Woman dressed in a costume of a dissected cat, to teach a class on Halloween.

Teaching students to give scientific presentations

This semester at UMaine, I’m teaching a section of AVS633/FSN671 Graduate Seminar, for students in the Animal and Veterinary Science and the Food Science and Nutrition grad programs. Naturally, I decided to spice up the course requirements.

In all the presentations I have given; during classes, teaching, as public lectures, guest seminars, and conference proceedings, I’ve faced a great deal of technical and audience-related challenges. There is a wealth of information on the formatting and content aspects of building a scientific presentation, but in my experience, that’s only half the battle. The other half is in being able to accurately and interestingly relay that information to your audience. Even in professional settings, I have faced disruptive technical failures that caused me to alter my talk or have to adjust my narrative, and I have fielded poorly-crafted or poorly-intended questions from my audience, all while trying to maintain my composure.

I felt that this was what the graduate students needed to learn, and in a safe space where it was OK to simply, well, give a bad presentation. To convey this, I put together an introduction to the class (below) and a series of assignments.

The Elevator Speech

Their very first assignment was to stand up, with notes but no slides, and give a 3 minute speech on a topic of their choice. It had to be non-technical, and designed to provide information in an approachable way such that the person stuck on the elevator with you would actually want to hear more. As academics, especially when you are a student, you often get caught up in repeating jargon or with having to explain yourself in highly detailed language to faculty who are training and testing you. You forget how to present your work to someone who has absolutely no background, and only a few minutes worth of attention span to devote to hearing about your very niche research question. To give an effective elevator speech, the students needed to distill only the critical information for someone to follow their line of thinking, and to not get bogged down by extraneous detail.

Peer Presentations and Awkward Audience Questions

For the second assignment of the course, each student was required to give a presentation on their research, their program of study, or a specific topic they were interested in and the relevant research. Due to the number of students and course time allotted, this presentation only needed to be 10 minutes long, but I’ve found it can be more difficult to present your material concisely. The students presented as if to a peer audience, so they could use a certain amount of jargon or introduce methods with minimal explanation. This style of presentation is common in graduate school, and as expected, the students all did incredibly well.

To add a challenge here, I instead focused on the audience (in this case, the rest of the class). The thing about being an audience member that most people never think about, is that you also need to conduct yourself with a certain level of professionalism. It might not be polite to shout a question or snarky response in the middle of a presentation, your comments might seem complementary but are in fact back-handed, or your question might simply be poorly crafted. I have been asked, or been witness to, a lot of poorly-worded audience questions and responses, and I’m not referring to general public audiences, I’m talking about academics who should know better.

To that end, for each student presentation, I gave an index card to another student in the audience to ask or perform during the talk. Participation was voluntary. Some of these are well-meant questions that are simply commonly asked. Others are silly, and some are rude. I didn’t include anything offensive or abusive, but those examples abound. The list is pretty funny, but please, NEVER DO THESE AS A REAL AUDIENCE MEMBER.

  • Ask the speaker if they will be a medical doctor (or veterinarian) after they finish this [research] degree.
  • State that you have a question. Then pose a statement/comment that is not a question.
  • Be on your phone (texting) or overtly not paying attention to the entire presentation.
  • Ask them to explain a simple concept that they covered in their presentation (but that you missed because you weren’t paying attention).
  • Cough or sneeze comically loud, or drop something during the presentation.
  • Ask the speaker how they chose this topic or how they got into this type of research/work. (This seems benign, but can take away from more specific questions during a peer presentation.)
  • Ask if the speaker is familiar with a field/event/discovery that is somewhat related to their presentation but not actually in their presentation.  Example, speaker presents about infectious disease in cattle and you ask them about “cow farts and global warming”.
  • Comment that the speaker looks really young for someone in their position.  Example: “Wow, I thought you were an undergrad! You look really young. I mean, that’s a compliment.”
  • Get up during the presentation and adjust the lights or shades in the room. You don’t have to make them better, just change them.
  • Ask the speaker a multiple part question. They can be simple questions, but ask them all in one, long, run-on sentence.
  • Begin your question with “As a parent,….” even if you are not a parent and the question has nothing to do with being a parent. 
  • Ask the presenter who analyzed their data for them (even if they have already said they analyzed it themselves).
  • Tell the speaker that their method is not valid (but don’t explain why).
  • Tell the speaker: “This was a pretty good presentation. When you have been in grad school a few more years I think you’ll be a really good speaker.”
  • Tell the speaker that this kind of work has been done before and ask what they have done that is unique.
  • Raise your hand to ask a question, but then sit back, squint your eyes, exhale loudly, pause for a moment, then say, “Never mind”.

The Technical Challenge

On multiple occasions, I have had to give a short (10 min) presentation by memory because the slideshow wouldn’t open or advance. I have had poor lighting, or poor color contrasting from the projector, which made it difficult to read my slides. I have had projection screens which were much smaller than I anticipated such that my text was too small to read on figures, and I’ve more or less given up the hope that I will routinely encounter “presenter mode” when using podiums or other people’s machines. I’ve had a projector that kept shorting out during the talk and creating blank screens for 10 seconds, something which you can hear me talk about in the lecture recording but not see on the recorded slides. I’ve had my available time cut in half, had to cut my presentation short because I included too much detail, realized I had poorly organized the presentation of material or forgotten to define a critical aspect, been unable to play videos or animations, had hand-held slide advancers with low batteries, had automatic slide advance turned on by mistake, and more.

When you face these surprises during a talk, you often don’t have the time, never mind the presence of mind, to resolve the problem. You simply have to make the best of it before your time runs out. It helps to know your material, but it also helps to be able to improvise, which is a skill best developed in practice. You might need to fill air time, or reconstruct your presentation on the fly, or make light of the situation to cut the tension in the room. To help my students prepare, I asked them to send me their peer presentation, as I wanted them to use a presentation they had just given and were familiar with. Then, I introduced mistakes into the presentation without disclosing what those might be, only that they would be there.

To think up enough technical problems I could use, I enlisted the help of scientists on twitter. Click on the Tweet below to find the thread and see the other contributions from @HannahMLachance, @canda007, @Wymelenberg, @vaughan_soil, @murphyc1928, @cskrzy, @maria_turfdr, @mcd_611.

I came up with this non-exhaustive list:

  • Replace a video with a still shot
  • Have 2 students make slides on the same topic, then have them present the other one’s slides (to simulate when a co-author gives you some slides on their contribution and you forget what they mean).
  • Reorder some of the slides
  • Remove a lot of the text on the slide
  • Resize images to be too small for audience to see resolution
  • Introduce blank slides to simulate projector connection issues (like screen flickering on/off occasionally)
  • Ppt won’t open at all or won’t advance beyond title slide
  • Change font on all text to tight cursive
  • No ‘presenter mode’ available
  • Resize slide dimensions and don’t adjust proportions to ensure fit
  • Turn laptop around so can’t see screen as if presenting at a podium
  • Add animations to everything
  • Add notification of email on timer (created a shape with animated pop in and out, as well as notification chime).
  • No photos
  • Slide advancer with poor quality batteries
  • Automatic slide advance

Public Presentations

Public presentations are an overlooked part of academia, but a crucial aspect. If you are at a public university, or you receive state or federal funding, your work is being supported by tax dollars. Many federal grants require an outreach or public education portion to your project, where you make the results available to interested parties (called stakeholders). Science communication is also extremely important in bridging the divide between scientific and public communities.

Public presentations need to present information approach-ably. I don’t mean they need to talk down to people, I mean they need to consider that the audience might not have a frame of reference for what you are talking about. I have a PhD, but it’s meaningless if I attend technical lectures on physics. For the third challenge in class, students can give their presentation again but with the knowledge that they can’t throw 20 slides worth of dense information at their audience, they can’t use technical language without defining it, and that sometimes the best way to explain complicated information is using pictures or analogies.

Update: In light of Corvid-19 concerns, campuses have been closing and switching over to remote instruction. This was rather challenging to do well with a presentations class, as giving a webinar isn’t the same as giving a public presentation. To be more creative, I am having students submit their public presentation slides online. I then assign them to another student, who has to annotate the ‘presenter notes’ with the speech of how they would present these slides. I then return the annotated version to the original presenter so they can see how well their slides spoke for themselves. In this “presentation telephone game”, I hope they will see how easy their slides were translatable to someone else, which is a common problem in slides put online without any notes or audio: so much gets lost when the presenter isn’t providing the information and filling in the additional information that is only briefly noted on the slides.

Learning (to Pretend) to Enjoy Giving Presentation

You can’t always control the technical aspects of your talk, or select your audience, or even be prepared for the weather that day. You won’t always be well-rested, or in good health, on the day of. Fun fact about stress, it can trigger spotting or early menstruation. There’s nothing quite as terrifying as being in the middle of your presentation when you are suddenly aware that you have a limited amount of time to get off stage and hope that there are feminine products available for free in the nearest restroom, because your women’s dress pants don’t have pockets for you to carry quarters for the dispensary machines.

You won’t always have time to prepare. Once, I had 5 minutes of notification that I would have to stand up in front of 50 – 75 other college students and Jane Goodall and present a recap on a service-learning course, at a time when I dreaded any and all public speaking. But you can’t really decline the offer to talk in front of Jane Goodall when she had taken the time and effort to be in the room to listen to you all. So you just have to stand up and start talking before you convince yourself you can’t do it.

You can have faith in yourself, know that you will try your best, and remind yourself that it will be good enough. I’ve been an audience member at perfect presentations, and I remember that it went really well and nothing at all about the content. The talks that I remember most are the ones where the speaker connected with me. They were funny, they were humanizing, and they took technical problems and awkward interactions in stride.

The best way to become a better speaker, I think, is to be open to the idea that you are going to mess up. A lot. But each time, you will learn from that experience, you will ask for feedback, and you get back out there. As academics, we have to present information on nearly a daily basis. It is, in fact, a significant part of the job. So instead of dreading it, we should at least pretend to enjoy it until, one day, we find that we do.

2019 Year In Review

Notwithstanding the different reasons, 2019 has left us reeling, myself included. Early in the year, I was left scrambling to keep my science career going in the face of unsteady funding resources. Through a combination of collaboration, long hours of writing, a strong support network, a lot of luck, and a pragmatic demeanor, I landed a tenure-track faculty position and pulled off one of the best years of my career, to date. I deeply appreciate all of the concern, assistance, coffee, revisions in a timely manner, coffee, and support provided by so many individuals in the last year.

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I got this official pin to wear to events!!

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Research

My momentous research activity of 2019 was joining the faculty of the University of Maine, Orono, School of Food and Agriculture as an Assistant Professor of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, beginning in September. In August, my partner, our patient dog, and I drove from the west coast to Maine on a 9-day adventure that would begin a new (and more permanent) phase of our life. From our education in Vermont, to my post-docs in Oregon, to my research faculty position in Oregon, to Maine, we loved the opportunity to live in various states, but are looking forward to having an address for longer than 2 years and more stable income forecasting.

The first few months of my faculty position have been busy! Notably, it’s involved a LOT of training, paperwork, getting acquainted with campus resources, and making connections. Some of these have involved seeking approval to take on graduate students, not just from my department, but students from other departmental programs that want their research to center around my lab’s specialties. UMaine strives to provide interdisciplinary opportunities for students, and as such, encourage multiple cooperating positions. In addition to being able to bring on grad students through the School of Food and Agriculture, I have just been approved as faculty in the Graduate School for Biomedical Sciences and Engineering, and have another cooperating position pending.


My work now spans three major research priorities. My lab will focus on the gut microbiome of livestock, and how microbes can be used to promote animal health and production. This will take shape in a variety of ways, including through global collaborations (more on those as they develop, but many of my previous rumen collaborations that began at Montana State are included in that). I’ll be taking on several graduate and undergraduate students in 2020 for these projects.

Through ongoing collaboration on projects led by Drs. Fabian Menalled and Tim Seipel at Montana State University, I’ll be participating in research to understand climate change and farming practices on wheat production and soil microbes. I am a graduate committee member for Tindall Ouverson, who is completing her master’s at MSU.

I’ll also be collaborating with researchers on microbes in the human gut. Through ongoing collaborations with researchers at the Institute for Health in the Built Environment (primarily those at BioBE) at the University of Oregon, I’ll be looking at infectious disease transmission and building design. And I’m currently developing new collaborations with researchers at Husson University, University of Maine, University of Vermont, and other institutions, which will investigate the interaction between diet, gut microbes, and human health. I’ll be taking on several graduate and undergraduate students in 2020 for these projects.


I published a record 10 papers this year! I don’t expect to achieve this again anytime soon: over the spring and summer I was only working half-time, and with the rest of my time I was doggedly writing up previous project results, overseeing undergraduate authors, and emailing co-authors for revisions. Writing or managing the writing of a manuscript takes a significant amount of work. Even when experiments or field trials are completed within days, weeks, or months, it may takes years to process, analyze, and measure the samples you collect, as well as complete the statistical analysis. You might encounter technical problems, or need to validate a method for use with your research. After all, much of what researchers do is trying new things, as there isn’t always a well-validated protocol to follow and you need to come up with something new. Thus, at least half of the publications from 2019 were wrapping up experiments that had occurred as far back as 2014!

Because of the time span, it meant I published on a variety of topics, from the effect of diet on rumen bacteria in sheep, to the effect of farming practices on bacteria in soil, to the effect of chemicals from vinyl floors on bacteria in dust. It meant a LOT of reading for me, to appraise and condense the relevant literature for each project: my citations list might contain up to 100 other papers!

A stack of papers facedown on a table.

Teaching

Over the summer, I taught “Microbes and Social Equity” at The University of Oregon for the Clark Honors College. In just four weeks, the students, a few guest speakers, and I collectively wrote a paper to introduce the topic. We submitted it to the journal PloS Biology, and it was accepted for publication in their special call, Microbiomes Across Ecosystems. You can read it here. In the first month, it’s been viewed nearly 5,000 times!

I am developing new coursework for the University of Maine, including AVS 254 Introduction to Animal Microbiomes, which will be taught annually beginning in Fall 2020. This spring, I’ll be teaching a ‘special topics’ class, which will be the preliminary version of a class I am currently developing: DNA Sequence Data Analysis Lab, which will teach students the programming and analysis required to understand complex DNA sequence data, including amplicon, whole-genome, and metagenomics datasets. The special topics version is limited enrollment, and a way to beta-test the class before spending the significant amount of time required to develop a new course. I’ll be sharing more info about the classes as they develop.

Presentations and Travel

In May, I again presented my BioBE research to the Institute for Health in the Built Environment

Consortium meeting in Portland, OR. It was a quiet summer for me, but I did attend the Gordon Research Conference on Animal-Microbe Symbioses in Vermont, which showcased fascinating research on the ways that humans and animals interact with the microbes that inhabit our bodies. In October, I had a whirlwind week-long trip which involved giving a presentation in Monterrey, Mexico, then a different presentation in Reno, NV the following day, then heading to Bozeman, MT to catch up with collaborators and teach bioinformatics to Tindall. All of the meetings, seminars, and training was very valuable, but the best part, hands-down, was going to Matacanes canyon.

Sue rappelling down through a waterfall into a cave.
Rappelling down through a waterfall into a cave.

Outreach

Over 2019, I gave more than ten (not all have been published) interviews on my research! This included a live radio interview, and two podcasts: all new experiences for me.

  1. UMaine prof: Inequity is creating a gut microbe gap.” Mike Tipping and Ben Chin, Maine People’s Alliance. Dec 20, 2019.
  2. Women in Science – Implicit Bias“. Ida Hardin. Dec 13, 2019.
  3. Inequity takes a toll on your gut microbes, too.” Sue Ishaq,  The Conversation, Dec 4, 2019.
    1. Picked up by The Telegraph, Alton, Illinois, and other agencies
    2. Included on UMaine news
  4. All people have a right to healthy gut microbes.” Paige Jarreau and Signe Asberg, Lifeapps. Dec 3, 2019.  
  5. Rich People Have Access to Better Microbes Than Poor People, Researchers Say.” Becky Ferreira, Vice. Nov 26, 2019.
  6. Microbiome is a Human Right.” Heather Smith, Sierra. Nov 26, 2019.
  7. Life, liberty—and access to microbes?” Press release for Plos Biology. Nov 19, 2019.
  8. Study finds season an important factor in soil microbe sampling.” Erin Miller, University of Maine.  Nov 6, 2019.
  9. cUriOus: Buildings Have Microbiomes, Too!” The Jefferson Exchange with Geoffrey Riley. Mar 8, 2019.
  10. ” The Great Indoors: Interior Ecology Under the Looking Glass.” Alex Notman, University of Oregon College of Design. Jan 14, 2019.

Blog

I published 30 posts this year, including this one, although with ~11,000 words total, I had less to talk about. I anticipate that will change when my lab gets rolling. The most popular post this year continues to be Work-Life Balance: What Do Professors Do?, self explanatory, and the least popular this year is I Accepted a New Position in Soil Microbiology and Agroeconomy!, which makes sense as it was an announcement from 2016 about a post-doc position I’d accepted.

My site had its most popular year, with >4,000 visitors taking >6,000 views, represented by 109 countries. In total, my site has had > 10,000 visitors and >15,000 views since Jan 2016

Map of the globe with countries colored by number of visitors to this website.
Website visitors in 2019.

Life

If you’ve read this far, you can probably guess how hectic my life has been this year. At the same time, it’s been gorgeously complex. I finally made it down to see Crater Lake in Oregon, went powder skiing in the Rockies in Utah, drove through the dramatic beauty of the Rockies in Alberta, made my first visit to Mexico and was immersed in the isolated beauty of a mountain canyon in Matacanes.

Crater Lake, Oregon.
Crater Lake, Oregon.
Sue with her dog, Izzy.

I read the debut science-fiction novel of one very dear friend of mine and non-debut science non-fiction novel of another dear friend, and took an excessive amount of selfies with my dog.

Sue and Lee in front of a log cabin.

And… we bought our very first house!!

Looking Ahead

This Year in Review, I have the clearest idea of where my 2020 is heading. With a new lab and new classes, I’ll be happily well-occupied. I’ll be obtaining 3+ quotes to buy each piece of lab equipment (if it cost more that $6,000) and then waiting two months for it to arrive, troubleshooting R problems and revising scientific manuscripts written by first-time authors, I’ll be training my new brood of students in the lab, and I’ll be sharing my experiences here! Stay tuned!


Featured Image: Cookies from Mug Buddy Cookies

Ciencia y aventura en mexico

For the past four days, I have been in Monterrey, Mexico, where I have been fostering international scientific relations in meetings and in the mountains.  It was my very first trip to Mexico, and it was an amazing experience.

After arriving in Monterrey, I was greeted by a research friend of mine, Dr. Jose Garcia-Mazcorro.  We met a few years ago when Jose emailed me to ask questions about a recently published paper on Saccharomyces probiotic treatment in cattle, and our conversations on the ecological theory behind probiotics led to a review paper on the subject, led by Jose and I. It wasn’t until last August when Jose and I actually met in person, at the ISME conference in Leipzig, Germany.

At dinner, I had the opportunity to meet Jose’s wife, Alecia, who is also a researcher, and their son, and discuss everything from aflatoxin to Stephen King’s “It” (we discovered that their son and I were both reading It when I discussed living in Maine, not far from Derry).

The next day, I woke up at 3:45 am to travel to the mountains for an incredible experience: a small-group tour in Matacanes canyon led by Daniel, a mountaineer with 20 years of experience and owner of Todo Avetura. He and Omar, another guide, led us for 12 hours and taught us about Matacanes canyon while we trekked 13 kilometers (8.7 miles) down waterfalls, through caves, over boulders, and over cliffs. Even the drive into and out of the canyon was an adventure; the steep road into the mountains fords rivers and winds along cliff faces.  In the canyon, I got to do many things for the first time, including rappel down the side of two waterfalls; 27 m (88.6 ft) and 15 m (49.2 ft) into a cave, swim through the absolute dark of a river cave system, and jump off of several cliffs into the water below, including a 9.5 meter (31 ft) jump!  It was supposed to be 10 meters, but that looked just a little too terrifying to try so I chose a spot that looked friendlier.  Turns out that jumping 9.5 meters is a lot like getting up to present in front of a large audience, you just have to get up there and do it before you have time to think about and psych yourself out.

The guides were really passionate about the mountains, and they were particular about safety and not rushing or pushing us to the point where we would get hurt.  If you have the chance, and the cohones, to go to Matacanes, I highly recommend Todo Aventura.

On Monday, sore but no worse for wear, I gingerly toured some of the facilities where Jose is currently working, MNA, an animal nutrition company.  I met with company president and nutritionist Dr. Jorge Kawas, and Jose, Jorge, and I discussed the role of microbes in animal nutrition and health. 

Dr. Jose Garcia-Mazcorro and I at MNA in Monterrey.

Monday night, I got to chat one-on-one with Professor T.J. Nagaraja, an author on the Saccharomyces review and a prominent researcher in rumen acidosis, cattle health, and infectious disease. 

The main reason for my trip to Monterrey was to attend and speak at the XXII UANL-Engorda de Bovinos en Corral Symposium.  I presented the opening seminar titled “Raising feedlot cattle with good microbes in mind” (“Cria y engorda de ganado con buenos microbios en mente”).  The video can be found here, and slides with presentation notes here:

Organized by MNA and UANL, the university in Monterrey, the symposium brings together researchers, producers, animal industry professionals, and students to discuss animal health in feedlot cattle.  I was honored to give the opening talk, which will be available online soon, and pleased to hear that the audience did in fact like microbes more than before my seminar!  Usually when I start talking about the gut microbiome people have the urge to run off and wash their hands…

Unfortunately, I had to jump back on a plane shortly after my talk, as I am heading to give a different presentation at the Wildlife Society meeting in Reno, Nevada tomorrow! But, I have plenty of memories and new project ideas to remember my trip by, and hopefully I will come back to Monterrey soon!

OMSI After Dark Presentation on the gut microbiome

Last night I participated in the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) After Dark event: “It’s Alive! (Mind and Body)”.  OMSI regularly puts on After Dark events, where adults can check out the museum, listen to lectures in the planetarium, and engage in interactive science experiments and activities, all while enjoying an open bar.  Last night, I had a great time giving a short presentation on “Ishaq OMSI After Dark 20180425“!

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Photo Credits: Lee Warren

500WS Eugene Science Salon: “Hot Mess: Biodiversity in the Sky Islands and following fire.”

500 Women Scientists Eugene is hosting another Science Salon at First National Taphouse; “Hot Mess: Biodiversity in the Sky Islands and following fire.”

Carolyna Piña Páez

Graduate Student at Oregon State University

Title: “Population structure of Rhizopogon in the Madrean Archipielago: The Sky Islands of Southwestern United States and Northwestern Mexico.”

Bio: Carolyna Piña Páez is a graduate student at Oregon State university. Her adventures in Mycology began in 2005 in the Sonoran Desert, working with gasteroid fungi. Since 2011, she’s been working with truffles and other ectomycorrhizal fungi associated with true fir, pine and oak in the central part of México. In 2013, she moved to Oregon and was amazed with the diversity that this place hosts.

Talk slides: ScienceSalonMarch25_Carolina_fungi_ScienceTalk

Amanda Stamper, M.S.

Fire Management Officer, a.k.a. “Burn Boss”, Nature Conservancy, Oregon

Title: “Burning for Butterflies, Birds & Blooms”

Bio: Amanda started her career in fire management as a member of a 20-person contract crew in 1999. In 2001, after finishing her BA in Philosophy at the University of Oregon, she returned to fire management, working on hotshot crews, handcrews, and engines; as a fuels technician on the Deschutes National Forest; and assistant fire management officer in fuels management on the Ochoco National Forest and Crooked River National Grassland.  She studied Natural Resources at Oregon State University and completed a Masters in Natural Resources, Fire Ecology, and Management at the University of Idaho in 2012. She has since worked for the Prineville Bureau of Land Management as a natural resource specialist coordinating post-fire emergency stabilization and rehabilitation; as invasives program manager for the Deschutes and Ochoco National Forests and Crooked River National Grassland; fire management officer for The Nature Conservancy in Oregon and Washington; and chair of the Oregon Prescribed Fire Council.

Talk slides: 20180325_Salon_Amanda_fire


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 or trivia items for us to raise additional funds, including Leslie Dietz and the Eugene Science Center.  Our beautiful logo was crafted by Cassie Cook,  our amazing event posters were designed by Serena LimFertilab generously lent us a sound system.  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: Karen Yook,  Leslie Dietz, Jessica Flannery, and our wonderful speakers; Carolyna Piña Páez and Amanda Stamper.  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…

OMSI presentation: A crash course on the microbiome of the digestive tract

Last night, I gave my first “science stand-up” as part of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) Science Pub series at Whirled Pies in Eugene, OR.  I really enjoy giving public presentations of my work, and while I’ve been on stage with a microphone before, it was the first time I got a stool to put my drink on.

I gave a talk which encompassed much of my previous work on host-associated microbiomes in moose and other ruminants, as well as more current research from others on the human gut.  It’s difficult enough to fit the field of host-associated microbiomes into a semester-long class, nevermind an hour (I digress), so I kept it to the highlights: “A crash course on the microbiome of the digestive tract“.   You can find the slides here: Ishaq OMSI SciPub 20180208, although there is no video presentation at this time. I was honored to have such a well-attended lecture (about 120 people!) with an engaged audience, who had some really on-track questions about the intersection of microbial diversity and health.

20180208_185804.jpg
Photo Credit: Al Lebovitz

As I’ve discussed here before, academic outreach is a sometimes overlooked, yet nevertheless extremely important, aspect of science.  The members of the general public are a large portion of our stakeholder audience, and outreach helps disseminate that research knowledge, facilitate transparency of the research process, and engage people who might benefit from or be interested in our work.  As I told the audience last night, scientists do like when people ask us about our work, but “we’re more scared of you than you are of us”.  I encourage everyone to add science to their life by getting informed, getting involved, and getting out to vote.

Thanks again to OMSI for inviting me to participate, and to Whirled Pies for hosting!

 

Featured Photo Credit: Al Lebovitz

2017 Year in Review

The end of 2017 marks the second year of my website, as well as another year of life-changing events, and reflecting on the past year’s milestones help put all those long hours into perspective.  I reviewed my year last year, and found it particularly helpful in focusing my goals for the year ahead.

Looking Back

In the first half of 2017, I was working as a post-doctoral researcher in the Menalled lab at Montana State University, researching the interaction of climate change, farm management (cropping) system, and disease on soil bacteria in wheat fields, as well as the legacy effects on subsequent crops.  I am still working to analyze, interpret, and publish those results, and hope to submit several manuscripts from that project in early 2018.  In June, I began a position as a research assistant professor in the Biology and the Built Environment Center at the University of Oregon.

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This involved another large move, not only from Montana to Oregon, which has led to some awesome new adventures, but also from agriculture and animal science to indoor microbiomes and building science.   So far, it has been a wonderful learning experience for incorporating research techniques and perspectives from other fields into my work.

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2017 has been another extremely productive year for me.  I presented some work at two conferences, the Congress on Gastrointestinal Function and the Ecological Society of America meeting (additional ESA posts here and here).  While at ESA, I was able to attend the 500 Women Scientists luncheon to discuss inequality in academia as well as recommendations we could make to improve ESA and other conferences ,such as offering affordable on-site child care, and action items we could take ourselves, such as attending training workshops to combat implicit bias or making sure job searches recruit a diverse candidate pool.

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500 Women Scientist group at ESA 2017

This year, I added four new research publications and one review publication to my C.V., and received word that a massive collaborative study that I contributed to was accepted for publication- more on that once it’s available.  In April, I hosted a day of workshops on soil microbes for the Expanding Your Horizons for Girls program at MSU, and I gave a seminar at UO on host-associated microbiomes while dressed up as a dissected cat on Halloween.  In November, I participated in a Design Champs webinar; a pilot series from BioBE which provides informational discussions to small groups of building designers on aspects of how architecture and biology interact.

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I published 34 posts in 2017, including this one, which is significantly fewer than the 45 I published in 2016.  However, I have doubled my visitor traffic and views over last year’s totals: over 2,000 visitors with over 3,200 page views in 2017! My highest-traffic day was April 27th, 2017.  While I am most popular in the United States, I have had visitors from 92 countries this year!

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Map of home countries for 2017 website visitors.

My most popular post is currently “Work-life balance: what do professors do?”, with over 610 views! My least popular is “Presentation on juniper diets and rumen bacteria from JAM 2016 available!” with just 2 views, granted, that one appeals to a much narrower audience.  This year, in addition to updates on publications, projects, and positions, I wrote about writing; including theses and grants. I wrote about getting involved in science, be it through education, participation, or legislation.  I described outreach in academia, and the process of interviewing.  I gave some perspective on the effect of climate change and anthropological influence on agriculture and ecology, as well as on the debate surrounding metrics of success in graduate study.

I also added some “life” to my work-life balance; in November, I married my best friend and “chief contributor“, Lee Warren, in a small, stress-free ceremony with some local friends in Eugene, Oregon!!

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Looking Ahead

I have high hopes for 2018, notably, I’d like to finish more of the projects that have been in development over the last two years during my post-docs.  Nearly all academics carry forward old projects: some need additional time for experimentation or writing, some get shelved temporarily due to funding or time constraints, some datasets get forgotten and gather dust, and some which got cut short because of the need to move to a new job.  This is a particular concern as grant funding and length of job postings become shorter, forcing researchers to cut multi-year projects short or finish them on their own time.  After defending in early 2015, I had two one-year postings and started at UO in June 2017, making this my fourth job in three years.  I’m looking forward to roosting for a bit, not only to clear out unfinished business, but also to settle into my new job at BioBE.  This fall, I have been analyzing data on a weatherization project, writing a handful of grants, and developing pilot projects with collaborators.  I have really enjoyed my first six months at BioBE, and Lee and I have taken a shine to Eugene.  In the next few months, I hope to have more posts about my work there, exciting new developments in BioBE and ESBL, and more insights into the work life of an academic.  Happy New Year!

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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Field notes from my first ESA meeting

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From iDigBio
A couple of weeks ago, I attended my first Ecological Society of America meeting in Portland, which assembles a diverse community of researchers looking at system-wide processes.  It was an excellent learning experience for me, as scientific fields each have a particular set of tools to look at different problems and our collective perspectives can solve research problems in more creative ways.

In particular, it was intriguing to attend talks on the ecology of the human microbiome.  Due to the complexity of host-associated microbial communities, and the limitations of technology, the majority of studies to date have been somewhat observational.  We have mapped what is present in different animals, in different areas of the body, under different diet conditions, in different parts of the world, and in comparison between healthy and disease states.  But given the complexity of the day-to-day life of people, and ethics or technical difficulty of doing experimental studies in humans, many of the broader ecological questions have yet to be answered.

For example, how quickly do microbial communities assemble in humans?  When you disturb them or change something (like adding a medication or removing a food from your diet) how quickly does this manifest in the community structure and do those changes last? How does dysbiosis or dysfunction in the body specifically contribute to changes in the microbial community, or do seemingly harmless events trigger a change in the microbial community which then causes disease in humans? Some of the presentations I attended have begun teasing out these problems with a combination of observational in situ biological studies, in vitro laboratory studies, and in silico mathematical modeling.  The abstracts from all the meeting presentations can be found on the meeting website under Program.  I have also summarized several of the talks I went to on Give Me The Short Version.

One of my favorite parts was attending an open lunch with 500 Women Scientists, a recently-formed organization which promotes diversity and equality in science, and supports local activists to help change policy and preconceived notions about diversity in STEM.  The lunch meeting introduced the organization to the conference participants in attendance, asked us to voice our concerns or difficulties we had faced, encouraged us to reach out to others in our work network to seek advice and provide mentoring, and walked us through exercises designed to educate on how to build a more inclusive society.

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500 Women Scientists at ESA, August 2017

My poster presentation was on Wednesday, halfway through the meeting week, which gave me plenty of time to prepare.  You never know who might show up at your poster and what questions they’ll have.  In the past, I’ve always had a steady stream of people to chat with at my poster which has led to a number of scientific friendships and networking, and this year was no different.  The rather large (but detailed) poster file can be found here: Ishaq et al ESA 2017 poster .  Keep in mind that this is preliminary work, and many statistical tests have not yet been applied or verified.  I’ve been working to complete the analysis on the large study, which also encompasses a great deal of environmental data.  We hope to have manuscript drafted by this fall on this part of the project, and several more over the next year from the research team as this is part of a larger study; stay tuned!