The value of choosing when, and how, and how much to think about work

It has been a long time since I have written a reflection-style blog post (as opposed to simply sharing updates and events), and for good reason — I have been overcommitted for my time during (at least) the past year and half and have had little left over for the imagination-based portions of my work. I love what I do and I routinely choose to spend my free time on it, but with the increase in demands for my attention I have lost the freedom to choose when, and how, and how much I think about work.

Many of the non-essential aspects of my job, such as creative writing on the blog, had to be paused to accommodate an increasing number of requests for my time on task-based items (emails, forms, admin, logistics, planning). While many of those requests were simple, the urgent or time-sensitive nature of resolving student, colleague, or university requests with impending deadlines required me to cycle rapidly through tasks/conversations each day, which is mentally taxing over extended time.

More than that, many academics and researchers have had to learn to multi-task even to the point of answering emails during meetings or engaging in multiple conversations simultaneously just to find time to respond to all of the requests for our help and expertise. It might be feasible in short bursts, but after keeping up this pace for so long I started to face burnout over the fall.

I’ve previously written about the value of having time to think in research careers. It is well-recognized that more time off and better-quality time-off (in which you are not just taking work with you to the beach) is needed. But, it is critical to recognize that resolving academic burnout requires universities to increase hiring for faculty and staff rather than cutting positions to lower budgets and redistributing the workload among remaining faculty and staff.

The “too-busy-to-think” problem in academia can never be resolved if we have so many components to our daily task list that we don’t have time to complete the very things we were hired to do: research and teach. To excel in these, we need time to think. Over the past week, I took several vacation days (filled with amazing adventures with friends not al of which is pictured here) prior to attending a small (< 150 people) conference for two days, during which I intentionally minimized the amount of multi-tasking I did while listening to presentations. I never truly stop thinking about my work; it is a part of my identity and I love the problem-solving activities I do, but having this precious time to choose what I consider or spend my time on, and being able to focus on what was in front of me, was immensely rewarding to how I create my own research as well as restorative.

A music band onstage, with a blurry crowd in the foreground.

One of those adventures that I remembered to take photos of was a concert. I was lucky enough to catch “Tank and the Bangas” perform live at Belly Up in San Diego. The band’s most recent album has been nominated for a Grammy Award, and their live performance was electric, passionate, and inspiring.

I was even luckier to spend time with the incredible Candace Williams, a friend and researcher at the San Diego Zoo. Candace took another friend of mine and I around the park (most of which is not pictured here), and I really enjoyed the opportunity to hear about and see her work on rhino gut microbiomes in this setting.

One of the main reasons for my trip was to attend the 3rd CMI International Microbiome Meeting (CIMM) at the Center for Microbiome Innovation at UC San Diego. The conference was held at the Scripps Institute for Oceanography in La Jolla (just north of San Diego), and the long pier shown in the distance in the photo below is one of their state-of-the-art research facilities. I’ve wanted to visit the Institute for the past few years but have not had the opportunity to travel there.

Some other conference attendees and I got a tour of the pier from Jack Gilbert, who is the Deputy Director for Research and Associate Vice Chancellor for Marine Sciences there. Jack is also the Editor in Chief for the scientific journal mSystems, and has been a major supporter of my career and the Microbes and Social Equity working group for the past two years. It was awesome to finally meet Jack in person!

Having a small conference venue, and multiple meals and networking events on-site during the day, meant that I had plenty of time to chat with Jack and other storied researchers in my field. For example, I chatted about my work on scallop microbes as well as my unique conference-fashion combinations with one of the foundational researchers in host microbiology. I got ample opportunity to meet with peers and science celebrities-in-the-making, and even to re-meet Dimitry Krementsov, whom I had originally met way back in 2008 due to overlapping friend groups in Burlington, Vermont, well before I went to grad school or though about microbes. It turns out that not only do we have complementary research interests that we’ll be following up on, but had unknowingly shared mice recently through a collaborator we have in common.

The talks on the first two days of the event (I did not attend the third day as it was outside the scope of my work) ranged from gut microbiome, to diet, to agriculture, to the ocean, and because the presentations times were long the researchers were able to tell better stories about their science and progress through their thought process over time. As an early-career researcher, I enjoyed their perspective on the process of discovery. I enjoyed all the presentations, but a few in particular resonated with me. For example, a talk on gut immunology reflected on the idea that commensal bacteria have been anthropomorphized as friendly to us when in reality the commensalism arises from our immune system setting good boundaries for those relationships, which has me thinking about my own work on disrupted gut microbial communities. Rosie’s work on microbes in aquaculture-managed oceanwater got me thinking about how curating agricultural/aquacultural management practices within the context of working with an ecosystem can help reduce the negative impacts of those human activities while boosting production. And one talk on using plant biology and plant-microbe interactions to instill disease resistance in citrus plants was just awesome to hear about; I don’t work on plant microbiomes anymore but the research ideas were so novel to me that it sparked my curiosity and creative thought process.

I spent quite a bit of the conference with Candace with Rosie Alegado, during which we reflected on the scientific research being presented, the tastiness of the food served, and the immense value of ‘capacity sharing’ by inviting community members to participate in the design and performance of research.

Sue, Candace Williams, and

Rosie and Candace are both famous for their community-rooted research in ocean and wild animal microbiology, respectively, and I continue to learn and be inspired by them. Equally inspirational is Carla Bonilla (not pictured) who I caught up with (too) briefly while I was in San Diego. In addition to her research, Carla’s work on pedagogy and expanding our views of microbiology is one of the pillars of MSE.

I was also fortunate to spent quite a bit of time with Sean Gibbons and Jotham Suez, both prominent researchers on diet and gut microbiome who both presented their work. In addition to hanging out at the conference, we found time to go on several adventures. We caught the cherry blossoms in peak glory at the Japanese Garden in Balboa Park, as well as spend the day strolling around the rest of the park and La Jolla beach discussing research, judging coffee, laughing hysterically, perusing the art colony in the park, and meeting every dog within petting range. I can’t wait till the next round of shenanigans!

  • Sean Gibbons, Sue, and Jotham Suez posing on rock path in front of bright pink blooming cherry trees at a Japanese Garden.
  • A view down the underside of a concrete pier, with breaking waves and cloudy sky in the background and wet sand in the foreground.
  • Sue jumping in the air below a concrete pier, with wet sand in the foreground and breaking waves under cloudy skies.
  • A closeup of the sandstone cliff at La Jolla beach with green algae growing over the bottom several feet of the cliffs.

While I was in San Diego, I also went to a drag show with friends and colleagues. For anyone who is not familiar with ‘drag’, it can be presented in many ways but it always an artistic performance in which the performers adorn clothing, hairstyles, and makeup to create a persona for the stage. In the same way that actors don clothing, makeup, and more to create personas in order to tell a story, with drag the chosen persona plays on the idea of gender norms of what society thinks a person should wear or say based on which genitals they have. The performers often sing/lip sync, dance (including some extremely athletic moves while wearing high heels), perform stand-up comedy, read book aloud, or in the case of the show I just went to – host a game of bingo. However it is performed, drag engages in humor, pageantry, and the idea that how we look can be a form of artistic expression rather than the composite of other people’s opinions on how we should look or act. I can’t think of anything more wholesome than an event which welcomes everyone to be their authentic self. If you have never been to a drag show, I highly recommend it, and everyone is welcome at drag shows!

I have included some photos of a previous show I attended there, as I wasn’t able to get good photos of the performance this time (I do have an amazing group photo, but I wasn’t sure if my friends would want to be featured on my professional social media).

Several drag queens in elaborate gowns, hairstyles, and makeup, standing on a stage.

Overall, the combination of time to relax, to think, to share, and to have fun was an restorative and enjoyable way to make new friends, deepen connections with previous friends and colleagues, and to enrich my own research by learning from rockstars in my field. You’ll definitely find me at CIMM again next year!

*The title of this blog post is directly inspired by phrasing in Arundhati Roy’s novel, The God of Small Things.

MSE speaker series starts next week, features talks on diet and gut microbes, early life and breastfeeding, soil health, equitable research, how microbes are part of us, and more!

The Microbes and Social Equity Speaker Series starts next week! Join us for talks on microbiomes and health, equity in research, and more!

Spring 2023; January 18 – May, Wednesdays from 11:00 AM – 12:00 PM EST.

Presented over Zoom. Registration is free!

You can register for any or all of the events from the same link here.

Gut microbiome, nutrition, and food security

Theme organized by Sue Ishaq

“Broccoli Sprout Bioactives and Gut Microbiota: A Dietary Approach for Prevention and Management of Inflammatory Bowel Disease”

Dr. Yanyan Li, PhD

January 18, 2023; Wednesday,11:00 AM – 12:00 PM EST. Register for the Zoom link here.

Headshot of Dr. Yanyan Li

Dr. Li is an Assistant Professor at the University of Maine. She received her PhD degree in Nutrition and Food Science from Ohio State University. She has been dedicating herself to studying the mechanisms of diet-derived bioactives in protecting against disease process and harnessing the gained knowledge to develop dietary approaches for disease prevention and management for more than a decade. Since 2016, she has been focusing on the interactions between dietary components, in particular glucosinolates from cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and broccoli sprouts, and gut microbiota, aiming to develop a combined approach for inflammatory bowel disease. Her current research projects are funded by NIH/NIDDK, USDA/NIFA AFRI Foundational Program, and nutrition research programs of private foundations.

Added by Sue: For the past few years, Yanyan and her colleagues have also included the Ishaq Lab, and has led to a rewarding and productive collaboration which has resulted in several recent and forthcoming publications, funding awards, and students trained.

“Exploring Health Determinants, Gut Microbiome, and Health Outcomes in Immigrants”

Dr. Dany Fanfan, Ph.D., MSN, RN

January 25, 2023; Wednesday,11:00 AM – 12:00 PM EST. Register for the Zoom link here.

Headshot of Dr. Dany Fanfan

Dr. Dany Fanfan is an Assistant Professor at the University of Florida (UF) College of
Nursing. Before becoming a faculty, she completed a Bachelor’s degree in Nursing at
Florida International University, Master’s and Doctoral degrees in Nursing at the
University of South Florida, and a post-doctoral fellowship at UF focused on mental
health research with and for underrepresented populations (e.g., Latino/Haitian
immigrant farmworkers, rural Latino/LGBTQ+ adolescents) using a community-based
participatory research approach and social network analysis. She teaches and engages in
multidisciplinary mixed-methods research dedicated to advancing the science and
practice of reducing mental health disparities among minoritized immigrants by
exploring the underlying biobehavioral, cultural, and psychosocial mechanisms of
distress symptoms. With support from an NIH K23 career development award, she is
now incorporating microbial metagenomics and bioinformatics methods in her research
by examining the associations between post-migration social determinants of health,
gut microbiome, and psychological distress among recent Haitian immigrants. The long-
term goal of her interdisciplinary translational program of research is to identify and
address the conditions that create and sustain health disparities in minoritized
populations as well as develop and test culturally responsive interventions that target
social, behavioral, and biological determinants of health to improve long-term health
outcomes, reduce behavioral and mental health disparities, and increase health equity.

“Personalized nutrition and the human gut microbiome”

Dr. Sean Gibbons, PhD

February 1, 2023; Wednesday,11:00 AM – 12:00 PM EST. Register for the Zoom link here.

Headshot of Dr. Sean Gibbons.

Dr. Sean Gibbons is an Associate Professor at the Institute for Systems Biology, a non-profit research consortium. His lab develops computational and experimental tools for exploring and manipulating host-microbe systems.

Added by Sue: The work from Sean’s group and collaborators has been reshaping the way that host microbial researchers approach their work, by revealing trends through large metanalyses and novel perspectives on using data. Their most recent work has evaluated host-microbial interactions, metabolites, and health.

For the last three years, Sean’s lab has hosted the ISB Virtual Microbiome Series, which is freely available and attracts several thousand participants. The series includes a two day workshop that teaches data analysis skills, and a day-long symposium featuring discussions of current discoveries and conceptualizes the future of microbiome research.

Finally, Sean and his research group have been making science a more welcoming and inclusive place.

Panel discussion on Gut microbiome, nutrition, and food security

February 8, 2023; Wednesday,11:00 AM – 12:00 PM EST. Register for the Zoom link here.

This week, we’ll be bringing all of our Theme 1 speakers back to engage in a panel discussion together on the gut microbiome. Panel will be hosted by Sue Ishaq.

Please note, this session will only be featured live in real-time and will not be recorded.

Prenatal to early-life microbes and health

Theme organized by Emily Wissel.

Speaker confirmed but time TBD:

Dr. Eldin Jašarević, PhD. Magee-Womens Research Institute, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

Speaker 4 TBD

February 15, 2023; Wednesday,11:00 AM – 12:00 PM EST. Register for the Zoom link here.

“Intersecting breastmilk and microbiome science with the complexity of working with humans in a clinical context”

Dr. Merilee Brockway, PhD RN IBCLC, University of Calgary

February 22, 2023; Wednesday,11:00 AM – 12:00 PM EST. Register for the Zoom link here.

Dr. Merilee Brockway is a PhD prepared nurse and International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) with expertise in maternal-child health, infant feeding, and patient engagement. She completed my PhD in nursing at the University of Calgary, examining maternal breastfeeding self-efficacy and infant feeding outcomes in moderate and late preterm infants. She also completed a three year post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Manitoba in Dr. Meghan Azad’s THRIVE Discovery Lab, exploring clinical applications of donor human milk for preterm infants. As an Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary, her program of research examines the use of human milk as a clinical intervention to mitigate early life perturbations to the infant microbiome.  

Speaker 6 TBD

March 1, 2023; Wednesday,11:00 AM – 12:00 PM EST. Register for the Zoom link here.

Panel discussion on Prenatal to early-life microbes and health

March 8, 2023; Wednesday,11:00 AM – 12:00 PM EST. Register for the Zoom link here.

This week, we’ll be bringing all of our Theme 2 speakers back to engage in a panel discussion together on the microbiome in early life. Panel will be hosted by Emily Wissel.

Please note, this session will only be featured live in real-time and will not be recorded.

The environment, microbes, and us

Anthropology Theme organized by Katherine Daiy and Kieran O’Doherty, and Environmental Theme organized by Mallory Choudoir, Mustafa Saifuddin, and Hannah Holland-Moritz.

Speakers confirmed by time TBD:

  • Dr. Stephanie Schnorr, University of Vienna, “The human-valued interest in microbiome science is the distillation of human-environmental interactions”

“Microbiome Research with the Yanomami”

David Good, University of Guelph

March 22, 2023; Wednesday,11:00 AM – 12:00 PM EST. Register for the Zoom link here.

David Good

David Good is a PhD student in microbiology at the University of Guelph, Ontario. His general research goal is characterizing the structural and functional microbial diversity of his Yanomami family, the Irokae-teri, located in the Amazon rainforest of Venezuela. They are of great interest in the microbiome field since the Irokae-teri live fully immersed in the rainforest environment and subsist by an active lifestyle of hunting-gathering and small-scale gardening. Furthermore, their relative isolation deep in the Amazon limits their exposure to microbiome stressors such as antibiotics, highly refined and processed foods, industrial toxins and pollutants, food preservatives, etc. David will discuss this unique and rare opportunity to advance our understanding of the human microbiome of a community largely unperturbed by westernization, while building global awareness on the importance of protecting these few remaining isolated indigenous societies. However, such research brings numerous challenges surrounding bioethics. David hopes to build dialogue around going beyond simple compliance in microbiome research, and how the Yanomami have the right to self-determination and harness their bioeconomic potential to protect their home.

Photo sourced from:

“Religion, Race and the Microbe: Theological Analysis of Public Health Resistance in the Pandemicine”

Dr. Aminah Al-Attas Bradford, PhD.

March 29, 2023; Wednesday,11:00 AM – 12:00 PM EST. Register for the Zoom link here.

Dr. Bradford is a research scholar in NC State’s Public Science Lab for Ecology, Evolution and Biodiversity of Humans and Food where she draws together interdisciplinary engagement of microbes, exploring fermentation, probiotic health and pathogens. Working at the intersections of religion, microbiology, ecology and race, Dr. Bradford’s research investigates the historical entanglement of disease theories, public health strategy, Christian thought, and coloniality to cultivate ecological wisdom, scientific engagement and the pursuit of environmental justice in religious contexts. She asks questions like, how have the historical entanglement of epidemiology, coloniality and Christian teaching contributed to the disease of both body and planet, the disproportionate effects of which are born by black and brown communities? How has demonizing the microbe paved the way for oppression of those deemed sub-human? And how might microbiome science reform Christian thought that often disrupts engagement of science and is complicit in exploitative and exclusionary ways of being?

Speaker 9 TBD

April 5, 2023; Wednesday,11:00 AM – 12:00 PM EST. Register for the Zoom link here.

“Anthropology, Microbiomes, and Antimicrobial Resistance”

Dr. Cecil Lewis, PhD.

April 12, 2023; Wednesday,11:00 AM – 12:00 PM EST. Register for the Zoom link here.

Dr. Cecil Lewis is a Professor at the University of Oklahoma.

Image sourced from:

Dr. Anna Krzywoszynska, PhD.

April 19, 2023; Wednesday,11:00 AM – 12:00 PM EST. Register for the Zoom link here.

Dr. Anna Krzywoszynska is starting a position as an Associate Professor of Transdisciplinary Human-Environment Relations, Faculty of Humanities, University of Oulu, Finland.

Speaker 12 TBD

April 26, 2023; Wednesday,11:00 AM – 12:00 PM EST. Register for the Zoom link here.

Panel Discussion on the environment, microbes, and us

May 3, 2023; Wednesday,11:00 AM – 1:00 PM EST. Register for the Zoom link here.

This week, we’ll be bringing all of our Theme 3 speakers back to engage in a panel discussion together on the importance of environmental microbiomes and our place in ecosystems, and then will continue talking about soil health. Panel will be hosted by Katherine Daiy, Kieran O’Doherty, Mallory Choudoir, Mustafa Saifuddin, and Hannah Holland-Moritz.

Please note, this session will only be featured live in real-time and will not be recorded.

Logo designed by Alex Guillen

Introducing the new MSE Directors Team!

As the Microbes and Social Equity group (MSE) has grown and dramatically gained members (~120 members and many more subscribed to our newsletter) in 2021, it has become time to add leadership roles in charge of different aspects of running the group! The current list of Directors are self nominated MSE group members, who have generously volunteered their time in 2022 to support the initiatives and development of this international collaboration alongside Sue Ishaq.

The MSE group logo, microbes being weighed on the scale of justice!

MSE Director of Professional Development

Dr. Srinivasan Mahalingam, PhD, searching for post-doc position

This position will focus on finding existing professional development opportunities, as well as working with MSE members to develop new professional development opportunities which may be used for existing MSE members or the general scientific community.

Srinivasan is pictured from the shoulders up, wearing a light blue and red plaid button-up collared shirt, against a beige background.

Srinivasan Mahalingam: Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in Animal Science at Bharathidasan University (India), working under the guidance of Professor Govindaraju Archunan. His PhD research focuses on the impact of cervicovaginal mucus microbiota (bacterial diversity, volatile fatty acids, and secretory proteins) on buffalo estrus. His is particularly interested in learning more about role of microbiota and their biomolecules (bacterial generated fatty acids and proteins/peptides) on the reproductive tract and intestine. He is currently seeking post-doctoral training to advance my professional research career. The opportunities and resources are immense. People in working societies are tremendously helpful and encouraging, and networking with other scientists has led to a wealth of opportunities. As he wishes to continue his contribution towards science and humanity, he feels MSE can provide ample opportunity to extend group members research professional in an adequate way.

MSE Director of Fundraising

Dr. Ashish Pathak, J.D., LL.M, Ph.D., Adjunct Professor/Research Scientist, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University

This position will focus on finding funding for current and future MSE initiatives, such as events, travel to conferences, professional development, and salary compensation for MSE Director or assistant roles.

Ashish Pathak standing in front of calm ocean water on an overcast day, wearing a yellow collared polo shirt.

Ashish Pathak: Ashish’s academic background includes a BS in Biology followed by an MS and PhD in Environmental Sciences from FAMU, Tallahassee. Prior to graduate school at SOE, Ashish completed a law degree (akin to JD in the US) followed by an LLM degree (Master’s in Legal Law). During the MS program in law, he researched the nexus between impoverished communities and decline in human health due to complete lack of environmental equity and related environmental justice issues. Having held post-doctoral and now a research scientist position at FAMU’ SOE, he continues to conduct research at the intersection of sustainability sciences, the nexus between Food-Energy and Water, especially surrounding racial disparities and inequity with populations of color, and accomplish 14 out of the 17 sustainability development goals adopted by the United Nations in 2016

Social Media Management Team

This team will focus on connecting our members to our social media accounts and vice versa, to streamlining our social media content, and to assist in communications within the group and to the general scientific community. This position will also help improve existing webpages and consider additional functionality (e.g. online reading lists, a group-facing or public-facing member directory)

MSE Director of Social Media

Sarah Ishak, M.S. student, Université de Sherbrooke

arah is pictured here in front of a large body of water along a green trail. She is holding up two peace signs with her hands and is wearing a blue top and grey pants with a purple jacket tied around her waist.

Sarah Ishak: Hailing from the Land Down Under (Australia), Sarah is now a Master’s student at Université de Sherbrooke in Québec, Canada. She graduated from the University of Adelaide with a Bachelor of Science (Advanced) degree, and a Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree in Ecology and Environmental Science. Her current research project is looking at the microbiome of boreal mosses from the Eeyou-Istchee region of Québec. She joined the MSE working group in the hopes of helping to provide under-represented communities the space to share their research. In conjunction with Emily Wissel and Dr. Katherine Maki, we hope to share stories and keep you updated on what the MSE Working Group has in store! You can find Sarah on twitter @microbluvrsarahvrsarah

Social Media Curator

Emily Wissel, PhD candidate, Emory University
Bio below!

Social Media Curator

Dr. Katherine Maki, PhD., Post Doc at NIH

Katherine Maki is pictures here in front of a field in a flowery blouse and a black blazer.

Katherine Maki: Katherine Maki is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health, Clinical Center, in the Translational Biobehavioral and Health Disparities Branch, and she is transitioning to an Assistant Clinical Investigator Position in the same department early 2022. Dr. Maki is a nurse practitioner and received her PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago, College of Nursing. Her dissertation research examined the effects of chronic sleep disruption on the microbiome and cardiovascular system in rats. As a postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Maki worked on an interdisciplinary team on several intramural and extramural research protocols focusing on the human microbiome. She combines oral and gut microbiome analyses with biosignal and neuroimaging technology to study the gut-brain axis, and how it relates to health and disease. Dr. Maki is particularly interested in the relationship between environmental factors such as poor sleep and alcohol abuse with cardiovascular risk through microbial and metabolite mechanisms in humans.

MSE Director of Resource Dissemination

Emily Wissel, PhD candidate, Emory University

This position will work closely with Social Media and Resource Archiving Teams, and will focus on gathering information and resources to share within the group (e.g. new publications, funding opportunities). This position will facilitate resource gathering from members, and curate in-group emails to disseminate to interested members only to avoid excessively emailing group members.

Emily Wissel on a sandy beach, with a view of the ocean and a mountainside in the background. She has glasses and is wearing a long sleeve green jacket.

Emily Wissel: Emily Wissel is a PhD candidate and NSF Graduate Research Fellow at Emory University. Her dissertation work explores how the gut and vaginal microbiome change during pregnancy and how factors like antibiotics impact that shift. Emily explores how our understanding of the microbiome can meaningfully inform health interventions and help us better understand mental health and cognition. You can find Emily on Twitter @emily_wissel

MSE Director of Resource Archiving

Patrick Horve, PhD student, University of Oregon

This position will focus on the long-term archiving of group documents, media, and other materials, including making them readily available to members, and revising working documents into a more professional draft before archiving.

Patrick is pictured here in a navy blue suit and tie against a red brick

Patrick Horve: Patrick is currently a PhD student at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon in the Institute of Molecular Biology. He is broadly interested in the interactions between microorganisms and the world around them, including the environment, other microorganisms, animals, and humans. These interactions can be both detrimental and beneficial for all of the individuals involved, making both positive and negative engagement with beneficial microbiomes through access to public resources, nutritious food, clean water and air, safe shelter, social interactions, and effective medicine a potentially (and often) inequitable process. By working with MSE, he hopes to encourage the combining of microbiology and social equity work and the promotion of evidence-based and equitable public policy. You can find him on twitter at @PatrickHorve

Looking back on my first year as an assistant professor

Almost year ago, I woke up early to drive an hour and a half from the place I was staying to the University of Maine campus in Orono. My housing had fallen through after I had driven across country from Oregon to Maine, and apartments were difficult to find as students were returning for the fall semester. I took my highway exit, and almost immediately joined a mile and a half long line of cars waiting to get to campus. This may not sound like a lot, but Orono is small – really small. There are three bridges onto the island, each with a single lane of traffic in either direction. It was 8 am, and I still needed to get to campus and find parking before my 8:30 am meeting with my new department chair, something I very much did not want to be late for.

View from the bridge in Orono.

After moving only 100 yards in 10 min, I was able to turn around in a side street and get back on the highway to the next exit, in Old Town, from where I could drive southward on the island. In another 10 minutes, I had made it back to the highway, onto campus, and had found parking. That simple detour makes a nice metaphor for starting out as new faculty: there is probably an easier way to accomplish your task, you just don’t know yet that that way exists.

Last September, I joined the University of Maine as an Assistant Professor. It’s my first academic faculty position, and with it comes a variety of new responsibilities (you can read here about the differences in academic positions). There’s a learning curve to any new job, but faculty positions, in particular, require a level of expertise in time management that you likely have never encountered.

I needed to establish a laboratory and order things for it, recruit students and develop career development plans for them; develop research plans spanning the next five years; propose and then develop new classes; learn a new institutional system for ordering, reporting, teaching, advising; meet new people; and the myriad other administrative tasks that go along with teaching, advising, and managing a laboratory.

There is pressure, some from external sources but primarily from ‘the thorn in your side which seeks accomplishment’, to advance each of your goals immediately and simultaneously. You need to show progress early on, but it is not possible to devote the time and focus that each of these goals demand to all of them at once. If you try, you will find yourself buried in unmet objectives and overcooked marshmallows.

Instead, plan well in advance and try to concentrate on one objective at a time. I’ve compiled some examples, thoughts, and advice on navigating the first year of a faculty position, which is hopefully entertaining if not also useful.

Bring a campus map

One of the largest draws on my time in the first few weeks was simply finding things: buildings, services on campus, my mailbox, where the faculty parking lots were, and where the best coffee was. Make sure you have a campus map handy. I learned the hard way not to run a generic search for building names to find addresses, when I went to the wrong building which shared the name of, and was across the campus from, the building I needed to be in for a meeting. Facilities buildings can be particularly challenging to locate as they aren’t always marked, but may store excess and available office or laboratory furniture, key services, chemical supply, and more.

In addition to physical resources, I also needed to find personnel resources: who handled my startup funds? Purchasing? Hiring students? To whom do I submit course proposals? I politely framed my emails to people when fishing for the applicable administrative staff personnel, and made sure to thank them for redirecting me to the correct person.

Do not neglect the mountain of paperwork

There are so many forms you need to fill out in the first year, and you keep finding new forms as you go. I needed to sign and return my contract, funds letters, health insurance, financial conflict of interest, and more. I needed to sign paperwork to hire students, get my travel approved and more to submit my travel receipts, paperwork to propose courses, to request approval to be listed as graduate school faculty (which is not automatically conferred), and request approval to be graduate faculty in other departments or programs to be able to advise students there. You need to fill out order forms to purchase supplies, and sign off on monthly expenditure summaries. I suggest finding access to a scanner or fax, and/or software that allows you to edit and digitally sign PDFs, especially if you’ll be remote while you are trying to relocate and find housing.

Also be prepared for hours and hours of training: you’ll need to know how to use the university online system for employees, online teaching software, advising tracking programs, and any other online systems the university uses. And you need an extensive amount of compliance or professional development training your university requires, including FERPA for working with student information, OSHA and CITI safety training for working in a lab (often annual), university-based safety training for working in a lab, and implicit bias or inclusion training. Many schools also offer training in course development, and many of the other basic skills needed by professors. And be sure to keep all that paperwork, just in case you ever get audited!

Take time to generate new materials

Despite keeping copies of old protocols, lectures, and written materials that I might reuse, I found myself generating an immense amount of new written materials. While institutions often have templates available for safety materials available for use, they still require personalization to the hazards specific to the working conditions in your research location (lab, farm, field, etc.). Even the course materials that I had previously generated all needed to be reformatted and personalized to the student audiences I will have at UMaine. Here are a few examples of materials I had to generate this year:

  1. Lab safety training records (mine is a 2 page in-lab walk-through and spreadsheet linking to up to 15 other training modules)
  2. Chemical hygiene plan (how to protect yourself from the hazards in the lab)
  3. Updated lab protocols for every procedure and culture media recipe to be used
  4. Lab handbook on expectations, finding campus resources
  5. New curricula, which requires a draft syllabus, a course proposal form explaining learning outcomes and how they will be measured, not to mention the lectures, reading, assignments, and assessments to go along with it.
  6. Research proposals – by far the most intensive. I have written/co-written eight this year, ranging from one to several dozen pages in length and varying complexity.
A stack of papers facedown on a table.

Writing, especially technical writing, takes time, which was something UMaine gave me. I had almost no teaching obligation, and no undergraduate academic advising, for my first year. This gave me the opportunity to spend blocks of time focused on developing research plans that will guide me over the next 5 years, or create 15 – 40 lectures per course. This time was a luxury not afforded to all new faculty, and while you can often ask for it during job contract negotiations, many institutions pressure their new faculty to take on a lot of obligation in their first year. In that case, have as much written material ready before you begin the job would have been helpful. But, since I went from gut microbiology to soil to dust, and because I was teaching science to primarily liberal arts students, none of my old written materials were appropriate to use without some amount of revision.

Ask for help

As new faculty, you don’t yet know what to ask or who has the answer. Even finding your mailbox can be a challenge at first. Rather than waste your time trying to figure it out, doing it wrong, and then having to fix it, just ask someone for help. Portions of your funded research proposals will go to paying for administrative staff, you should use their services to help minimize the time you spend on administrative tasks. Especially since you may spend hours trying to order supplies through the university ordering system, matching receipts to expense reports, allocating expenses to different funding chartstrings, and setting up contracts with outside vendors, but you don’t get any credit in your tenure review for having spent all that time on it.

This also extends to facilities management staff, especially safety and environmental management personnel. They are the ones that have approval rights over the work you propose to do in the research spaces allotted to you. They are always incredibly enthusiastic people who value organization, preparation, and training in keeping you and your students safe on the job. If you are proactive about reaching out to them, they will generously give you their time to help you access the resources you need to be in compliance.

Ask for help even if you think you don’t need it

It’s worth putting that one twice, and it includes asking for help on course development and grant proposal writing. When you are focused on your own work, it can be difficult to review your own materials. Asking a colleague to check over your syllabus, lectures, manuscripts, or proposals can help improve their quality and save you time on revisions later. Be mindful of others’ time, but know that there are faculty who would be happy to mentor you and help you establish yourself.

Level up your time management

In part, this can be achieved by scheduling yourself in ways that make sense in the context of the academic calendar or department preferences. For example, in my current department, faculty prefer to teach Tuesday/Thursday and have meetings Mondays and Fridays. So, I asked to teach M/W/F, and will fill in meetings and advising around it. Teaching tends to interrupt the flow of my day, since I need to prepare before class and handle student queries after it. I find I work better if I stack my responsibilities which deal with communication, brain-storming, or large amounts of interaction into blocks or whole days. That leaves large chunks of uninterrupted time on Tuesdays and Thursdays to write papers, proposals, curricula, or work in the lab, while everyone else is busy with their own teaching.

Image source, Pixabay.

Leave yourself plenty of flexibility in your schedule

Avoid the temptation to schedule things as soon as possible and fill up your calendar. Especially in the first few months, you need to have flexibility in your time such that you can drop everything for a day or two in order to meet a sudden deadline you didn’t know about until it occurred to someone to tell you about it. This includes course proposals to curricula committees, which meet a year in advance of when you would actually teach the course, internal review reports, internal budget reports, and more. Don’t worry that you might delay networking with your new colleagues, people will be eager to meet and collaborate with you, you won’t have any trouble filling your dance card.

Track everything you do

Start immediately, and keep a running list of your efforts and accomplishments. All of them, no matter how small. At your annual reviews, and in particular your three-year and tenure reviews, you need to show what you have been up to and that you have been using your time effectively. You’ll never remember it all trying to write the report all at once, and you are liable to forget the smaller things. For example, in no particular order, here are the heading from my tracking list so far: advising (subset into as primary adviser and as grad committee member), publications, press releases/interviews, presentations, guest lectures, courses developed, courses taught (with number of students), professional development activities, research initiated (including student projects and things under my startup funds), proposals submitted, proposals accepted (a much shorter list), service efforts, and reviewing efforts (manuscripts, grant panels, etc.). When it comes time for me to justify myself, all I have to do is hit the “share” button.

Be kind to yourself

Despite the fact that you have been intensively training for this job for years, when you begin a faculty position you are, in a sense, starting from scratch. Most faculty have to relocate long distances to their new institution, which in itself is very disruptive and time consuming. Your laboratory space is almost always inherited from a previous lab which very likely was not specialized in what you study, and needs to be rearranged, renovated, restocked, and reenvisioned to fit your needs. This can delay your lab work by months, and if you were not provided with a lab space immediately, for years.

Most new faculty also expand their range of methodology and propose to incorporate other aspects into their research. Or, like me, have come from previous positions that were relevant, but perhaps not exactly in the same field, and need to re-acclimate and reassemble current laboratory protocols, which is time consuming. I was trained in rumen microbial ecology, but took detours into soil and indoor/building microbial ecology, as well. Even though I was returning to my primary field of experience with my position at UMaine, I still needed to remind people that I was not, in fact, an indoor microbiologist or even a soil scientist. I addressed this in the opening lines of my cover letter:

How is a rumen, a rhizosphere, and a room like a writing desk?
I have written on all of them.

You are also dropped into a thriving community of people and need to build an entirely new social network. While many faculty and graduate students will know you have arrived and reach out to you, you will need to actively recruit undergrads to your classes and your lab, as undergraduate students are not commonly involved in the interview process and won’t have an idea of your reputation or expertise before you arrive. And social interaction is tiring! You are creating new neural pathways by trying to assimilate to a new social group.

Being a new faculty member is extremely rewarding, but can also be exhausting, especially for those also trying to establish a family as well as a laboratory. Many academics report that they meet their deadlines, but fail to take care of themselves and their health and family suffers as a consequence. Take the opportunity to slow down, even if it’s just taking your laptop to a location with a better view.

View of a wooden deck with forest behind it.

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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Presentation on maternal influences on the calf digestive tract from JAM 2016 available!

The video presentation of my work on the effects of maternal biotic influences on the developing calf digestive tract bacteria is finally available for public use!

Abstract 1522: Influence of colostrum on the microbiological diversity of the developing bovine intestinal tract

Suzanne L Ishaq, Elena Bichi, Sarah K Olivo, James Lowe, Carl J Yeoman, Brian M Alridge


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.


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.

Screen Shot 2017-06-27 at 9.33.02 PM

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.

I’m now writing for the UO BioBE blog

The Biology and the Built Environment center here at the University of Oregon has a blog, and I’ll be writing updates and blog posts for them, as well.  I will be cross-posting my posts, but you should also check them out!

My review on Plant-Microbial Interactions in Agriculture got published!

A few months ago, I was invited to submit an article to the special issue “Plant Probiotic Bacteria: solutions to feed the World” in AIMS Microbiology on the interactions between agricultural plants and microorganisms.  As my relevant projects are still being processed, I chose to write a review of the current literature regarding these interactions, and how they may be altered by different farming practices.  The review is available as open-access here!

“Plant-microbial interactions in agriculture and the use of farming systems to improve diversity and productivity”

A thorough understanding of the services provided by microorganisms to the agricultural ecosystem is integral to understanding how management systems can improve or deteriorate soil health and production over the long term. Yet it is hampered by the difficulty in measuring the intersection of plant, microbe, and environment, in no small part because of the situational specificity to some plant-microbial interactions, related to soil moisture, nutrient content, climate, and local diversity. Despite this, perspective on soil microbiota in agricultural settings can inform management practices to improve the sustainability of agricultural production.

Keywords bacteria; climate change; farming system; fungi; nutrient exchange; pathogens; phytohormones

Citation: Suzanne L. Ishaq. Plant-microbial interactions in agriculture and the use of farming systems to improve diversity and productivity. AIMS Microbiology, 2017, 3(2): 335-353. doi: 10.3934/microbiol.2017.2.335

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.