people out of graduate school, or into a lesser commitment, than I spend convincing people to go to graduate school, because there is an inflated sense of the need and prestige of having a graduate degree. And, many people assume they need a degree, or the highest degree available, to get the job they want.
When I was in 6th grade, I decided I was going to be a veterinarian because I wanted to help animals, and I refused to consider other career paths which felt like a lesser calling. Three weeks into my undergraduate degree in animal science, I realized that the reality of being a veterinarian is very different from its portrayal, and it wasn’t what I wanted at all. I had only thought I wanted it because I had gotten a very limited exposure to career choices prior to going to college. I see the same mistake with people considering, or in, graduate school. I don’t mean to disparage having a veterinary or graduate degree, I just mean that the way they are portrayed to prospective students is not always accurate. Do your homework before committing to those career paths.
More than that, when you receive career advice or look into career paths, the advice tends to focus on the highlights or major types of jobs and ignore the nuance of interdisciplinary or support-level careers. Not only does this mean that everyone in animal science thinks they can only be a veterinarian or a professor to be in the field, but the way that careers are portrayed makes students think that the only suitable use of their time, and justification for massive financial burden of higher education they incur, is to go for the career with the highest prestige – whether they want that or not. Unfortunately, when students realize they don’t have the grades and the accolades to make it into the career with the most prestige, which also has the most strict entry requirements, it means students are more likely to give up entirely, consider leaving their degree unfinished, and feel guilt or shame for having failed. But here’s something no one tells you up front: choosing a different job doesn’t mean you failed to be the boss, it means you chose a different job. A veterinary technician isn’t a failed veterinarian, and a laboratory technician isn’t a failed researcher, they are performing different functions in a setting which requires collaboration from various job types.
So, I’ll ask you again, like I ask all prospective graduate students: what do you want do with your life, and do you need graduate school to get you there? This question helps you focus on creating stepwise objectives to meet your goals. Maybe you need a specific degree, or a degree in a specific field, or don’t actually need a degree at all, maybe you need an internship or professional training, and those might require a specific order to the events. Do you want to travel for work or not? Do you want to have clear definition of your job responsibilities, or the flexibility to determine your own to-do list? Do you want to be at the bench, in the field, or at the keyboard and to be doing the research, or do you want to be writing proposals and papers, and administrating the research and the lab personnel? And, do you actually want to work alone or are you alright in a social environment? Spoiler alert, most jobs in science actually require daily socialization, communication, and presentation.
All of these aspects will determine the particulars of what you need out of a graduate program and the type of degree you get. It’ll also help you in the future when you need to decide if you have met your grad school goal and are ready to move to the next phase of your life.
You can probably outline your personal goals and constraints, but defining your professional goals will take some homework. I’ve previously described the academic ladder, with descriptions of responsibilities of students, post-doctoral researchers, adjuncts and researchers, and tenure-track faculty. I have also compiled some “science journeys” into a video. Professional research blogs can be a good way to learn about life in academia, although keep in mind many labs only post about their successes and not about their failures. You can also connect with faculty on campus, and most labs will take on undergraduate (or even high school) students to participate in research. If you aren’t sure if you would be interested in research, you can ask to shadow researchers in the lab, attend a few lab meetings, or otherwise participate in a voluntary and commitment-free capacity. There are also plenty of research opportunities off campus, as well.
Define your limits.
Graduate programs can be demanding, and you may need to relocate to find the topic, project, and mentor who is right for you. Before you start applying everywhere and racking up application fees, think about your constraints, your limits, and what would be a “deal-breaker” for you. Defining your limits (especially if you have a lot of them) will feel like you are writing yourself out of the possibility of finding a graduate program that works for you. In reality, it will help you find an institution that matches your life better and will help you focus on what is really important to you. You don’t have to erase all other aspects of your life in order to be a scientist.
Often, you feel pressured to give up everything to go to graduate school or other professional degree programs. The perception is that because there are fewer available positions than applicants that you need to underbid everyone else and give up everything, essentially that you need to recruit the graduate program. You assume you have to relocate and out of your own pocket, you need to put family on hold, you need give up job benefits, and you will have to work all the time.
Some of that may be true, and you should think about what you are able to manage and what you can’t live without. Some of that is just perception cast by work-a-holic culture and you will be able to reject or negotiate aspects. Think of your list of limits as conditions your employer might need to meet in order to convince you to take the position.
Narrow down your interests.
What do you want to do day after day, failure after failure?
If you start to make a list of things you are interested in science and you start writing down all the cool things you saw on social media – stop right there. Science is cool, but most of the time is cool in retrospect after the work has been completed and narrative added in. Science is arduous, iterative, and requires a lot of process improvement and reflection, and that takes time and focus. You need to be able to work on the same thing day after day and maintain interest even if everything you do seems to fail everyday. Especially when you are trying to develop technical skills and analytical skills, you need to be able to focus and dive deep into your topic, and you can’t be distracted by every little thing you think is cool, otherwise you will never get anything done.
You don’t need to commit to your research interest for life, and you don’t need to have an incredibly narrow scope to your interests, but you should be able to identify a common theme or the aspect that draws you in. Which topic makes you ask “yes, and?” over and over. What cool science story made you look for a second similar story, and then a third?
Search for a program.
There are a few different types of graduate degrees available, and each have nuances about the requirements to get in, requirements to graduate, cost to you, salary and benefits to you, and approach for application and acceptance into the program. I recommend looking into programs first, to find a location and institution that best meets your personal and professional goals and limits, and then trying to find a mentor. Don’t underestimate the importance of geographic location, and the environmental and social climate you will find there. You might need to be close to family, or find a location with a job or program for a partner. And if you are used to sun, several years of overcast winters might lose their novelty.
Most people apply to multiple programs and it can take time to find the right match. If you end up applying to multiple programs at a single institution, you can ask them to waive additional application fees, something that is commonly done but not commonly advertised.
Masters of Professional Studies are designed to give you familiarity with research and build skills. MPS is not thesis-based and requires research participation but not your own research project, so it is often used for people who will be in research-adjacent jobs. Students are admitted to programs based on their GPA, exam, or other numeric qualifications, and during their first semester have to identify a research mentor and two other committee members to guide their curricula and career development. MPS students pay for their own tuition, and most program/university policies stipulate that they are not allowed salary for their research, although they usually can be paid summer research salary. MPS students are eligible for teaching assistantships, but few, if any research assistantships. Because you are categorized as students and not employees, you do not receive health insurance or other fringe benefits, but you are eligible for student health insurance plans. MPS are completed in 2 years, but can be completed over longer periods of time to accommodate working professionals.
Master of Science programs are thesis-based, and require research study in a project you co-lead. Applications may be accepted year-round or according to deadlines, depending on the program. Master’s programs are designed to last 2 -3 years (credit hour requirements make it almost impossible to accomplish in fewer than two years), and beware mentors or projects which assign you a PhD-level amount of work to accomplish in just two years. Finding funding for master’s programs can be tricky, as many universities prioritize PhD students in order to boost their Carnegie research rating, but master’s programs are needed for training the majoring of the research workforce. Typically, you are paid a salary for your master’s, including partial coverage of your health insurance, and full coverage of your tuition. Most programs do not cover full health insurance, or semester fees, both of which can cost a thousand dollars of more in each of the spring and fall semesters, but you might be able to negotiate these to be paid by your advisor. You are considered both a student and an employee, but most university policies make graduate students ineligible for university-based or even individual-based pre-tax retirement savings programs for employees, although you can configure a post-tax retirement savings plan on your own.
Doctorate of Science programs are dissertation-based and requires that you (more or less) lead a research study and have contributed significantly to the theory behind its design, or theory behind its analysis and interpretation. PhD programs are designed to take about 5 years in the US (3 years in many other countries which don’t require coursework). Credit hour requirements make it almost impossible to accomplish in fewer than 4 years in the US, and PhD time can vary between 4 – 9 years, depending on the research and other circumstances. Applications are accepted year-round for direct-to-lab admissions (see below), and once or twice a year to be considered for lab-rotation-based fellowships.
Thesis-based science programs have two paths to admission, which is not always common knowledge. You will always have to apply to the graduate college of a university and meet the qualifications set by the university, as well as the program/department. After passing initial qualification checks, the graduate school will forward applications to the department to review, and it is this step that offers two paths.
If graduate programs have a collective fund to support students (teaching or research assistantships), they might accept a certain number of students as a cohort based on their qualifications. The top number of applicants will have some sort of recruitment event in which you are shown the facilities, have a chance to talk to students and faculty, and are interviewed by the program admission committee. Applicants who are admitted as a cohort have salary provided for the first 1 – 2 years as they take classes and rotate through different research labs. At the end of rotations, you match with a lab that has money to continue funding your salary and your research. Most programs will not accept so many students to the cohort that they will be unable to find them funding to continue their graduate work.
However, because thesis-based study is a funded position, you might apply to a department as a “direct admission”. This means that you have already matched with an advisor during prior conversations, the advisor has already looked through your application, and that the advisor and the department have informally agreed to offer you a position. But, this method is entirely dependent on that advisor having funding to pay your salary, tuition, and your research costs. You need to start the conversation with a possible mentor 6 months or more before you want to begin, unless you are applying to an advertised position in their lab. Finding research funding takes 6 – 18 months because of the slow pace of federal funding review and allocation, so if your advisor needs to find funding it will take planing ahead of time. Direct admission can happen on a rolling basis, but you will still need to apply to, and meet the qualifications of, the graduate college. Because of the unpredictable nature of the funding, you can defer a direct admission offer for a year, as needed.
Interviewing and searching for a mentor.
Whether you are applying as part of a cohort or a direct admission, you will have some sort of interview. It might be a series of informal conversations with potential advisors, or a formal interview with a program admission committee. When you are going into a graduate program interview, it feels daunting, and it’s not until you advance your career enough to be on the interviewer side that you realize it is supposed to be a conversation and not a test.
The graduate interview is not really about proving your qualifications because you have already met that hurdle with your application. The interview is to match students to mentors, and to confirm your interest in research. By having conversations and interacting in real time (whether in person or via electronic chat), interviewers can assess your communication skills, and get a better idea of your goals and interests.
The graduate advising relationship is quite different from what you might have experienced with previous instructors or undergraduate advisors, so it’s important that your personal and professional goals line up with those of your advisor. It really helps if you actually get along. You’ll be working together for several years during your degree, and will maintain a mentoring relationship for a good portion of your early career after you graduate. As a member of their lab, you’ll be performing a lot of their research and representing them at conferences and other venues during presentations, collaborations, or future work. It’s important to your career and theirs that you are able to work well together.
Therefore, during your grad school interviews you should remember that you are interviewing them, as well. The interview is an opportunity for your future advisor and institution to impress you and convince you to take a position with them. This is your chance to ask them about the projects you might be doing, where former lab members are now, their expectations of you, and more. Many federal funding proposals require a detailed mentoring plan, so advisors already have an idea what your professional development might look like. Importantly, get an idea about the lab culture. Some advisors feel you should work nights and weekends and during all breaks, others feel that your contributions belong to the lab and you might not have as much access to your own intellectual property than you think. And, not every lab has made a commitment to equity and inclusion. Here’s the policy for the Ishaq Lab.
It’s also a great time to ask grad program coordinators about university policy, departmental expectations, and financial support opportunities which might affect you. Does the program provide some or all financial support for health insurance, tuition, salary, and student fees? If not, what opportunities are in place to secure these? Are you able to switch mentors if there is a professional or personal mismatch? Is childcare available for graduate students? What about time off for maternity leave, and is this paid or unpaid? Family or medical leave? What if you need to take a semester or a year off, can you get back into the program and would you lose your funding? How many papers will you need to publish, or scientific presentations to give, and will there be financial support for those costly endeavors? While no one would ask you to pay publication fees out of pocket, I have heard of researchers refusing to financially support grad student travel to conferences, despite many departments requiring students to present in order to obtain their graduate degree. Travel to scientific conferences can run to several thousand in travel and participation costs per trip, and one trip to a national-level conference could cost an entire month’s graduate student salary.
Adopt healthy habits.
If everything comes together and you’ve been accepted into a graduate program that works for you, congratulations!! I wish you the best on the next step of your journey. If you are looking for more advice for once you get there, check out my previous posts, including preparing yourself before you start by adopting good habits for organization and work-life balance.
This semester at UMaine, I’m teaching a section of AVS633/FSN671 Graduate Seminar, for students in the Animal and Veterinary Science and the Food Science and Nutrition grad programs. Naturally, I decided to spice up the course requirements.
In all the presentations I have given; during classes, teaching, as public lectures, guest seminars, and conference proceedings, I’ve faced a great deal of technical and audience-related challenges. There is a wealth of information on the formatting and content aspects of building a scientific presentation, but in my experience, that’s only half the battle. The other half is in being able to accurately and interestingly relay that information to your audience. Even in professional settings, I have faced disruptive technical failures that caused me to alter my talk or have to adjust my narrative, and I have fielded poorly-crafted or poorly-intended questions from my audience, all while trying to maintain my composure.
I felt that this was what the graduate students needed to learn, and in a safe space where it was OK to simply, well, give a bad presentation. To convey this, I put together an introduction to the class (below) and a series of assignments.
Their very first assignment was to stand up, with notes but no slides, and give a 3 minute speech on a topic of their choice. It had to be non-technical, and designed to provide information in an approachable way such that the person stuck on the elevator with you would actually want to hear more. As academics, especially when you are a student, you often get caught up in repeating jargon or with having to explain yourself in highly detailed language to faculty who are training and testing you. You forget how to present your work to someone who has absolutely no background, and only a few minutes worth of attention span to devote to hearing about your very niche research question. To give an effective elevator speech, the students needed to distill only the critical information for someone to follow their line of thinking, and to not get bogged down by extraneous detail.
Peer Presentations and Awkward Audience Questions
For the second assignment of the course, each student was required to give a presentation on their research, their program of study, or a specific topic they were interested in and the relevant research. Due to the number of students and course time allotted, this presentation only needed to be 10 minutes long, but I’ve found it can be more difficult to present your material concisely. The students presented as if to a peer audience, so they could use a certain amount of jargon or introduce methods with minimal explanation. This style of presentation is common in graduate school, and as expected, the students all did incredibly well.
To add a challenge here, I instead focused on the audience (in this case, the rest of the class). The thing about being an audience member that most people never think about, is that you also need to conduct yourself with a certain level of professionalism. It might not be polite to shout a question or snarky response in the middle of a presentation, your comments might seem complementary but are in fact back-handed, or your question might simply be poorly crafted. I have been asked, or been witness to, a lot of poorly-worded audience questions and responses, and I’m not referring to general public audiences, I’m talking about academics who should know better.
To that end, for each student presentation, I gave an index card to another student in the audience to ask or perform during the talk. Participation was voluntary. Some of these are well-meant questions that are simply commonly asked. Others are silly, and some are rude. I didn’t include anything offensive or abusive, but those examples abound. The list is pretty funny, but please, NEVER DO THESE AS A REAL AUDIENCE MEMBER.
Ask the speaker if they will be a medical doctor (or veterinarian) after they finish this [research] degree.
State that you have a question. Then pose a statement/comment that is not a question.
Be on your phone (texting) or overtly not paying attention to the entire presentation.
Ask them to explain a simple concept that they covered in their presentation (but that you missed because you weren’t paying attention).
Cough or sneeze comically loud, or drop something during the presentation.
Ask the speaker how they chose this topic or how they got into this type of research/work. (This seems benign, but can take away from more specific questions during a peer presentation.)
Ask if the speaker is familiar with a field/event/discovery that is somewhat related to their presentation but not actually in their presentation. Example, speaker presents about infectious disease in cattle and you ask them about “cow farts and global warming”.
Comment that the speaker looks really young for someone in their position. Example: “Wow, I thought you were an undergrad! You look really young. I mean, that’s a compliment.”
Get up during the presentation and adjust the lights or shades in the room. You don’t have to make them better, just change them.
Ask the speaker a multiple part question. They can be simple questions, but ask them all in one, long, run-on sentence.
Begin your question with “As a parent,….” even if you are not a parent and the question has nothing to do with being a parent.
Ask the presenter who analyzed their data for them (even if they have already said they analyzed it themselves).
Tell the speaker that their method is not valid (but don’t explain why).
Tell the speaker: “This was a pretty good presentation. When you have been in grad school a few more years I think you’ll be a really good speaker.”
Tell the speaker that this kind of work has been done before and ask what they have done that is unique.
Raise your hand to ask a question, but then sit back, squint your eyes, exhale loudly, pause for a moment, then say, “Never mind”.
The Technical Challenge
On multiple occasions, I have had to give a short (10 min) presentation by memory because the slideshow wouldn’t open or advance. I have had poor lighting, or poor color contrasting from the projector, which made it difficult to read my slides. I have had projection screens which were much smaller than I anticipated such that my text was too small to read on figures, and I’ve more or less given up the hope that I will routinely encounter “presenter mode” when using podiums or other people’s machines. I’ve had a projector that kept shorting out during the talk and creating blank screens for 10 seconds, something which you can hear me talk about in the lecture recording but not see on the recorded slides. I’ve had my available time cut in half, had to cut my presentation short because I included too much detail, realized I had poorly organized the presentation of material or forgotten to define a critical aspect, been unable to play videos or animations, had hand-held slide advancers with low batteries, had automatic slide advance turned on by mistake, and more.
When you face these surprises during a talk, you often don’t have the time, never mind the presence of mind, to resolve the problem. You simply have to make the best of it before your time runs out. It helps to know your material, but it also helps to be able to improvise, which is a skill best developed in practice. You might need to fill air time, or reconstruct your presentation on the fly, or make light of the situation to cut the tension in the room. To help my students prepare, I asked them to send me their peer presentation, as I wanted them to use a presentation they had just given and were familiar with. Then, I introduced mistakes into the presentation without disclosing what those might be, only that they would be there.
Public presentations need to present information approach-ably. I don’t mean they need to talk down to people, I mean they need to consider that the audience might not have a frame of reference for what you are talking about. I have a PhD, but it’s meaningless if I attend technical lectures on physics. For the third challenge in class, students can give their presentation again but with the knowledge that they can’t throw 20 slides worth of dense information at their audience, they can’t use technical language without defining it, and that sometimes the best way to explain complicated information is using pictures or analogies.
Update: In light of Corvid-19 concerns, campuses have been closing and switching over to remote instruction. This was rather challenging to do well with a presentations class, as giving a webinar isn’t the same as giving a public presentation. To be more creative, I am having students submit their public presentation slides online. I then assign them to another student, who has to annotate the ‘presenter notes’ with the speech of how they would present these slides. I then return the annotated version to the original presenter so they can see how well their slides spoke for themselves. In this “presentation telephone game”, I hope they will see how easy their slides were translatable to someone else, which is a common problem in slides put online without any notes or audio: so much gets lost when the presenter isn’t providing the information and filling in the additional information that is only briefly noted on the slides.
Learning (to Pretend) to Enjoy Giving Presentation
You can’t always control the technical aspects of your talk, or select your audience, or even be prepared for the weather that day. You won’t always be well-rested, or in good health, on the day of. Fun fact about stress, it can trigger spotting or early menstruation. There’s nothing quite as terrifying as being in the middle of your presentation when you are suddenly aware that you have a limited amount of time to get off stage and hope that there are feminine products available for free in the nearest restroom, because your women’s dress pants don’t have pockets for you to carry quarters for the dispensary machines.
You won’t always have time to prepare. Once, I had 5 minutes of notification that I would have to stand up in front of 50 – 75 other college students and Jane Goodall and present a recap on a service-learning course, at a time when I dreaded any and all public speaking. But you can’t really decline the offer to talk in front of Jane Goodall when she had taken the time and effort to be in the room to listen to you all. So you just have to stand up and start talking before you convince yourself you can’t do it.
You can have faith in yourself, know that you will try your best, and remind yourself that it will be good enough. I’ve been an audience member at perfect presentations, and I remember that it went really well and nothing at all about the content. The talks that I remember most are the ones where the speaker connected with me. They were funny, they were humanizing, and they took technical problems and awkward interactions in stride.
The best way to become a better speaker, I think, is to be open to the idea that you are going to mess up. A lot. But each time, you will learn from that experience, you will ask for feedback, and you get back out there. As academics, we have to present information on nearly a daily basis. It is, in fact, a significant part of the job. So instead of dreading it, we should at least pretend to enjoy it until, one day, we find that we do.
I’ve published a lot this year. More than normal, since I had 5 months with extra time and the knowledge that I would not be able to devote time to old projects if I began a tenure-track position. It’s been wonderful to publish so many projects, especially ones that had been languishing. But publishing fees can be steep, and often the grant is spent out by the time you publish, leaving researchers struggling to pay to get their results out. The more prestigious the journal, typically; the higher the cost. This encourages many authors to turn to lower impact or less reputable journals, which in turn causes colleagues to be suspicious of the article and may hurt their ability to get more grant money or promotion. On top of the base article processing charge (APC), there may be additional fees to print color photos, supplemental information, or to make the article open-access (readable without a journal subscription).
I’ve published 10 articles in 2019, only a fraction of what I contributed to paying for (thank you, collaborators!!). All costs are presented as 2019 fees in USD. Some journals charge less if you are a member of their society, or have financial assistance, but I’ve included the prices we paid.
Basic and Applied Ecology: $2000 APC for non-members (includes open-access)
Buildings: $1006 APC (always open-access)
Geoderma: $3350 APC for open-access and $2052.30 for printing 6 figures in color.
Indoor Air: $4300 APC for open-access
Journal of Animal Science: $1300 APC ($100/page member price x 10 pages + $500 color figure charge)
Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology: $3760 APC (includes open-access)
PeerJ: $1095 APC (always open-access). PeerJ also gives discounts for acting as a reviewer, though not applied here.
PLoS Biology: $0 APC for essays because they are published in the magazine (always open access)
PLoS ONE: $1595 APC (always open-access)
Total cost: $21,241
Keep in mind, I’m an editor for two journals and a reviewer for over a dozen, none of which I get paid for. Initial reviews take 2-4 hours, and follow up reviews on revised manuscripts can take 1-2 hours per revision (usually no more than 2 rounds). Editorial takes 1-2 hours per manuscript total, depending on the ease of finding reviewers and the completeness of those reviews. I estimate I’ve provided $3,240 (net) in editorial and review services this year alone.
Not a day goes by that I don’t search for information, and whether that information is a movie showtime or the mechanism by which a bacterial species is resistant to zinc toxicity, I need that information to be accurate. In the era of real fake-news and fake real-news, mockumentaries, and misinformation campaigns, the ability to find accurate and unbiased information is more important than ever.
Thanks to the massive shift towards digital archiving and open-access online journals, nearly all of my information hunting is done online (and an excellent reason why Net Neutrality is vital to researchers). Most of the time, this information is in the form of scientific journal articles or books online, and finding this information can be accomplished by using regular search engines. In particular, Google has really pushed to improve its ability to index scientific publications (critical to Google Scholar and Paperpile).
However, it takes skill to compose your search request to find accurate results. I nearly always add “journal article” or “scientific study” to the end of my query because I need the original sources of information, not popular media reports on it. This cuts out A LOT of inaccuracy in search results. If I’m looking for more general information, I might add “review” to find scientific papers which broadly summarize the results of dozens to hundreds of smaller studies on a particular topic. If I have no idea where to begin and need basic information on what I’m trying to look for, I will try my luck with a general search online or even Wikipedia (scientists have made a concerted effort to improve many science-related entries). This can help me figure out the right terminology to phrase my question.
How do I know if it’s accurate?
One of the things I’m searching for when looking for accurate sources is peer-review. Typically, scientific manuscripts submitted to reputable journals are reviewed by 1 – 3 other authorities in that field, more if the paper goes through several journal submissions. The reviewers may know who the authors are, but the authors don’t know their reviewers until at least after publication, and sometimes never. This single-blind (or double-blind if the reviewers can’t see the authors’ names) process allows for manuscripts to be reviewed, edited, and challenged before they are published. Note that perspective or opinion pieces in journals are typically not peer-reviewed, as they don’t contain new data, just interpretation. The demand for rapid publishing rates and the rise of predatory journals has led some outlets to publish without peer-review, and I avoid those sources. The reason is that scientists might not see the flaws or errors in their own study, and having a third party question your results improves your ability to communicate those results accurately.
Another way to assess the validity of an article is the inclusion of correct control groups. The control group acts a baseline against which you can measure your treatment effects, those which go through the same experimental parameters except they don’t receive an active treatment. Instead, the group receives a placebo, because you want to make sure that the acts of experimentation and observation themselves do not lead to a reaction – The Placebo Effect. The Placebo Effect is a very real thing and can really throw off your results when working with humans.
Similarly, one study does not a scientific law make. Scientific results can be situational, or particular to the parameters in that study, and might not be generalizable (applicable to a broader audience or circumstances). It often takes dozens if not a hundred studies to get at the underlying mechanisms of an experimental effect, or to show that the effect is reliably recreated across experiments.
Data or it didn’t happen. I can’t stress this one enough. Making a claim, statement, or conclusion is hollow until you have supplied observations to prove it. This a really common problem in internet-based arguments, as people put forth references as fact when they are actually opinionated speeches or videos that don’t list their sources. These opinionated speeches have their place, I post a lot of them myself. They often say what I want to say in a much more eloquent manner. Unfortunately, they are not data and can’t prove your point.
The other reason you need data to match your statements is that in almost all scientific articles, the authors include speculation and theory of thought in the Discussion section. This is meant to provide context to the study, or ponder over the broader meaning, or identify things which need to be verified in future studies. But often these statements are repeated in other articles as if they were facts which were evaluated in the first article, and the ideas get perpetuated as proven facts instead of as theories to be tested. This often happens when the Discussion section of an article is hidden behind a pay wall and you end up taking that second paper’s word for it about what happened in the first paper. It’s only when the claim is traced all the way back to the original article that you find that someone mistook thought supposition for data exposition.
The “Echo Chamber Effect” is also prominent when it comes to translating scientific articles into news publications, a great example of which is discussed by 538. Researchers mapped the genome of about 30 transgender individuals – about half and half of male to female and female to male, to get an idea of whether gender identity could be described with a nuanced genetic fingerprint rather than a binary category. This is an extremely small sample group, and the paper was more about testing the idea and suggesting some genes which would be used for the fingerprint. In the mix-up, comments about the research were attributed to a journalist at 538 – comments that the journalist had not made, and this error was perpetuated when further news organizations used other news publications as the source instead of conducting their own interview or referencing the publication. In addition, the findings and impact of the study were wrongly reported – it was stated that 7 genes had been identified by researchers as your gender fingerprint, which is a gross exaggeration of what the original research article was really about. When possible, try to trace information back to its origin, and get comments straight from the source.
How do I know if it’s unbiased?
This can be tricky, as there are a number of ways someone can have a conflict of interest. One giveaway is tone, as scientific texts are supposed to remain neutral. You can also check the author affiliations (who they are and what institution they are at), the conflict of interest section, and the disclosure of funding source or acknowledgements sections, all of which are common inclusions on scientific papers. “Following the money” is a particularly good way of determining if there is biased involved, depending on the reputation of the publisher.
When in doubt, try asking a librarian
There are a lot of resources online and in-person to help you find accurate information, and public libraries and databases are free to use!
Recently, a colleague recommended using Voyant Tools to analyze texts, so I thought I would give it a try. Language metrics can give a fascinating look into a text, and in this example, into what my most commonly used words are, how verbose I can be, and how diverse my written vocabulary is. It’s important to note that these metrics are sensitive to citation style, the use of text in legends or tables, and other bits of text in manuscripts or webpages that may get incorporated which aren’t part of the text, strictly speaking. When possible, I uploaded just the written portion of the manuscript.
My first publication
Insight into the bacterial gut microbiome of the North American moose (Alces alces), was written in 2012 and published in BMC Microbiology, which does not have a word limit. According to Voyant, the document contains 5,904 total words and 1,489 unique word forms. Vocabulary Density, the ratio of the number of words in the document to the number of unique words in the document, is 0.252. A lower vocabulary density indicates complex text with lots of unique words, and a higher ratio indicates simpler text with words reused. Average Words Per Sentence is 27.1, and Most frequent words are: rumen (80); otus (68); samples (67); moose (54); colon (50)..
My dissertation, written in 2015, contains 75,859 total words and 8,958 unique word forms. Vocabulary Density: 0.118, Average Words Per Sentence: 12.9, Most frequent words are: rumen (632); moose (411); sequences (323); using (304); samples (284).
To look at all my first authored research publications to date, I put all the text from the word documents together, excluding figure and table legends, as well as reference lists. Across these 8 documents, there were 40,860 total words and 5,059 unique word forms, Vocabulary Density: 0.124, Average Words Per Sentence: 26.6, Most frequent words: rumen (304); samples (301); sequences (275); using (265); moose (226).
As we rapidly approach the end of both the fall semester and 2017, it’s a great time to reflect about the year’s accomplishments (update your C.V.) and look forward to what 2018 will bring (panic about all the things you haven’t finished yet that need to be completed by the end of the year).
Time management is a reoccurring theme in academia, and with so many items on one’s to-do list, it’s not hard to see why. Everyone has their own advice about how to be more effective; which was the very first meeting in this year’s Faculty Organizing for Success professional development workshop series, which I attended in October. I compiled some of the suggestions made there, along with advice I’ve picked up over the years, and strategies I use which I’ve found to be effective.
One of the major questions that came up at the FOS meeting was time management in the face of academic duties, namely service. Academics have a requirement to provide service or outreach to their university, the community, and their field, and as I’ve previously discussed, these amorphous responsibilities can be time-consuming and under-appreciated. Sometimes, turning off your ringer, closing your email application, or saying “no” isn’t enough or isn’t possible. So, how can you make the most of your time while navigating the constraints of a fractured schedule?
I find lists to be extremely helpful in keeping track of everything I need to do, and it really helps me focus on what I need to get done TODAY.
Lists help me organize my thoughts
by adding notes for each particular item
and ordering the steps I need to take to finish each item.
Being able to cross tasks off a physical list is also a great visual reminder that you are, in fact, being productive.
And, at the end of the day, the remaining items form a new list, so I know where to begin tomorrow. This saves me a lot of time which would otherwise be spent trying to remember where and how I left off.
Don’t like lists? I also heavily rely on my calendar and will schedule appointments for everything, especially the little things that I’m liable to forget, including catching up on emails, lunch, reading articles, writing posts, etc. I utilize color-coding and multiple calendars within a calendar, like shared calendars from research labs or online applications. I have learned to schedule small blocks of time after meetings, especially project development or brainstorming meetings, during which I can write notes, look up deadlines, send emails, or any other action items that came up during the meeting while it’s still fresh in my mind. I even schedule appointments for my personal events, like hiking, movies, or buying cheese at the farmer’s market. Having them in my calendar keeps me from scheduling work-related things into my personal time. Academics, myself included, have a habit of working more than 40 hours a week: “Let me just send this email real quick” can easily transform into “Well, there went my Saturday”.
I’ve been known to schedule reminders months or a year in advance, perhaps to catch up with someone about a project, to have a certain portion of a project completed by a soft deadline, or look up a grant RFA that will be made available approximately three months from now. Making good use of my calendar has been particularly important for tracking my time for reporting (or billing) purposes. BioBE and ESBL use the Intervals tracking program, and it’s much easier to report my time if I have a detailed account of it in my calendar. Even better- it’s great for retrospective reports:
Perhaps the best use of my calendar has been to schedule themed time-blocks spanning several hours, such as “catching up on projects” or “data analysis”, specifically on a shared or public calendar to prevent time fractionation. These events are marked as tentative, so I can be scheduled during those times as needed, but I find that I get fewer requests for my time when I don’t have unclaimed space on the calendar. And, I can focus on a specific project for several hours, which I prefer to a “30 min here, 60 min there” approach. If possible, I also try to concatenate meetings, seminars, training and workshops, or other short but disruptive events. One or two stand-alone events can be a nice way to break up the day, but too many can fracture my time into small blocks and make it very difficult to effectively perform the researchportion of my work which is best accomplished when I can puzzle out problems at my own pace. So, I categorize the day as “administrative”, “socialmedia“, or “project management”, and spend the day taking care of all the other responsibilities I have that are tangential (but important) to my research.
Prioritizing my emails with flags is also really helpful, especially if you can color-codebyimportance. I get dozens of emails every day, from six different email accounts, but I keep my inboxes to less than 10 items each, almost every day. I spend a few minutes to prioritize them for later, I archive old emails into other folders for future reference, and I dedicate time to deal with my emails on a daily basis. I also liberally use the “unsubscribe” link.
Caution: Work Zone Ahead
Academics love to work outside the office- most often because the office is where everyone goes to find you for some reason. Coffee shops, parks, airports, and homes are popular locations for “writing caves” (I’m writing this from home right now). Being in a distraction-free, or distraction-specific (i.e. white noise of cafe chatter) location helps me focus on things without interruption. When I’m analyzing data or writing up results, I have multiple computer application windows open and am collating information from multiple sources, so I need to focus or else I waste a lot of time trying to pick up where I left off after every interruption.
When I’m stuck on something, sometimes I’ll take a walk- usually to go get coffee. Ok, always to go get coffee. Exercise stimulates blood flow and lattes are full of glucose, so it’s a perfect way for me to recharge. Often, that change of pace is all I need to accomplish in 2 min what I was struggling to put together earlier. My best ideas often coalesce while hiking or biking home, so I started taking pens and notepaper with me so I can write them down on the fly before I forget.
When possible, I also try not to force myself to work to continue working on specific things past the point where I can make progress on it (you know, for all those times I’m not up against a deadline- haha). Of course, this flexibility in my schedule during business hours is a privilege that most people don’t enjoy. It also takes a great deal of self-motivation to enforce, but it can be very effective for me. Instead, I set that project aside and focus on something else entirely. Often, this leads to procrastinating work with other work, but it’s productive nonetheless. But for me, it also leads to more effective work-life balance. Late afternoons are not a particularly productive time for me; it’s better if I leave early and go grocery shopping, and then work for a few hours in the evening or on Saturday mornings, when I can get an extremely productive hour or two in after I’ve had time to mull things over. Having down time built into your day has been shown to improve productivity.
Conversely, when I get new data, start writing a new grant, or acquire a novel task, my interest and enthusiasm are high and I’m tempted to drop everything else to start working on it. Following that passion for a day or a week gives me a great start in which to outline what I’ll do for the next few weeks or months. Then, as my enthusiasm ebbs, my thoughts wander, and other deadlines become more pressing, I can set it aside and pick that outline up later after I’ve thought it over. Collectively, these strategies allow me to be productive without reallocating time that I would otherwise use for sleeping, and without racing against the clock to submit something.
Find a system you like and stick to it
Everyone uses different technology and productivity applications, and everyone has a different style of organization, so you may have to try different things to find a method you like. But once you find something that works for you, stick with it. Too often I see people abandon a time management strategy because they don’t have time to invest in adapting to it. Maybe you have several hundred unread emails you don’t want to sort, maybe you are having syncing issues across multiple device operating systems, or maybe you keep forgetting to use your strategy because it hasn’t become habit. I encourage you to devote time to becoming comfortable with some time management strategy, as I can personally attest that it will pay off later.