Sue wearing a paper hat shaped like a turkey.

Improving a child’s life is as easy as wearing a paper turkey-hat.

Encouraging girls to go into STEM fields is really important; studies show that female STEM high-school teachers and even online mentors increase the probability of female students following a STEM education.  Moreover, any child benefits academically and psychologically from having positive role models in their life, especially when they were role models that they interacted with as opposed to celebrity role models.  And the benefits don’t just extend to children, adults benefit from positive role models, too.  Certainly I have benefited from strong female role models in my life, from high school art teachers, to undergraduate lecturers, to family (happy birthday, Mom!).

This past fall I started putting my money where my mouth was- I started mentoring an elementary school-aged girl in Bozeman, MT through the Thrive Child Advancement Project (CAP).  So far, we have mostly been making art projects and talking about archaeology.  But we have been talking about trying to learn the Java programming language together!

There are lots of opportunities to mentor kids, either through CAP programs, Big Brother/Big Sister, Girls and Boy Scouts, etc., just a quick internet search brings up dozens of local options.  For less of a time commitment, you can also volunteer for community workshops, like the Girls for a Change summit in Bozeman or the Girls-n-Science in Billings.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Citizen Science- volunteering for the microplastics study

Sampling in September, when the stream wasn’t frozen and we could see the trail. Credit: Lee Warren

Yesterday was the winter sampling time point for a large research project I’m volunteering for: Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation is managing sample collection for the ASC Gallatin Microplastics Initiative in the Gallatin Valley watershed. The project samples various streams and lakes, both where they converge with the Gallatin River and at their headwaters.  The project is part of a much larger project looking at microplastics in water around the world, the ASC Worldwide Microplastics Initiative.  ASC recruits volunteers who have the outdoors-man skills (like hiking, tracking, or boating) and enthusiasm to get to hard to reach places to collect samples, then trains them in how to collect water samples and metadata (like weather, temperature, what we’re wearing during collection), coordinates sample collection times, and makes sure to safely send the samples back to a laboratory in Maine.


A lovely view of the Spanish Peaks.

Lee and I sample Deer Creek, just north of Big Sky, Montana.  To do this, we hike 13 miles round trip to Moon Lake, with a 3,288 foot elevation gain up to around 9,000 ft above sea level. This time, the trail was covered in 1-2 feet of undisturbed snow, luckily we had snowshoes that kept us from sinking into all but the most soft of snowdrifts. On the way up it was snowing heavily, though visibility was fine, and on the way down it was raining. In many areas of the trail, drifts meant that the trail was at a 45 degree angle, and we had to break our own trail for nearly all of it. Despite the arduous trek, the views were beautiful, it was wonderful to be out of the office, and it was fun helping a large coordinated study.  You can get involved in studies like this through organizations like ASC, or through research universities- volunteers are always needed for all different types of studies.

Moon Lake…so where do we start digging?

The Reluctant Interplay of Science and Social Media

Recently, I had another in a long series of conversations with scientists about how they got into science so that they wouldn’t have to use any of their rusty social skills, only to find that social interaction, meetings, and now online communication were a huge part of their daily routine. The myth of the curmudgeon scientist holed up their lab seems to persist despite the current age of social media, perhaps because we scientists don’t seem to understand the appeal of Twitter (how do you include the p-value when you only have 140 characters?!). But in reality, a great deal of our time involves communication, and having practiced social etiquette can make or break you in an interview, at a conference, or at a project pitch meeting.

Many researchers wait until they are hired as assistant professors before they reluctantly make a website, start a blog, or even set up an email account for the lab. How disappointing it must be to wait all those years as a graduate student and a post-doctoral researcher, only to find that a website with your last name has already been taken! And what a hassle to have to generate blog posts, update project and personnel pages, and keep up with social media when you have just landed a professorship and are swamped with grant proposals, manuscripts from old projects that keep hanging around, comparison shopping for equipment to set your lab up, generating coursework for one or several courses, recruiting students…. It’s such a hassle that a friend of mine created an entire business around helping new professors create and manage an online presence: Tenure Chasers.

It really got me thinking, shouldn’t I be starting this?  It’s a little preemptive, after all, I’m a post-doctoral researcher without a lab of my own.  But it makes sense to start it now; for one thing, I have the time to devote to creating the mainframe.  For another, as a new researcher, I sometimes need to prove that I exist.  It seems like a silly thing to think about, but sometimes you need to prove that you are, in fact, a real researcher will real work experience and not just an email scam targeting disused academic email servers (happens quite often).  And hiring someone is a serious consideration, as research funds are limited, indirect costs for personnel make total personnel costs high, you are trusting this person with your research and your career reputation, and you may need to work with this person for several to many years.  It’s a commitment to hire a scientist, and you need to be sure about them.  Thus, having at least one thorough online profile, or better yet- connections to other well-known researchers, can give employers more confidence in you.

Finally, having an online presence improves your communication skills, and shows a commitment to outreach, which is a component in any career level of academia.  It helps to get your work out to other scientists, especially those outside your field whom you wouldn’t run into at a conference or seminar, and more importantly, it disseminates it to the general public.  Graduate school and post-doctoral positions are designed to teach and refine skills, and the skill of communication is no different.  So don’t wait until you really need it, start early and improve the quality of your social media presence, before anyone is paying attention.