Upcoming interview on Jefferson Exchange!

I’ll be speaking with the Jefferson Exchange crew on their live radio show about my work on microbiology in the built environment! I’ll be on March 11th, at about 8:30 am PST.

If you are local to the west coast, you can find a station to tune into. Otherwise, you can stream the segment live on jeffexchange.org.

Have a question? Call into the show at 800-838-3760 or email JX@jeffnet.org. Jefferson Exchange is also on Facebook and Twitter @JeffExchange.

OMSI After Dark presentation set

Following my OMSI Science Pub presentation in February, I was invited to present at the OMSI After Dark event: “It’s Alive (Mind and Body)!” on April 25th!

I’ll be presenting a shorter, 20 minute version on the Microbiome of the Digestive Tract!

500WS Eugene Science Salon: “Gut Stuff: the battle of nature versus nurture in the microbiome.”

The inaugural Science Salon of the 500 Women Scientists Eugene Pod is underway!  If you’d like to follow along with the presentation on your device, you can find the pdf formats below:

Sue Ishaq’s talk:

“Geographical Differences in the Moose Microbiome”Ishaq Eugene SciSalon 20180311

A few close-ups:

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Hannah Tavalire’s talk:

“Genetics and Environment Influence Human Microbiome Composition”; Tavalire_MB_talk_final_03112018

Acknowledgements to our wonderful support network

500 Women Scientists Eugene would like to thank the organizations that helped make this event possible.  First and foremost, First National Taphouse in Eugene, who shared their wonderful space with us and where we will be putting on future Salons, and donated a keg to the event!  We are also extremely grateful to several organizations which contributed raffle items for us to raise additional funds, including Broadway MetroSizzle Pie, and the Eugene Science Center.  Our beautiful logo was crafted by Cassie Cook,  our amazing event posters were designed by Serena Lim, and photographer Danielle Cosme took some incredible event photos. Fertilab generously lent us a sound system, the Biology and the Built Environment Center donated the bacterial culture supplies, and both Theresa Cheng and Jessica Flannery provided materials and support for the interactive portion of the event.  And of course, we want to acknowledge the national leadership of 500 Women Scientists, who brought us together, gave us a voice, and who suggested these Science Salons as a way to help CienciaPR, a organization which similarly supports science education and infrastructure.

I’d also like to acknowledge the powerhouse team of women who came together to organize this event, and who turned my silly event title into a reality: Karen Yook, Theresa Cheng, Leslie Dietz, and Hannah Tavalire.  500 Women Scientists was formed in the spirit of cooperation and support, and this team truly took that to heart.  I can’t wait to organize the next one with you ladies, and the next one, and the next one, and the next one…

“Gut Stuff: the battle of nature versus nurture in the microbiome”.

The 500 Women Scientists Eugene, Oregon Pod is inviting you to join our Science Salons for Puerto Rico Campaign. For the last year, our amazing women scientists have put their communication skills to use within our community. Now, we’re channeling that energy into a concerted campaign to raise money to support our amazing partners at CienciaPR as they work to transform science education in Puerto Rico and around the world.

The Eugene Pod’s evening of science will center around the gut microbiome:

“Gut Stuff: the battle of nature versus nurture in the microbiome”

March 11, 2018, 4:30 pm to 6:30 pm

First National Taphouse – Eugene

51 W Broadway, Eugene, Oregon 97401

  • Hands on activity: culture your own bacteria, 4:30 pm – 6:30 pm
  • Presentations from Sue Ishaq, Ph.D. and Hannah Tavalier, Ph.D. on their microbiome work, 5 – 6 pm
  • Open Q&A: Ask a scientist, 6 – 6:30 pm
  • Raffle for prizes.  Tickets are eligible for raffle entry, and additional raffle entries may be purchased at the door.

Tickets may be purchased online or at the door, $5 suggested donation.  All proceeds go to CienciaPR.

Advance tickets may be purchased online here!

 


Throughout history, salons have acted as gathering places for conversation “either to please or to educate” (Latin: aut delectare aut prodesse). From the salons of the Enlightenment to the 1940s salons of Gertrude Stein, women have played a central role in guiding and driving the discussion.

500 Women Scientists has borrowed from the spirit of the salon to bring discussions about science to the communities we serve. We invite you to listen to speakers sharing 10 to 20 minute talks about their work, geared toward a public audience, followed by ample time for questions and discussion. The purpose of the salon is two-fold, creating an opportunity for the community to learn about our membership’s amazing research while giving our members a platform to hone their public speaking skills. And by charging admission — through a donation — the Salon will raise money for CienciaPR to transform science education in Puerto Rico. Ciencia PR is a global community of scientists, students, educators and allies who believe that science can empower individuals with the knowledge, capacity, and agency to improve their lives and society.

As a women-led nonprofit, CienciaPR taps into its rich and diverse community to democratize science and transform science education and career training in Puerto Rico. We’ve partnered with CienciaPR because our missions to democratize science and foster agency among underrepresented communities are well-aligned. While CienciaPR focuses on Puerto Rico and its diaspora, their strategy can serve as a model to other communities that are underrepresented in or disengaged from science. We are thrilled to support their ongoing efforts and learn from their organization’s successes in building capacity and fostering community.

Immediately after Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico, CienciaPR worked with the Department of Education to create disaster-related and project-based science lesson plans that could allow displaced students to continue learning. Early in 2018, CienciaPR will launch a pilot project to train educators to implement four science lessons in natural disaster and environment related topics: renewable energy, environmental sustainability, clean and potable water, and terrestrial ecosystems. Later in the year, they will bring together scientists and educators to co-create project-based science lessons that foster creativity, entrepreneurship, and critical thinking skills. These new lessons will serve as a platform for students to work together to address the challenges they see in their communities. This pilot project kicks off the implementation of CienciaPR’s new 10-year strategic plan of transforming science education in Puerto Rico, by engaging its community of scientists, educators, and students to bring discovery, experimentation, and problem-solving to the classroom in ways that are culturally and socially relevant to Puerto Rican children.

You can donate to CienciaPR at any time outside of the Science Salons campaign. You can also read more about CienciaPR’s strategic vision in their latest op-ed for Scientific American, “Rebuilding Science Education in Puerto Rico.”

 

BioBE Design Champs

Two weeks ago I participated in a BioBE Design Champs webinar on Daylight and Microbes.  Find out more here.

What is academic Outreach/Extension?

Service can be a vaguely defined expectation in academia, but it’s an expectation to give back to our community; this can be accomplished in different ways and is valued differently by institutions and departments.  Outreach is an easily neglected part of science, because so often it is considered non-essential to your research.  It can be difficult to measure the effectiveness or direct benefit of outreach as a deliverable, and when you are trying to hoard merit badges to make tenure and your time is dominated by other responsibilities, you often need to prioritize research, teaching, advising, or grant writing over extension and service activities.  Nevertheless, public outreach is a vital part to fulfilling our roles as researchers.  Academic work is supported by public funding in one way or another, and much of our research is determined by the needs of stakeholders, who in this sense are anyone who has a direct interest in the problem you are trying to solve.

Depending on your research field, you may work very closely with stakeholders (especially with applied research), or not at all (with theoretical or basic research).  If you are anywhere in agriculture, having a relationship with your community is vital.  More importantly, working closely with the public can bring your results directly to the people out in the real world who will benefit from it.

A common way to fulfill your outreach requirement is to give public presentations.  These can be general presentations that educate on a broad subject, or can be specifically to present your work.  Many departments have extension specialists, who might do some research or teaching but whose primary function is to connect researchers at the institution with members of the public.  In addition to presentations, extension agents generate newsletters or other short publications which summarize one or more studies on a specific subject.  They are also a great resource for networking if you are looking for resources or collaborations, for example if you are specifically looking for farms in Montana that grow wheat organically and are infested with field bindweed.

For my new job, I’m shifting gears from agricultural extension to building science and health extension.  In fact, the ESBL and BioBE teams at the University of Oregon have recently created a Health + Energy Research Consortium to bring university researchers and industry professionals together to foster collaborations and better disseminate information.  The goals of the group at large are to improve building sustainability for energy and materials, building design to serve human use better, and building microbiology and its impact on human health. I have a few public presentations coming up on my work, including one on campus at UO on Halloween, and one in February for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry Science Pub series in February.  Be sure to check my events section in the side bar for details.

Even when outreach or extension is not specified in your job title, most academics have some level of engagement with the public.  Many use social media outlets to openly share their current work, what their day-to-day is like, and how often silly things go wrong in science.  Not only does this make us more approachable, but it’s humanizing.  As hard as scientists work to reach out to the public, we need you to reach back.  So go ahead, email us (please don’t call because the stereotype is true: we really do hate talking on the phone), tweet, post, ping, comment, and engage with us!!

 

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Expanding Your Horizons for Girls workshop, MSU 2017

Yesterday I participated in the Expanding Your Horizons for Girls workshop at Montana State University!  EYH brings almost 300 middle-school aged girls from all over Montana for a one-day conference in STEM fields.  Twenty-seven instructors, including myself and other female scientists and educators, ran workshops related to our current research.  My presentations were on “Unlocking the Hidden World of Soil Bacteria”, with the help of undergraduate Genna Shaia from the Menalled Lab.

I gave the girls a brief presentation on microbial ecology, and how bacteria and fungi can affect plants in agricultural soil.  We talked about beneficial versus pathogenic microorganisms, and how different farming strategies can influence soil microbiota.  This was followed by two hands-on activities that they were able to talk home with them.  First, the girls made culture plates from living or sterile soil that was growing wheat or peas to see what kind of microbes they could grow.  Then, they planted wheat seeds in either living or sterile soil so they could track which soil made the seeds germinate faster.

 

The girls were enthusiastic to learn, asked lots of insightful questions, and it was awesome being able to share microbiology with kids who hadn’t given it much thought before!  If you are a woman in STEM, and have the opportunity to participate in a workshop or mentor a young scientist,  it is not only rewarding but can make a huge impact on encouraging women into STEM.

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Slideshow photos: Genna Shaia, reproduced with student permission.

Anyone can Science, step 3: show your support

The political climate of 2017 has already raised several causes for concern among U.S. scientists: from politicians who reject current scientific theory, to dramatic cuts proposed to federal or state budgets for research (and jobs), to enacting hiring freezes and stopping grant payments, to policy changes which would allow for governmental oversight on which and how results were disseminated (a gag order).  Certainly, other administrations have suggested or enacted scientific budget cuts, or called for hiring freezes and gag orders, but never before has a president and White House administration so clearly come out against scientific literacy, education, research, and policy.

This change of political tone has encouraged many scientists to voice their concerns, but we scientists also need the support of the general public.  After all, science is largely designed to improve the lives and economies of everyone.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, STEM jobs accounted for 8.6 million US jobs in 2015 in the U.S., but an estimated 26 million jobs (20% of jobs in 2011) require knowledge of a STEM field, a sector that consistently has low rates of unemployment, and expands the US economy.  Thus, even without thinking about the politics of science, we can agree that scientific research is a vital part of the U.S. economy.  Additionally, 93% of STEM occupations have wages above the national average.  If you are a scientist, know a scientist, or generally want to show your support, here are some ways you can get involved.

March for Science

Signing petitions, wearing slogans, and being vocal to legislatures and the public about your support is wonderful, but a show of solidarity can bring people together to effect change.

On Saturday April 22, 2017, people will March for Science in cities across the United States to peacefully show their support for scientific literacy, education, policy, and freedom of speech.  Please consider joining them.

You can find a march near you, here.  A number of scientific organizations have endorsed the March for Science, including (in no particular order) the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Georgia Academy of Science, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Public Health Association, the American Geophysical Union, the American Chemical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and others.  And if you need inspiration for a sign or an outfit, there are lots of places that are ready to help you out.

Financial Support

As I discussed in a previous post about research grant money, financial support of science is always welcome.  There are lots of ways to contribute, whether it’s donating to organizations to fund research for specific medical conditions, participating in a crowd-funding campaign to raise money or get equipment donated, becoming a member or donating to scientific advancement organizations, or even just taking a grad student out to lunch.

Rock the Vote

Support for scientific funding, education, and policy may not be at the top of your list of reasons for supporting political candidates, but it should be on there somewhere.  After the first few months of 2017, a number of scientists have decided to hang up their lab coat and run for public office, so you’ll have plenty of options in the coming elections.


I would like to acknowledge Drs. Irene Grimberg and Fabian Menalled for their edits to this post, as well as the ongoing efforts of my editor, Mike Haselton, MA, towards improving my writing.

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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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