The Fine Art of Finding Scientific Information

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.

Yet, assessing the validity of information and verifying sources is an under-appreciated and under-taught skill. There are some great resources available for determining the reliability (if the same results are achieved each time), and validity (is it a real effect), of a dataset, as well as of the authors. Even with fact-evaluation resources available through The National Center for Complementary and Integrated Health (NCCIS), The University of EdinburghThe Georgetown University Library, or Michigan State University, like any skill, finding information takes practice.

Where do I go for Science Information?

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.

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Kriegeskorte, 2012

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!

Figure 7; Guadamillas Gómez, 2017.

 

Finding the write words

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)..

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My latest first-authored publication

An investigation into rumen fungal and protozoal diversity in three rumen fractions, during high-fiber or grain-induced sub-acute ruminal acidosis conditions, with or without active dry yeast supplementation, was written in 2017 and published in Frontiers in Microbiology, which also doesn’t have a word limit.  For this one, I altered the citation style first.  As Frontiers uses a verbose citation style (Author et al., year), my top words were “et” and “al” in the published version of the paper.  In the modified version, there are 7,580 total words and 2,067 unique word forms. Vocabulary Density: 0.273, Average Words Per Sentence: 12.7, Most frequent words: rumen (111); diversity (69); diet (56); fungal (47); protozoa (46).

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My dissertation

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).

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Summary

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).

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Word cloud from 8 publications.

 

 

Where does the time go?

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?

Lists

  1. 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.  
  2. Lists help me organize my thoughts
    1. by adding notes for each particular item
    2. and ordering the steps I need to take to finish each item.
  3. Being able to cross tasks off a physical list is also a great visual reminder that you are, in fact, being productive.  
  1.  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.

Calendars

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:

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The categorical break-down of how I have spent my time from June to November.

 

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That time has been used for a number of different projects.

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 research portion of my work which is best accomplished when I can puzzle out problems at my own pace.  So, I categorize the day as “administrative”, “social media“, or “project management”, and spend the day taking care of all the other responsibilities I have that are tangential (but important) to my research.

Emails

Prioritizing my emails with flags is also really helpful, especially if you can color-code by importance.  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.  

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Actual screenshot from one of my inboxes.

Caution: Work Zone Ahead

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Cueva de las Manos, Perito Moreno, Argentina.

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.

 

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Monty Python

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.

Featured Image.

The Interviewing Game

Interviewing for research positions is challenging, and when it’s for a job at a university, the process can be lengthy and the competition fierce.  Some jobs for which I applied reported receiving 60 to 160 applications for a single opening.  When it comes to highly coveted positions, like tenure-track faculty jobs, the slow reduction in research funding and ever-increasing pool of PhDs can result in up to 400 applications per opening.  One faculty member eloquently provided stats on their job search, which involved more than 100 applications over two years.  I applied to a mere 22 jobs over a period of seven months (just counting the 2016-2017 season), but the lengthy process generated plenty of questions from family and friends who were dismayed by the slow trickle of news.

The Search Committee

The job posting needs to be carefully crafted.  While most academic positions are looking for candidates with specific skills or research backgrounds, many faculty positions are open-ended so that a wide variety of candidates may apply.  Any required elements of the job, such as teaching specific courses, advising, or extension activities, are often explicitly stated in the posting.  Once funding for a job position and a post has been approved, the search officially opens.  A search committee is formed, which is comprised of several members of the department, and perhaps members of other, closely related departments at the university.  They may aid in the drafting of a job posting, but will be in charge of reviewing every application, selecting candidates for and performing preliminary and full interviews, following up on references, and making final recommendations.

The Application

Applications require a Curriculum Vitae, which lists your education and other professional training, all the positions you have held, professional memberships you belong to, certifications, awards, publications, public presentations, courses taught, career development activities, students you have mentored, and any other skills that might be relevant.  Some applications require official transcripts, and all require letters of reference.  These may need to be provided at the time of the application, or may be requested later by the committee when you have been added to the short-list of potential candidates.  Your letters of reference not only confirm the skills you have claimed in your application, but they provide a glimpse into what it is like to work with you, so it’s best to pick someone who knows you well.

The brunt of the academic application is several essays that detail your experience, philosophy, and vision for each aspect of the job in question.  Some universities limit these to one to three pages each, but others allow you the freedom of word count.  Typically, you must provide a Statement of Research and a Statement of Teaching, and some may request Statements of Mentoring, or Diversity.

The Statement of Research asks you to detail previous work, the skills you have acquired, and important contributions your research has made.  Here, you outline your experience in obtaining grants, or your plan to obtain them in the future, as well as describe the work you would like to perform at the university and the lab members you would like to bring in (undergraduates, graduates, technicians, postdocs).  Outlining your proposed research can be tricky,  as you want to add your expertise to the ongoing departmental research, but without being redundant or too novel.  That might seem counter-intuitive, but if a department doesn’t have the equipment or funding to support your research, or similar researchers that can provide a research support network, it may be difficult for you to perform your work there.

Similarly, the Statement of Teaching asks you to explain in detail your previous teaching experience, and your philosophy of how courses should be developed to improve student learning, incorporate current research or hands-on experience into the curriculum, and use technology to increase student engagement.  Here you can suggest courses that you would like to develop or take over teaching, based on your knowledge base, if the position involves teaching.

Additional Statements may be requested to provide specific information on your philosophy of mentoring students, especially your Statement of Diversity for training new graduate students, or recruiting minority students to science and providing career development opportunities to underrepresented demographics.  The cherry on top is the cover letter that summarizes why you want the job and why you are the best choice.

The Wait

Applications may be solicited for several weeks or months, and some accept applications on a rolling basis until the position is filled.  You will receive a notification, usually automatic, that your application has been received by the system, and perhaps another one to notify you that the review has begun.  Otherwise, you have little communication unless you are selected for the short-list or the position has been filled.  I have waited more than 6 months to hear back about an application before.

It’s time to meet our first three eligible candidates…

The short-list is a subset of applicants, several or several dozen perhaps, that the committee would like to have a phone or video interview with, typically lasting 15 to 60 minutes.  Depending on the number of applications received and when the job posting  closed in relation to the end of the semester, you may not hear about a preliminary interview until several months after you have applied.  Questions requiring detailed answers are often provided in advance, but otherwise, preliminary interview questions usually ask you to reiterate what you might have put in your application: why you want the job, whether you have experience working collaboratively, where you see yourself in five years, etc.  These questions may probe your interpersonal skills, such as whether have you managed others, or whether you have dealt with academic conflicts.  Having been through a number of tele-interviews, I can say that they are more difficult than they seem.  You have a brief time in which to make an impression, and it can be difficult to read a room which you can’t see.

Round 2

From the short-list, two to four candidates are selected for full, in-person interviews, which are scheduled as soon after the phone interviews as possible.  These are complicated to schedule, as they are one to two full days for which the candidate and most members of the department need to be available.  You are required to present a seminar of your research, both past and future.  Depending on the position, you may be required to present a teaching seminar as an example of your style, or perhaps a “chalk-talk” where the committee can ask you questions on potential grants or experimental designs.  You will also have one-on-one interviews with university faculty and staff that you may be working with, tours of the research facilities, and a chance to tour the university.  From experience, even when the interview goes perfectly, they are exhausting. For two days straight you are talking about yourself, your work, your ideas, other people’s work, and potential collaborations.  You are listening attentively, trying to give the best impression possible, and eating meals as quickly as possible while still talking about yourself and hoping you don’t have food stuck in your teeth.

Only once all the selected candidates have been interviewed will the search committee deliberate.  They solicit impressions and opinions from everyone you met- faculty, staff, graduate students, technicians, as well as from your professional references.  They will decide if a candidate is ineligible for an offer for any reason, and rank the eligible candidates.  They will then make recommendations to the department chair or administrator, who will decide whether to extend an offer.

Negotiations

When a job offer is first made, it is a non-binding offer.  Negotiations then take place until both parties are satisfied, and a written, contractual offer will be offered.  University positions have salary ranges by hiring level and experience, and a certain, somewhat unknown, amount of additional funding available for other benefits like relocation, computers, or basic research materials.  Tenure-track or other high-level research positions in the STEM fields typically come with start-up funds, which provide initial funding to buy equipment and lab materials, or fund lab personnel to get you started on pilot studies that can be leveraged for grant funding.

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http://www.glasbergen.com

This is the most delicate phase because this is your best chance to determine your salary, your title, and the specifics of your job requirements.  For example, you can use this opportunity to discuss when and how much you will be asked to teach, what your start date is, whether the department will reserve a teaching or research assistantship so that you may offer it to a new graduate student, and other non-specific benefits.  If you have multiple offers, you might ask one to meet the benefits proffered by another.  On the other hand, universities only have so much they can offer you, regardless of how much they like you.  Remember, you aren’t out to “win”, you are out to satisfactorily arrange a contract with the people you will soon be working with- both parties need to be pleased with the offer.  If an agreement can’t be reached, or if you accept a different offer, the second-ranked candidate will be offered the job, and so on.

Nothing is finalized until both parties have agreed to terms, a background check has been completed, and the contract is signed.  From application to contract, the process may take 6 to 12 months, and it may be a further several months before you officially begin, which is a long time to provide vague answers to eager questions from friends and family.  On top of that, most interviews are semi-confidential: you are not supposed to know who the other candidates are, so it is bad form to ask about them or for the department to discuss them with you, even after you have accepted the job.  And, most applicants keep their interviews quiet until they have a job offer.  For one thing, it’s not worth getting everyone’s hopes up for every application.  For another, you don’t want a prospective job to pass you over because it looks like you are going to accept another offer, as candidate searches are expensive to conduct and occasionally don’t lead to a hire (failed search).  There is also the potential for an uncomfortable situation to arise at your current job when they know you are leaving, although the pervasive search for job security and work-life balance in academia means most people sympathize with your search for the right job.

I choose… Candidate #3!

In the end, much of it comes down to luck: the right department needs to be looking for a candidate like you and have their hiring line approved, you need to find their posting, you need to craft an application that appeals to them while representing your interests and goals, and you have little to no idea who else might be applying.  Often jobs will be posted at an open hiring level to attract a wider variety of candidates, so you might be applying at the lower hiring end but are competing with people who have years more experience than you do.  And it’s important to remember that everyone in science has a large amount of technical training – we are all fantastic candidates and that makes it difficult to choose only one of us.

Since departments or fields don’t relist open positions predictably, most research job hunters will apply to jobs in their field to cover your bases, as well as several closely related fields (for me, it was animal science, microbiology, molecular genetics, microbiomes, bioinformatics, and any combination of those words); you are afraid to lose a whole year because you didn’t apply to enough postings.  This increases the applicant pool size, and provides departments with interesting research directions to take the potential hire in; sometimes you don’t know what kind of candidate you want until you meet them.  Moreover, you don’t really know if you will fit with a university, department, or research team until you have had some time to interact with them during the interview.  Really, applying for a job in academia is a lot like dating.  Some people go on many first date interviews, some on very few, in order to find the right match.  Either way, it’s fun to play the game, but to win you need to ‘make a start date’.

Featured Image modified from The Dating Game show logo.

If at first you don’t succeed… you’ve got the makings of a thesis.

In a recent post on The Rare Knowledgesphere, I mentioned that I when I tell people that I went to graduate school or explain what I do now, the replies can be overly modest or self-deprecating.  Sometimes, people tell me that they don’t feel smart enough to make it through grad school or to do what I do.  Graduate school or other professional schools aren’t for everyone, but there is a big difference between not wanting to go and not feeling good enough to go.  In my experience, people who think they can’t do it aren’t so much incapable as incapacitated by Imposter Syndrome.  In my 9 total years of acquiring higher education, plus 2 years and counting of post-doctoral training, I find that when it comes to academic success, academic achievement frequently takes a backseat to having the right personality.  In this post, I thought it would be helpful to describe some of those qualities that help set the most successful researchers apart.

Learning is a skill

Don’t get me wrong, you need to pass the graduate record examinations (GREs- general and subject) in order to be accepted, be able to understand the material once you are there, do well on exams, and maintain a certain grade point average (GPA).  While grades and exam performance can be good metrics for intelligence, there are a lot of circumstances that could preclude someone from doing well, thus they aren’t the only metrics.  Certainly you need a solid knowledge base in any subject in order to participate in it.  But I don’t usually get asked by people I pass on the sidewalk to explain how 20 different enzymes react instantaneously when you consume a meal in order to alter your metabolism to maintain homeostasis.  I am asked on a daily basis to assimilate new information, process it, and then apply it to my work.  Whether it is learning a new skill (like learning to perform a laboratory technique or how to analyze data I have not worked with before), whether it is evaluating a proposed experiment and looking for flaws in the experimental design, or whether it is reviewing someone’s manuscript for validity and publish-ability, I need to be able to learn new things efficiently.

Learning is a skill, just like wood-working or weight-lifting: you need to start small and practice regularly.  Learning a new skill, language, or activity challenges us.  Not only can it broaden our view of the world, but continuing to learn throughout your adult life can improve health and cognitive function: essentially, the more you learn the better you become at learning.  In addition to physically performing new tasks, reading is a great way to inform yourself while improving your reading comprehension skills, verbal IQ, and  critical thinking so that you can assess the accuracy of the information.  Scientific texts, even for those who are trained to read them, can be extremely difficult to fully comprehend.  Articles are full of very technical language, explain new concepts, and often rely on a certain amount of knowledge inherent to the field.  It’s tempting to read quickly, but in order to do this you efficiently it can help to be systematic and thorough.

study cards

You may not feel you are ready for graduate school, that you belong in grad school, or that you are ready to leave, but grad school isn’t the end point- it’s a learning experience to become a good researcher.  Even once you leave, you never stop learning.  Good graduate students don’t have to know everything, but they do need to know how to learn and how to search for answers.

Put on a happy face

You don’t need to love grad school, your work, or the process of research every second of every day, and you don’t need to pretend to, either.  It can be difficult, and like with any job, there are good days and bad days.  A hardy personality falls a close second to being able to learn new skills.  The road through graduate school is arduous and different for everyone, and it takes a tough person to make it out of the labyrinth of Academia.  Moreover, you are truly surrounded by your peers; everyone in graduate school has already maintained a high GPA, passed the GREs, gotten into grad school, etc.  You are probably never going to be the smartest or most accomplished person in the room again, certainly not for a long time.

You need to be able to take criticism, and not just the constructive kind: not everyone maintains polite professionalization and at some point, someone will bluntly tell you that you don’t belong in graduate school.  For me, this occurred about two years in, when I submitted my first manuscript.  A reviewer mistook my statement that a certain type of photosynthetic, water-based bacteria were present in the rumen of moose (who acquire them by drinking swamp water) for saying that those bacteria normally lived in the rumen of the moose, and commented that the latter was incorrect, that I did not know what I was doing, and that I did not belong in science.  To be sure, being able to deliver information in journal articles in an accurate manner is critical, and if a reviewer mistakes what you say in a manuscript, then you need to clarify your statements.  If a journal article is found to be unsuitable for publication, the reviewer can recommend it be rejected and offer commentary on how to improve re-submissions. However, it is widely accepted to be inappropriate and unprofessional to make personal comments in a review.  I was taken aback at how one misinterpreted sentence in a 5,000 word article could lead someone who had never met me to determine that I wasn’t suited for science.

In the end, I clarified that sentence, resubmitted, and the paper got accepted.  Four years later, that article has been viewed over 6,500 times and several other papers have come out identifying bacteria of that type living in the gastrointestinal tract of animals.  Research is a competitive field, and by its nature requires repetition and trouble-shooting.  You need to be able to fail on a daily basis and still find the enthusiasm to learn from the results and try it again tomorrow.

Two heads are better than one

Working well with others is extremely important in graduate school (and really any work environment).  In graduate school, other people can challenge you, help you reason through problems, identify holes in your logic, or add a perspective based on their personal experiences.  In science, you can never be an expert in everything, and to be able to really answer a research question you need to be able to look at it from different angles, methods, or fields.  Collaborations with other scientists allow you to bring a breadth of expertise and techniques to bear in projects, and can improve the quality of your research (1, 2, 3).

However, it can be difficult to wrangle so many researchers, especially when everyone is so busy and projects may span years.  Emotional intelligence, the ability to empathize, has been found to contribute to academic intelligence and can foster interpersonal relationships and collaborations.  When money, prestige, and ideas are on the line, the drive to be recognized for your work needs to be balanced with empathy in service to completing the experiments and disseminating the results.  At some point in academia, personal conflict will jeopardize a project.  As much as you have a right to recognition and reward for your hard work, you need to remember that other project members are due the same.  That being said, as a graduate student you don’t always feel in a position to negotiate and may feel pressured to minimize your contribution or the thanks to which you are due.  Settling on an order for authorship, or credit for contributions, is a conversation that needs to happen early, often throughout the project, and inclusively to acknowledge that you all worked hard for this.

Organization

Being able to juggle taking classes, teaching and grading, performing research, attending meetings, and all the other hundred things one must do in an academic day, takes a high degree of coordination.  Your calendar is your friend: schedule everything from meetings to reminders about tasks.  And using shared calendars really helps to schedule meetings or remind others.  There are plenty of apps that are specific to laboratory scheduling needs to help coordinate meetings or assign tasks across multiple parties.

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30 Rock

Even more important these days is digital organization: whether it be your email or your hard drive.  You need to be able to confidently curate and store data or electronic materials so that you or someone else can find them, even years later.  You never know when you will need to resurrect an old project or check on a method you once used, and without a solid paper trail you may not be able to locate or understand your digital breadcrumbs.  Lab notebooks, protocols, data files, and knowledge need to be accessible to future members, and it is your responsibility to make them available and intelligible.  There is nothing more frustrating than finding an unlabelled box of samples in a freezer and being unable to identify their owner or contents.  While the Intellectual Property might be yours, if that research or your salary was paid by a university or governmental agency, you have a responsibility to make that information public at some point.

A high degree of organization can help you manage your time, keep track of your results, coordinate with others, and maintain a project schedule.

A spoonful of extra-curricular helps the biochemistry go down

Work-week expectations, course load, teaching load, research load, and financial compensation of graduate students vary by the nature of their appointment, by university policy, or even by department within a university.

Graduate Teaching Assistants are paid a stipend for providing undergraduate teaching and other miscellaneous help to the department (typically 20 hours per week), and may receive tuition compensation for the classes they take.  Depending on the nature of the program, they may do research as well in order to write a thesis (masters) or dissertation (doctorate), or not do any research for their degree (non-thesis major). Graduate Research Assistants (GRAs) are hired strictly to perform research (again, usually 20 hours per week), for which they receive a stipend and/or tuition compensation, and also take classes.  Most programs require GRAs to teach for one semester to gain the experience, and GRAs are almost exclusively performing research for a thesis/dissertation-based degree.  Regardless of the type of appointment, there are a certain number of classes and hours of research which must be logged before a degree may be obtained.  Between courses, teaching, and research, there is enormous pressure on graduate students to work more than 40 hours per week.

It might seem that immersing yourself in graduate school is the best way to be a good student.  Or, maybe you are overwhelmed by the amount of work you are being asked to accomplish and feel pressured to spend 12 – 18 hours a day at it just to meet deadlines. Firstly, you are not lab equipment and should not be treated as such.  As a student, as an employee, and as a person, you have rights in the workplace.  It’s worth looking into university policy to see exactly what it required of you.  Secondly, over-working yourself is a terrible way to be more productive, as I discussed in a previous post on work-life balance.  To summarize that post, over-working yourself negatively affects your health, your cognitive function, and the quality of your work.  On the other hand, taking regular breaks and vacation can help keep you focused and solve abstract problems.

In addition to helping you manage stress, having an active life outside of your program helps give you other experiences from which you can draw upon to aid your graduate work. For example, I worked for several years at a small-animal veterinary hospital before going to graduate school, at which I trained employees and had extensive interactions with customers.  There, I gained the skills to manage others, simplify technical information, be very specific in my instructions, or maintain a professional demeanor in the face of emotional or chaotic events.  My interests in painting and photography have improved the quality and presentation of graphical results, or visually document my experiments.

Learn to Type

Seriously.  I spend most of my time at a computer: reading, writing, cut/pasting.  If you can type as quickly as you can gather your thoughts,you’ll find that you are much more productive.

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Draft twice, submit once: the grant writing process

Today, the research team that I am a part of submitted a grant which I co-wrote with Dr. Tim Seipel, along with Dr. Fabian Menalled, Dr. Pat Carr, and Dr. Zach Miller. We submitted to the Organic Transitions Program (ORG) through the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).  The culmination of months of work, and some 12+ hour days this past week to meet today’s deadline, this grant will hopefully fund some very exciting work in agriculture!

Research relies on grant money to fund projects, regardless of the type of institution performing the research, though commercial research centers may partially self-fund projects.  Most new research hires to universities will receive a “start-up package” which includes some funding for a few years to buy equipment, pay for a small, preliminary project, or temporarily hire a technician. Start-up funds are designed to hold a researcher over for a year or two until they may apply for and receive grant funding of their own.  Sooner or later, everyone in academia writes a grant.

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Grants may be available for application on a regular basis throughout the year, but some grant calls are specific to a topic and are made annually.  These have one submission date during the year, and a large number of federal grants are due during in the first quarter of the year, a.k.a. Grant Season.  University researchers find themselves incredibly pressed for time from January to March and will hole up in their office for days at a time to write complex grants.  Despite the intention of starting your writing early, and taking the time to thoroughly discuss your project design with all your co-PDs well before you start writing to avoid having to rewrite it all again, most researchers can attest that these 20-30 pages grants can get written over from scratch 2 or 3 times, even before going through a dozen rounds of group editing.

The Bright Idea

Most large grants, providing several hundred thousand to over a million in funding over several years, require project teams with multiple primary researchers (called Principal Investigators or Project Directors) to oversee various aspects of research, in addition to other personnel (students, technicians, subcontractors).  One researcher may conceptualize the project and approach other researchers (usually people they have worked with in the past, or new hires) to join the project.  Project ideas may get mulled over for several years before they mature into full grant submissions, or go through multiple versions and submissions before they are perfected.

The grant I just co-wrote investigates the use of cover crops in Montana grain production.  Briefly, cover crops are plant species which improve the soil quality but which you aren’t necessarily intending to eat or sell.  They are grown in fields before or after the cash crop (ex. wheat) has been grown and harvested.  Legumes like peas, beans, or alfalfa, are a popular choice because they fix nitrogen from its gaseous form in the atmosphere into a solid form in soil which other plants (like wheat) can use.  Other popular cover crop plants are great at bio-remediation of contaminated soils, like those in the mustard family (1, 2, 3). Planting cover crops in an otherwise empty (fallow) field can out-compete weeds that may grow up later in the year, and they can prevent soil erosion from being blown or washed away (taking the nutrients with it).  For our project, we wanted to know how different cover crop species affect the soil microbial diversity, reduce weeds, put nutrients back into soil, and improve the production of our crop.

We designed this project in conjunction with the Montana Organic Association, the Organic Advisory and Research Council, and Montana organic wheat farmers who wanted research done on specific cover crops that they might use, in order to create a portfolio of cover crops that each farmer could use in specific situations.  As these organizations comprise producers from across the state, our research team was able to get perspective on which cover crops are being used already, what growing conditions they will and won’t work in (as much of Montana is extremely dry), and what production challenges growers face inherent to planting, managing, and harvesting different plant types.

Drafting Your Team

When you assemble a research team, you want to choose Project Directors who have different experiences and focuses and who will oversee different parts of the project.  A well-crafted research team can bring their respective expertise to bear in designing a large and multi-faceted project.  For our grant, I am the co-PD representing the microbial ecology and plant-microbe interaction facet, about a third of the scope of the grant.  We will also be investigating these interactions under field settings, which requires a crop production and agroecology background, as well as expanding the MSU field days to include organic-specific workshops and webinars, which requires an extension specialty.

Because grant project teams are made up of researchers with their own projects and goals, in addition to providing valuable perspective they may also change the scope or design of your project.  This can be extremely beneficial early on in the grant-writing phase, especially as you may not have considered the limitations of your study, or your goals are too unambitious or too lofty.  For example, the cover crop species you want to test may not grow well under dry Montana conditions, do you have a back-up plan?  However, as the submission deadline looms larger, changing the focus of your study can cost you precious writing time.  Working in a research team requires a high degree of organization, a flair for communication, and an ability to work flexibly with others.

Identifying the research question

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All grants center around a Project Narrative, and funding agencies will provide detailed instructions on how to format your project grant.  Pay strict attention- in very competitive pools your grant can be flagged or rejected for not having the appropriate file names or section headers.  The Narrative gives introductory background on your topic that details the research that has previously been published.  Ideally, it also includes related studies that you and your team have published, and/or preliminary data from projects you are still working on.  The aim is to provide a reasoned argument that you have correctly identified a problem, and that your project will fill in the knowledge gaps to work towards a solution.  Grant panels are made up of researchers in a related field, but they may not be intimately aware of your type of research.  So, you need to be very specific in explaining  your reasoning for doing this study.  If your justification seems weak, your project may be designated as “low priority” work and won’t get funded.

In our case, cover crops have been used by farmers already, but not much basic research has been done on the impacts of picking one species over another to plant.  Thus, when cover crops fail, it may be unclear if it was because of unfavorable weather, because the previous crop influenced the soil in ways which were detrimental to your new crop, because you seeded your crop too sparsely and weeds were able to sneak in and out-compete, because you seeded too densely and your crop was competing with itself, or something else entirely.

You also need to identify the specific benefits of your project.  Will you answer questions? Will you create a new product for research or commercial use?  Will organic producers be able to use what you have learned to improve their farm production?  Will you teach students?  When you are identifying a need for knowledge and describing who or what will benefit from this study, you need to identify “stakeholders”.  These are people who are interested in your work, not people who are directly financially invested.  For us, our stakeholders are organic wheat farmers in Montana and the Northern Great Plains who want to integrate cover crops into their farming as an organic and sustainable way to improve crops and reduce environmental impact.  Not only did our stakeholders directly inform our project design, but we will be working closely with them to host Field Day workshops, film informative webinars, and disseminate our results and recommendations to producers.

Crafting Your Experimental Plan

Once you have identified a problem or research question, you need to explain exactly how you will answer it.  For experiments in the laboratory or field, you need to be incredibly specific about your design.  How many samples will you take and when?  Will you have biological replicates?  Biological replicates are identical treatments on multiple individual organisms (like growing a single cover crop species in four different pots) to help you differentiate if the results you see are because of variation in how the individual grows or because of the treatment you used.  Do you have technical replicates?  Technical replication is when you analyze the same sample multiple times, like sequencing it twice to make sure that your technology creates reproducible results.  Will you collect samples which will provide the right type of information to answer your question?  Do your collection methods prevent sample deterioration, and how long will you keep your samples in case you need to repeat a test?

In addition to describing exactly what you will do, you need to explain what might go wrong and how you will deal with that.  This is called the Pitfalls and Limitations section.  Because basic research needs to be done in controlled environments, your study may be limited by a “laboratory effect”: plants grown in a greenhouse will develop differently than they will in a field.  Or, you might not be able to afford the gold-standard of data analysis (RNA sequencing of the transcriptome still costs hundreds of dollars per sample and we anticipate over 1,200 samples from this project) so you need to justify how other methods will still answer the question.

Supporting Documents

Even after explaining your research question in the Narrative and your design in the Methods sections, your grant-writing work is still far from complete.  You will need to list all of the Equipment and research Facilities currently available to you to prove that your team can physically perform the experiment.  If you will have graduate students, you need a Mentoring Plan to describe how the research team will train and develop the career of said student.  If you will be working with people outside of the research team, you will need Letters of Support to show that your collaborators are aware of the project and have agreed to work with you, or that you have involved your stakeholders and they support your work.  I was delighted by the enthusiasm shown towards this project by Montana organic producers and their willingness to write us letters of support with only a few days’ notice!  You’ll also need a detailed timeline and plan for disseminating your results to make sure that you can meet project goals and inform your stakeholders.

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Poster presentation at ASM 2016.

Perhaps the most difficult accessory document is the Budget, for which you must price out almost all the items you will be spending money on.  Salary, benefits (ex. health insurance), tuition assistance, travel to scientific conferences, journal publication costs, travel to your research locations, research materials (ex. seeds, collection tubes, gloves, etc.), cost to analyze samples (ex. cost of sequencing or soil nutrient chemical analysis) cost to produce webinars, and every other large item must be priced out for each year of the grant.  The Budget Narrative goes along with that, where you explain why you are requesting the dollar amount for each category and show that you have priced them out properly.  For large pieces of equipment, you may need to include quotes from companies, or for travel to scientific conferences you may need airline and hotel prices to justify the costs.

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On top of what you need to complete the study, called Direct Costs, you also need to request money for Indirect Costs.  This is overhead that is paid to the institution that you will be working at to pay for the electricity, water, heating, building space, building security, or other utilities that you will use, as well as for the administrative support staff at the institution. Since nearly all grants are submitted through an organization (like universities), instead of as an individual, the university will handle the money and do all the accounting for you. Indirect costs pay for vital research support, but they run between 10-44% of the dollar amount that you ask for depending on the type of grant and institution, potentially creating a hefty financial burden that dramatically reduces the available funding for the project.  On a $100,000 grant, you may find yourself paying $44,000 of that directly to the university.

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Draft Twice, Submit Once

The Budget is by far the most difficult piece to put together, because the amount of money you have available for different experiments will determine how many, how large, and how intensive they are.  Often, specific methods or whole experiments are redesigned multiple times to fit within the financial constraints you have.  If you factor in the experimental design changes that all your co-PDs are making on the fly, having to balance the budget and reconstruct your narrative on an hourly basis to reflect these changes, and the knowledge that some grants only fund 6-8 projects a year and if you miss this opportunity you may not have future salary to continue working at your job, it’s easy to see why so many researchers find Grant Season to be extremely stressful.

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Anyone can Science, step 2: join the team

Great news: you can participate in science without going through a decade of higher education (sorry grad students, but thanks for your service!). There are two ways to do this: either you can volunteer to collect samples for a project, or you can volunteer to be the sample for a project.  You can volunteer through the National Institutes of Health,  third-party match sites that help recruit volunteers for large projects, independent research centers (that are usually under contract to run a study), and most universities and colleges have volunteer-recruiting websites.

Get out there and collect

There is a myriad of environmental science studies that rely on volunteers to collect samples, which may take place in very specific areas, or globally.  Some are simple  wildlife surveys, often through conservation societies like the Audubon Society, which use volunteers’ bird sightings to estimate populations.  Humanitarian volunteer agencies may recruit volunteers for global research studies, as well.  Some projects require more technical sampling, or require participants to travel to distant or difficult to reach places, and thus rely on outdoors-people with the gear and ability to safely retrieve water, soil, plants, animal hair or feces, you name it!  There are some excellent examples of global projects which can be found through Adventure Scientists.  AS recruits and trains volunteers for more difficult environmental sampling, and I am currently participating in their Gallatin Microplastics Initiative (year 1 and 2) along with my sampling team: Lee and Izzy.

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‘Host’ your own research

Volunteering to be the sample also allows you to participate on a sliding scale of involvement.  For example, observational studies only collect information on what is already happening.  These might be sociology (human behavior) studies which only require you to fill out surveys (often online) on your personal history or normal routines. You can also donate biological samples (hair, breathe, blood, urine, feces, skin scrapings, etc.) which are minimally invasive but don’t necessarily require any experimental treatments that you have to participate in.  A study that I analyzed data for asked participants to use a breathalyzer and submit a fecal sample in a jar.  That’s all, and they were financially compensated for their time.  The study was trying to correlate microorganisms in the gut with how much hydrogen or methane was in the breath, and whether a breathalyzer test could be used as a rough measure of how many methanogenic archaea lived in your gut.  Often, research centers which are focused on medical treatment for a specific disease will collect specific biological samples.

Studies which require actual treatments or testing are clinical medical studies that rely on human volunteers upon whom to test products.  At a certain point in drug or vaccine testing, animal or computer models can no longer serve as a proxy and you need to test things in humans.  Thanks to HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) and other safety regulations, both at the federal and institutional level, there is a lot of transparency in these studies.  You are told exactly what you will be required to do, what data will be collected and who will have access to it, and any possible health concerns that may arise from this study.  Any release of tissue “ownership” will require you to sign consent.

I have participated in antibacterial product testing, a diet study investigating dairy fats during which I could only eat the prescribed diet for two solid months (boy, did I miss chocolate and Thai food!), and a study on chronic back pain (I was in the control group). For the back pain study, I had an EEG net put on my head to measure brainwaves and motion capture balls(examples below) attached all over my body to track my muscle movements as I performed simple tasks that required me to use my lower back muscles.  I even had a functional MRI brain scan to measure how muscle pain might change brain function, unfortunately, I was not able to get a photocopy of my brain scan for posterity.  The more invasive, time consuming, or risky a study may be, the higher the compensation (some vaccine studies compensate several thousand dollars).

Pay it forward

You can participate in science in other ways, too.  Try getting involved with science education!  There are workshops, summer programs, or school events which encourage kids to learn about science and consider a career in it.  Even if you aren’t a scientist yourself and can’t be a presenter, many programs still need people to chaperone, coordinate or market the event, and cater.  Many science museums and educational centers have programs, as do many colleges.  You can also find opportunities through local government to help clean natural sites or educate the public.

While you are out there collecting water samples from Arctic ice, counting wolves, or surveying land for public use, you are also perfectly situated to help with a little environmental restoration.  The Global Microplastics Initiative looks for plastic in water sources from some very remote locations, and this study wouldn’t have been conducted if plastic in the environment wasn’t a concern.  So while you are out there, try to leave the area a little cleaner than how you found it.  You can volunteer for clean-up events to target specific locations that need help, but you don’t even need to organize for this one, just go out and start picking up trash!

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I took it upon myself to clean a stream near my house in Bozeman one day last year.

Finally, most agricultural research studies rely on farmers, ranchers, growers, and producers as a source of project resources (like seeds, land, or cows) and project motivation.  After all, federally and state-funded agricultural science exist to help local and national agriculture.  You can participate in science by identifying problems that need to be solved and providing objectives for our studies, or by allowing research projects to use your land, animals, or facilities.

So far, you’ve educated yourself on science, and now you can go out and participate.  Stay tuned in the next for weeks for Anyone can Science, Step 3: be supportive.

Anyone can Science, step 1: get your education on

Co-written by Dr. Irene Grimberg, Affiliate Associate Research Professor at Montana State University.


Science may seem like an exclusive club, what with the complicated technical jargon, quirky inside jokes that only seem funny to science people, daunting entrance and exit exams, and years of study and self-improvement.  And it doesn’t help that many scientists would rather hole up in their lab than give a public presentation or figure that “social media thing” out.  But we scientists get coffee stains on our lab coats and use spell-check just like everyone else.  And as with ice cream, science comes in a tremendous variety of flavors and sizes of commitment.  So, let’s talk about some ways that you can involved today!

Education

Getting acquainted with the vast field of science seems daunting, but it’s actually easy and fun.  There are hundreds of museums out there that are eagerly waiting to broaden your perspective on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and will let you give it a try with hands-on activities.  Wikipedia has conveniently made some lists on science museums in the US and around the world.  In fact, there are organizations like the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Science-Technology Centers that can help to get you connected to the museum that catches your eye.  Many US National Parks also have strong science education programs and information in the visitor centers or around the park (at least, as of January 19th, 2017 they did).

All colleges and universities host daily talks (seminars) on current research and they are open to the public, they just aren’t advertised widely in local media.  If you search online for your local university and “seminar”, you can find public presentations for nearly every department or subject, not just the STEM ones.  Some presentations are available as webinars and can be found online to watch remotely in real-time so that you can ask questions, or can be replayed later at your leisure.  There are many outreach STEM programs sponsored by non-profit organizations, sometimes in collaboration with universities.  For example, Farm Days or Field Days are public presentations at university research facilities on issues related to local and national agriculture, food production, and food safety.  In fact, most university farms and greenhouses are open to the public and offer free tours and other events on a regular basis.  There are also “ask an expert” shows on local public radio and TV in which viewers can call in and ask questions to university researchers.  Or you can simply email your questions and get connected to someone in a relevant field.  Even NASA has a program in which you can ask questions to an astrophysicist!

Other educational options include science festivals, robotic competitions and shows, Science Olympiads, The National Chemistry Week, and programs that specifically aim to recruit girls to science, such as Expanding Your Horizons and Girls for a Change.  As an undergraduate at the University of Vermont, I participated in a service-learning course in spring of 2008 in which we designed a public presentation at the ECHO Center in Burlington, VT.  The purpose of the all-day workshop was to educate kids and adults on wolf ecology and potential reintroduction into New England.  Our Wolfwise presentation was incredibly fun to host, and it was a huge hit: we were invited to come back and present again the next weekend!

 

If leaving the house isn’t your thing, there are an overwhelming amount of resources available online.  An increasing number of scientific and research journals are available free of charge online, known as open access.  Over 26 million journal articles are available through PubMed, a database for medically-relevant research studies which is curated by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).  Science News hosts a huge variety of STEM articles compiled from the most prestigious science journals, as well.  And any subject under the sun (or inside the sun) has an educational video out there somewhere.  There are science shows on TV, a dedicated cable channel, and documentaries including several outstanding educational series with high-definition video footage from around the globe (Plant Earth, Life, and The Blue Planet).  There are podcasts, such as Science, Star Talk Radio, and many others that allow you to listen to recorded audio shows on your own time.  You can find interactive websites to learn a variety of things, both academic and practical.  Or teach yourself computer coding in C++, Java, Ruby, Python, or Perl.

Just be sure that you are getting your information from a credible source.  Many online bloggers or websites sound great, but they often have no formal training in what they peddle, or are heavily sponsored by companies to promote an unsubstantiated lifestyle or discredit scientific work.  A good rule of thumb is to look for qualifications, citations, and motivations.  Does this person or organization have formal education or training?  Do they cite their sources for information?  And what is their reason for doing this?  Here are my qualifications, you’ve seen how much I enjoy citing sources, and since I am (and have always been thus far) federally-funded through different grants, I consider it part of my job to share my work and my experiences free of charge.

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The Rare Knowledgesphere

I sometimes get a self-depreciating response when I tell people what I do: “oh I could never do that,” “I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” or my least favorite; “I’m not smart enough to do that myself.”  Sure, I’m intelligent, but more importantly I am interested in my work and I put a lot of time and effort into practicing it.  I didn’t become a microbiologist overnight.  And more than that, in my career path I discovered a lot of people and opportunities that helped me get here.  I firmly believe that most people could do my job, given the right amount of education, determination, and support (and a heavy dose of enthusiasm for spread sheets).  As I move up the ladder, I’m increasingly in a position to educate, help others network, and bring students closer to their career goals.  One day I’ll be able to take on graduate and undergraduate researchers of my own, and I find myself asking, how will I find and recruit those students that just need an opportunity to become amazing scientists?  The ones that weren’t told by their teachers that they should be microbiologists but still have an aptitude for it, the ones that think they aren’t “smart enough” when really they just aren’t confident enough?

Lessons from the rare biosphere

One of the emergent theories in microbial ecology over the last few decades is that of the “rare biosphere.”  It’s the idea that microbial ecosystems are much more intricate than we realized, and there are a great many microorganisms present in any given environment that have very low populations.  We just couldn’t see them under a microscope or grow them in culture because their presence was washed out by more abundant microorganisms.  It wasn’t until the emergence of DNA-based technologies that we could really understand the depth of that diversity because this technology was able to sequence all or nearly all the DNA in the entire sample.

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An anaerobic chamber allows microbes to be grown in an oxygen-free environment, and the different color plates represent different media recipes.  Credit: Kristina Bond.

When culturing bacteria in the lab, one must try to mimic the original environment as closely as possible in order to get that microbe to grow.  It is incredibly difficult to please “everyone” on just one or even dozens of different culture media types, so you end up getting a biased idea of “who” lives in a natural environment based on what species are able to survive in the mock environment you’ve created.  DNA-based technologies don’t require live microorganisms; you can extract DNA or RNA strands directly from your environment and sequence them, although you will need a reference database of previously cultured and sequenced microorganisms to make the identification.  Sequencing has its own problems, of course, namely being able to discern between a rare microorganism whose DNA represents a very small percentage of your data, and a random sequencing error inherent to your technology that turns a known sequence into a fake novel one.  One way bioinformaticians tackle this is by removing rare sequences altogether, but as Sogin et al. argue, you might be getting rid of significant contributors to your ecosystem.

This is just one example of a major theme in science: how do we detect something if we don’t know it’s there?  How to do we differentiate what is real (but rare) from the technological errors and background noise?  We constantly improve our technology and revise our understanding of the physical world as we get better at investigating it.  But as we rely more and more on technology that we have created (which may operate on the biases we have designed into it), and we want to collect more information with less human effort, we need to remember that it’s our intuition and reasoning skills that make humans so good at data analysis and investigation in the first place. This led me to wonder if we weren’t making the same mistakes in education.

One of the most common errors we commit is to mistake education for intelligence.  Intelligence is partially a natural ability for learning and understanding, and partially cultivated by an atmosphere of curiosity and interest in learning.  Education, on the other hand, has to be earned.  While public schools and other learning resources in the United States exist to give all children an equal chance at education, in practice there are significant biases in quality and quantity in education.

The disparity between education and ability

Student to teacher ratio is correlated with student performance, and can vary widely by type of school (public, private, elementary or secondary), geographic location, urban or rural demographics, etc.  Because of that, the national trend for student to teacher ratios in public schools appears to have only slightly increased (more students per teacher) from where it was in 2002, with that increase only since 2008.  However, much of the increase in student to teacher ratios is localized, specifically in low-income districts, so there is a disproportionate affect by economic status.  Many teachers in low-income school districts cite budget cuts that result in overwhelmingly large class sizes to be the main reason they quit education (discussed here).  And a poor school budget does more than just crowd students, it depletes the school of educational resources which reduces the quality of the education and student performance.

Therefore, just because someone appears uneducated does not mean they are not intelligent.   For example, Linus Pauling, who was competing with Britain’s Watson and Crick to discover the structure of DNA, didn’t obtain his high school diploma until after he won two Nobel Prizes simply because he didn’t finish some required high school history courses.  A recent study looked at grade point average (GPA), SATs (previously the Scholastic Aptitude Test), graduate record examinations (GREs- the standardized tests that most schools use as a graduate entrance qualifier), and whether test scores predicted how well someone performed as a graduate student.  Like undergraduate study, most graduate programs require a minimum GPA and GRE score even to be considered.  However, the study found that students with higher test scores didn’t actually perform better as graduate students.  In fact, here’s a whole website about geniuses that failed IQ or other aptitude tests that went on to change the world.  Here’s another about artists, politicians, and business tycoons who failed repeatedly before becoming household names.

Another problem is our biased view of the quality of an education based on the country of origin.  Indian mathematician and genius Srinivasa Ramanujan was born in a small village in the late 1880s.  He started performing advanced geometry and arithmetic at just 13 years old, and began focusing on mathematics in secondary school and at a local college.  At 26, he wrote to British mathematicians looking to discuss his ideas, and was dismissed out of hand by almost all of them.  G.H. Hardy, however, wrote back, and began a collaboration of ideas that led to an incredible body of work between the two of them.

The Rare Knowledgesphere- The one that almost got away

This idea of overlooking greatness is important to keep in mind when ranking people by their resume or test scores instead of by an interview.  After all, just because you attended Yale doesn’t mean you went to all your classes.  This concerns me, because we may be passing over potential undergraduate or graduate students who appear less educated on paper, but aren’t less intelligent or less apt.

So, how do we as educators and mentors get beyond this bias and find the students and researchers-to-be that slip through the cracks?  The ones that are out there that aren’t even on our radar.  I’ll let you know once I’ve figured it out.  But from my experience, it comes down to taking the time to interview and really get to know someone before accepting them as a graduate student, not just selecting the best looking resume. It especially means letting go of your ideas about the quality of someone’s education based on the type or location of their school, as well as stereotypes about their abilities.

And it means being creative about marketing your positions, to make sure you are reaching the individuals that aren’t actively looking for you.  This may sound counter-intuitive; why try to recruit someone to graduate study if they aren’t interested?  Again, I can speak from experience.  My undergraduate degree is in Animal Science, and my interests in graduate study at the time centered vaguely around wildlife conservation.  Instead, I entered a graduate program where my primary research and laboratory work were focused on microbiology, genetics, microbial ecology, and bioinformatics.  I had no formal academic or practical training in these areas.  But I joined, and I excelled, all because my mentor-to-be told me that I was capable.  And here I am today, in love with my science.

With all this in mind, stay tuned for my post in the next few weeks on what makes a person a good graduate student, if it isn’t test scores.

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Imposter Syndrome

There’s been a lot of attention paid online lately to “Imposter Syndrome”. It’s that sneaking doubt that makes you feel like you don’t belong somewhere because you aren’t qualified, and eventually someone will realize the mistake and fire you.  In short: that you are an Imposter.  It’s extremely common among graduate students and young faculty.  In fact, I haven’t met a graduate student that didn’t doubt themselves and whether they deserved their place in a research program at some point in their studies.  Most studies on this phenomenon have been relatively small and in specific populations of people, thus estimates of affected individuals range from 40 to 70%, at some point in one’s life.

cat-imposterFrom my experience, in academia, Imposter Syndrome stems from feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information that you need to learn, or the amount that you need to accomplish.  The interdisciplinary approach to graduate studies has increased the number of scientific fields you now need to be familiar with, and compounds the amount of material that you have to memorize.  This seems to leave many students feeling inadequate and dumb, because they are unable to perfectly recall every fact they learned in two or three years worth of graduate courses.  For post-doctoral researchers and assistant professors, your To-Do list only grows longer by the day, as the reduction in federal funding increases the competition for fewer and fewer job postings and more pressure to distinguish yourself.  These tasks seem insurmountable, and that you simply aren’t up to them.  You start to doubt your abilities, and think that there has been some mistake.  You think, someone will realize how dumb I am, and that I don’t deserve to be here.

At best, Imposter Syndrome makes you nervous, at worst, it can lead to a lot of work-place stress and low self esteem.  It can also prevent you from taking risks in your research, or being ambitious in the positions you apply for, or make you feel guilty about taking time off when you feel that you should be using the time for career development.

 

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Imposter Syndrome, or more clinically, Imposter Phenomenon, has been studied for several decades, and is reviewed thoroughly here.  Originally it was thought to be a symptom found only in professional women who weren’t emotionally strong enough to deal with the stress of the workplace.  Later, after it was described by Dr. Pauline Clance in 1985, and observed in many different careers and both genders, we came to understand that this sexist stereotype was in fact common to high-achievers, “perfectionists”, and those with anxiety and the motivation to succeed.

Correlations have also been found between feeling like an imposter and low or conflicting family member support, low self-esteem or general self-doubt, neurotic behaviors, or when there are negative consequences to achieving success.  For example, if a person is ostracized by friends or family for working hard, studying, getting an education, or generally wanting a “better life” than the cohort has.   This can also occur when there is jealousy or competition between coworkers, where a promotion or other success would alienate you.

Own your success

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When graduate students express feelings of self-doubt to me, I remind them that they already got into grad school.  Their graduate program was satisfied by their application, their PI or advisor chose them for their accomplishments.  I remind them that in academia, you can’t compare yourself to anyone else.  Everyone has come from different backgrounds, has different work experience, took different classes, read different papers, and has different research and career goals.  Maybe you got PhD but you don’t want to do research, only teach.  Maybe you only want to do research.  Maybe you want to publish ten papers a year, or maybe you only want to publish once a year because that is more consistent with the pace of your research and the type of work that you do.  Maybe you have more post-docs who work on complicated questions, or maybe you have undergraduates and your projects are smaller.  Some research fields (especially literal fields) can’t be rushed, and it’s unrealistic to expect prolific publications from everyone.  Cognitive behavior therapy guidelines for dealing with Imposter Syndrome recommend distancing yourself from the need for validation from others, to improve your self-awareness about your own abilities and needs, and to lessen the feeling that you need to hide the real you.

There is no litmus test for whether you are a “good graduate student”, or a “successful researcher”, except for your own demanding self-assessment.  All you can do is try to set realistic goals for yourself.  And not vague, large ones, such as “I want to publish 5 papers this year”.  Be more specific, and more short-term: “This week, I want to finish the Methods section of this paper, and hopefully have a working draft of this manuscript by the end of the month”.  I also find it helpful to keep a written record of what I’ve done.  Maybe keep a running To-Do list, and at the end of the week, month, or year, look back and see all of the things you have crossed off.  This is most helpful to me when I find that projects are getting delayed, or analyses need to be redone, or I generally feel like I am spinning my wheels.  Or, when I write a number of grants but some of them don’t even get submitted.  I still did all that work, but if I don’t have that item crossed off my list, I don’t have a visual reminder that I accomplished something.

And keeping a tally of everything you’ve done- not just the things that get published, can help you prove your worth and your effort when it comes time for job assessment.  Whether it’s a weekly meeting with your PI where you need to account for how you’ve spent your time, an annual performance review, or the tenure process.  If you have a written record of all the things you have done, all the little things that you spent your time on, you have proof that you have been productive.  Remember that success and failure are often out of your hands- especially in research.  Sometimes all you can do is try your best and hope that your fairy grant-mother rates your proposal wish as “outstanding”.

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Cinderella, 1950