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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In preparation for the ESA conference next week

I’m counting down the days for my first Ecological Society of America (ESA) conference next week in Portland, OR.  Over the last few weeks, I’ve been diligently working to finish as much analysis as possible on the data from my recent post-doc, as I am presenting a poster on Wednesday, August 9th from 4:30 to 6:30 pm; PS 31-13 – Soil bacterial diversity in response to stress from farming system, climate change, weed diversity, and wheat streak virus.

Several of my new colleagues will also be presenting on their recent work, including a talk from Roo Vandegrift on the built environment and the microbiome of human skin, and one from Ashkaan Fahimipour on the dynamics of food webs.

The theme for this year’s ESA meeting is “Linking biodiversity, material cycling and ecosystem services in a changing world”, and judging from the extravagant list of presenting authors, it’s going to be an extremely large meeting.  It’s worth remembering that large conferences like these bring together researchers from each rung of the career ladder, and many of the invited speakers will be presenting on work that might have been done by dozens of scientists over decades.  Seeing only the polished summary can be intimidating, lots of scientists I’ve spoken to can feel intimidated by these comprehensive meeting talks because the speakers seem so much smarter and more successful than you.  It’s something I jokingly refer to as “pipette envy”: when you are at a conference thinking that everyone does cooler science than you.  Just remember, someone also deemed your work good enough to present at the same conference!

A collaborative project on sheep feed efficiency and gut bacteria was published!

I’m pleased to announce that a paper that I contributed to was recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Animal Science!

“Feed efficiency phenotypes in lambs involve changes in ruminal, colonic, and small intestine-located microbiota”, Katheryn Perea; Katharine Perz; Sarah Olivo; Andrew Williams; Medora Lachman; Suzanne Ishaq; Jennifer Thomson; Carl Yeoman (article here).

Katheryn is an undergraduate at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology who received an INBRE grant to support her as a visiting researcher at Montana State University in Bozeman, MT over summer 2016.  Here, she worked with Drs. Carl Yeoman and Jennifer Thomson to perform the diversity analysis on the bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract of sheep from a previous study.  These sheep had been designated as efficient or inefficient, based on how much feed was needed for them to grow.  Efficient sheep were able to grow more with less feed, and it was thought this might be due to hosting different symbiotic bacteria which were better at fermenting fibrous plant material into usable byproducts for the sheep.

Samples from the sheep were collected as part of a larger study on feed efficiency performed by MSU graduate students Kate Perz and Medora Lachman, as well as technicians Sarah Olivo and Andrew Williams, and Katheryn performed the data and statistical analysis using some of my guidelines.  This is Katheryn’s first published article, and one I just presented a poster on at the Congress on Gastrointestinal Function in Chicago, IL!

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2017 Congress on Gastrointestinal Function

I just got back from my very first Congress on Gastrointestinal Function, poster tube.jpga small meeting for  researchers with a specific focus on the gastrointestinal tract, which is held every two years in Chicago, Illinois.  The special session this year was on “Early Acquisition and Development of the Gut Microbiota: A Comparative Analysis”.  The rest of the sessions opened up the broader topics of gut ecosystem surveillance and modulation, as well as new techniques and products with which to study the effect of microorganisms on hosts and vice versa.  The research had a strong livestock animal focus, as well as a human health focus, but we also heard about a few studies using wild animals.

As I’ve previously discussed, conferences are a great way to interact with other scientists.  Not only can you learn from similar work, but you can often gain insights into new ways to solve research problems inherent to your system by looking at what people in different fields are trying, something that you might otherwise miss just by combing relevant literature online.  A meeting or workshop is also a great place to meet other similarly focused scientists to set up collaborators that span academia, government, non-profit, and industry sectors.

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It was great to catch up with Dr. Ben Wenner, now at Purdue Agribusiness, and meet Yairy Roman-Garcia, grad student at the Ohio State University.

This year, I was excited for one of my abstracts to be accepted as a poster presentation, and honored to have the other upgraded from poster to talk!  Stay tuned for details about both of those projects in the coming weeks, and be sure to check this meeting out in April, 2019.

Conference Proceedings

Scientific conferences are a great place to get your name out there, discuss research with colleagues, and meet other researchers with whom you might one day collaborate.  It can be difficult to get noticed as a graduate student or post-doctoral researcher, especially if it’s your first time at a certain conference, if your poster time conflicts with more interesting events, or if you find yourself way at the back of a 1,000 poster hall.  You need to be ready to introduce yourself and get your point across, and to do it in a memorable and concise way.  There may be hundreds or even thousands of people in attendance, so you need to make a fast impression.

Too much info on your card? A black background is slimming.

Though a bit outdated these days, I find business cards really handy.  Not only can you quickly hand out all your information, but you can write notes on the back about what you discussed with someone so you can follow up with them later.  It’s easy to leave a bag of them at your poster for people to take, too.

Not only is your poster or presentation’s content important, its visual appeal will help draw in people who are “browsing”.  Make sure your font is large enough to read from 5-8 ft away, and that you have some color, but not enough to make text illegible.  Bolding or bulleting take-home messages can also be really helpful.  Make sure you can describe your poster in a variety of ways: in under 60 seconds to the person with a mild passing interest, and in-depth with the person that is curious about your methods or your other projects.

The most important thing to prepare, though, is yourself.  You are representing yourself, your institution, and your science.  Cleanliness, organization, and confidence make a huge difference when meeting new people, and will make you more approachable.  Make eye contact, try to avoid filler words, and smile!  I have watched posters get overwhelmingly passed by because the presenter was on their phone, or looked bored or annoyed.  Making eye contact and saying hello to someone as they walk by is often enough to get them to slow down and ask you about your work.

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If nothing else, a brightly colored shirt will attract attention to you and your poster.

When asking questions at other presentations, be sure to be polite; being demanding or rude is guaranteed to be met with disapproval from the rest of the audience.  And go ahead and introduce yourself to other researchers, just be sure to keep it brief and don’t interrupt another meeting.

One more thing to consider at a conference is your behavior outside of your presentation.  You are at a gathering of intellectuals who may one day be your boss, your colleague, your grant reviewer, or otherwise influential in your career.  They may remember that they saw you talking loudly to a friend during a presentation, or that you got too drunk at the opening session.  Conferences are often used as an excuse to take a concurrent vacation, especially for those in academia who generally can’t take a week off during the semester.  But you should remember why you are there and act professionally, especially as a graduate student or post-doc, because you never know who’ll remember you in the future.