Speaker lineup confirmed for ‘Session 5: MSE Education Practices and Curriculum Design’ at the July 2022 MSE virtual symposium!

The speaker lineup is set for the fifth (and final) day of the July 2022 MSE virtual symposium, which is focused on “MSE Education Practices and Curriculum Design”. This session will feature three talks featuring educators who have brought sociology into their microbiome courses, and vice versa, and who have experience creating out-of-the-box curricula to engage students in learning while helping them to see themselves as scientists. Our hope is that attendees for this session learn from different perspectives how to creatively present microbiology courses which situate learning about the microbiome with learning about social and environmental systems.

The program for the July 2022 MSE virtual symposium, “Developing transformative Research Skills”, is beginning to take shape as we continue to confirm speakers for the 5 sessions, the full program for which can be found here.

Session 5: “MSE Education Practices and Curriculum Design”

Friday, July 22nd, 12:30 ~ 16:00 EST. Register for this session, free and held over Zoom.

Session leaders:

Erin Eggleston, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biology, Middlebury College.

Monica Trujillo

Monica Trujillo, Ph.D., Associate Professor, of Biology Queensborough Community College, The City University of New York

Carla Bonilla, Ph.D., Associate Professor, University of San Diego

Scope: Curriculum which blends disciplines is highly engaging, and can be used to teach complex concepts, and can help students combine their existing cultural and social identities with their growing researcher identity. However, creating an interdisciplinary curriculum can be challenging. This session frames educational conversations in MSE, and gives perspectives on creating courses that blend microbiome and social sciences for different levels of education.

Learning Objectives of Session: Attendees will 1) identify successes and barriers to entry for MSE curriculum at different education levels (K-12, UG, grad, general public), 2) Share ways in which we incorporate MSE in our curricula (i.e. assignments, class period, multi-day module, full course, etc.); 3) develop ideas for further curriculum design for their own courses.

Format of talks: Three 30-min lecture-style talks from education practitioners who have successfully built courses around MSE topics, including an outline of learning goals, approach to course, lessons learned/challenges, and more.

Format of breakout rooms: Each room creates a lesson plan outline, and each room has a designated topic area (e.g. human microbiome equity) to help audience members group by teaching discipline.

Session Speakers: In development, details provided soon!

Sarah Miller, M.S., Executive Director of Tiny Earth at University of Wisconsin-Madison

“Title TBD”

Dr. Melissa Zwick

Dr. Ally Hunter, PhD., Lecturer, iCONS Program & Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for Youth Engagement, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Part of NSF Project RAISE (Reclaiming Access to Inquiry Science Education for Incarcerated Learners), and NSF Project INSITE (INtegrating STEM Into Transition Education for Incarcerated Youth).

Dr. Melissa Zwick, PhD., Associate Professor of Biology, Stockton University

“Science through storytelling: Using case study pedagogy as inclusive practice in undergraduate microbiology”

Dr. Davida Smyth, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Molecular Microbiology at Texas A&M University in San Antonio

“Title TBD”

12:30 – 14:15 Introduction and Speakers

14:15 – 14:30 Break

14:30 – 16:00 Breakout room discussions based on skills development, in smaller groups

  • Undergraduate microbiology courses resources/MSE integration
  • Pedagogy as scholarship/publishing mechanisms/resources
  • Assessing case study style teaching
  • TBD

Prior to this session, you may want to watch these recorded talks:

How does an academic department decide on their courses?

Now that I am an assistant professor, I perform scientific research, teach formal classes to undergraduate and graduate students, and I advise undergraduate students, as well as a smattering of other administrative or organizing-based activities. While I have performed nearly all of these in past job positions, the advising is a completely new aspect which has provided valuable insight into my other activities. The University of Maine serves a large number of undergraduate students, and many degree programs are specifically designed as preparation for specific career fields. Undergraduate students in my department now ask for my advice on which courses to take to best finish their degree, and this has led to some interesting discussions on why certain classes are required or not, and why certain classes are offered or not. I realized that the mechanics of course development are not well known to students, or even to academics who haven’t participated in it, and I thought I would share what I’ve learned.

Deciding on content

At the university level, courses are created and designed to offer a certain level of core material made up of basic concepts to introduce students to different fields of information; courses like introduction to biology, or general writing techniques. These may be referred to as ‘general education‘ courses and are designed for student audiences from many different programs at once. GenEd courses are taken in the first or second year of study in order to fill in any gaps from the very different high school educations students have, as well as teach the basics of information-finding and collaboration skills that they will need in other classes. GenEds are usually required before students take high-level courses in specific areas of study. Often, GenEds or introductory courses cater to hundreds of students per year, and there are several instructors to cover all the course sections, as well as teaching assistants, who provide instruction. There are additional core University requirements that each department can decide how to handle, such as the UMaine Capstone Experience requirement for students, which requires students to create a senior project related to their major. Within each academic department or unit (for example, Animal and Veterinary Sciences), there are core course requirements specific to that field of student that all students enrolled in that program need to take (for example, these requirements for Bachelor’s of Animal Science with a pre-veterinary concentration).

One factor in the decision about course content is simply which skills or knowledge students will need in order to enter the workforce related to their field of study. For example, undergraduate students who are intending to go on to a veterinary degree are often enrolled in pre-vet programs designed to prepare students for that further degree and to meet those application qualifications. As such, they will need to learn everything from anatomy to physics. Any content which is required to make the degree meaningful will also be required for students to pass in order to graduate, and means that it must be taught often enough that students have an opportunity to take it. Thus, core or required classes might be held at least annually, and sometimes multiple times a year. If the usual instructor is unable to teach it for a period of time, or there is turnover in the department, a temporary or adjunct instructor can be brought in on a short-term contract to ensure that course can be offered regularly.

Another factor is the area of expertise of the faculty instructors, who are research and/or teaching faculty with long-term contracts, such that those classes will be offered for at least as long as that person is employed. Because areas of expertise change over time, and because faculty come and go, this often drives the evolution of an academic department’s curriculum focus over decades. For example, I have a 50% research and 50% teaching appointment over a 9-month contract, which equates to 12 credits worth of teaching or formal mentoring in my department over the academic year. While I do teach some courses which were already set by the department, I had enough room in that 50% appointment to propose and teach two classes of my own design, one of which has now become a required course for animal science undergraduates specifically because my area of expertise has grown in importance and popularity in the past few decades. Departments will hire new faculty or instructors specifically because of their area of expertise and which direction they want the overall academic program to go in.

A more minor consideration on course content relates to university budget models, and whether academic departments get additional faculty or instructor salary for teaching students from outside their department – essentially a question of where tuition revenue is spent. Departmental course content is tailored to the intended student audience.  If a course is popular across the university but does not have applicability or appeal to the students within that faculty or instructor’s department, it can be difficult to justify spending time on it because most instructors or faculty are contracted to specific departments or academic unit budgets. However, a course with broad appeal could be taught outside of our contracted time, such as during winter or summer sessions, or potentially during the academic year as “overload teaching” which is above the number of credits outlined in our contact. This usually pays on top of the 9 or 12 month salaried contracts of instructors, but is restricted by the lack of free time that most faculty face.

Theory or approach to teaching

After settling on what should be taught, how, then, does a department decide how a class should be taught or constructed? How broad or specific should the information be, and how will the assignments or course requirements assess what students have learned? How will skills be taught? Broadly, this is called pedagogy: the method and practice of teaching, and is something which many faculty find themselves responsible for knowing even if we have not gotten an opportunity to develop our pedagogy in previous jobs. Prior to being an assistant professor at UMaine, I taught several different courses, including ones with pre-set materials that I re-hashed and presented in my own way, and ones with materials that I collected and decided entirely how to present (taught as electives). It wasn’t until that I was a long-term member of an academic department that I was able to participate in setting the direction of departmental courses, and to consider what we teach and how.  As part of my application to my current position, and my tenure packet (application to get a forever contract for my job), I am required to explain my teaching philosophy and how I put those ideas into practice in the classroom. I have previously shared some of those working documents.

As an example: it’s important to learn about how microbes affect animal health. Do I need to spend all my time lecturing to provide that info, or is there another format of information sharing I can use? I certainly need to lecture some, to introduce new topics or walk students through reading complicated graphs. But, it’s important that I also teach students how to find this information and assess it on their own, because they will be doing that for the rest of their life after they leave the classroom. Thus, I need to design my class materials and timeline to provide information and empower students to develop those same skills that I learned to get where I am: reading graphs, considering multiple and conflicting study results, forming questions and how to go about finding the answer. I might start a class with some lecture, followed by an assignment where students have to identity a question they have about microbiomes, then write down the expertise or people needed to find the answer from multiple perspectives, and finally outline what they thought that team could get done in one year.

Getting courses approved

There are many steps in the course approval process and, naturally, plenty of paperwork. In addition to a draft syllabus, a course proposal form is required which provides the logistical details (how many credits, lab or lecture, in person or online, and more), and describes the goals and scope of the content (introductory or experienced level), intended audience (students in which departments and which year of study), and how it will provide necessary skills or info to them. Importantly, the proposal form must describe how the new course will complement current courses that are offered at the University. Being able to show that there is a demand for this specific course, or that it is needed for professional development of the students, will support the course proposal during the approval process. This last part requires the person proposing the course to communicate with instructors of similar classes who might have students that will want to take this class. Are there aspects that you could include in your new course to make this more relevant to them, or to connect this new class to existing classes?

Once the proposal form is complete, it gets sent to the unit or departmental faculty committee for discussion, and may be returned for revisions. This committee might be made up of senior faculty in the department, or all the faculty if it is a small department. Not only can other faculty help improve the courses, but the time you spend teaching a course is time you can’t spend teaching other things that the department needs. So, your colleagues need assess whether this course is a good use of time and effort.

If the course is approved by the department, the proposal goes to the college curriculum committee which is made up of faculty from multiple different but related departments (for example, one from each department in the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture). Often, faculty sitting on this committee are Undergraduate Coordinators in their own department, and have a lot of input into the scope of what undergraduates study.  After that committee, the proposal then goes on to the university curriculum committee to make sure it complies with university-wide standards and formatting. There are different forms and committees for undergraduate or graduate courses, and if you create a cross-listed course which can be taken by senior undergraduates and graduates, you’ll need to submit both forms and talk to both committee sets.

If a course is approved by the university, it will be assigned a number and will start appearing on the course catalogue. If the course is going to be required for students, though, it will usually be offered as an elective for the first year or even two before it is required for incoming students (current students can take it as an elective). Courses may also fulfil multiple requirements at once. For example, my AVS 254 Intro to Animal Microbiomes is required core subject material for AVS students, but also fills a university general education requirement to take a course that includes population and environment-scale information. In learning about the microbial communities, students also learn about microbial transmission between individuals, lifestyle choices and impact on host microbes, and interaction with the environment and affect on host microbes.

Matching faculty expectations to student experiences

An important consideration for course design is matching faculty expectations with student experiences. For example, the course materials which faculty see describe the course, but those faculty do not attend the course and experience how that information is shared. Thus, faculty may think that students are receiving information or skills, but the way that it is presented is not approachable or pertinent for students and they are unable to reuse what was presented in the course. Even faculty did audit a whole undergraduate course, we don’t have the same perspective that students do in that we might already be familiar with the material and we would not be able to identify where a lecture left out general information that would be critical for someone who is new to this. The student perspective is also driven by their need to do well in the course, not only by receiving a high grade but also by absorbing as much information which can help them in other classes or in their future career. Thus, aspects of the course which students think are interesting or important are not necessarily the same aspects that faculty identify as important.

Aligning the faculty and the student perspectives requires regular assessment of the course to make sure it is providing the necessary training and information to students. Often this assessment takes the form of faculty input and opinions, or changing needs of post-graduation industry career needs. It also relies on end of the semester evaluations of student performance (grades), and student feedback and evaluation of the courses. Student feedback can be unreliable when feedback on the course is preoccupied with comments which come from a place of personal bias or outright hostility. And, most course evaluations don’t provide enough granularity in the questions to thoroughly assess student perspectives on different aspects of the course, forcing students to give overall ratings. However, student feedback can be valuable when combined with other sources of information or asks more detailed questions.

To that end, Samantha Coombs, an AVS senior undergraduate researcher and I are designing surveys to gather student and faculty mentor perspectives for the UMaine AVS program Capstone Experiences courses, AVS 401 and 402. These courses are required for undergraduates to take to earn their bachelor’s degree, and require students to propose, conduct, and present results on research – often for the first time in their time at UMaine. If this wasn’t stressful enough, students typically work on projects which are part of faculty’s research portfolio,  and both students and faculty can be impacted by mismatches in expectations versus the reality of those collaborations. While we won’t be fully sharing the results of those surveys, we will be sharing summaries, and how the responses impacted future course materials in AVS 401 – the course in which students are first launched into research.

Improving the Curriculum for Future AVS 401 Undergraduates

Authors: Samantha Coombs and Dr. Sue Ishaq

Affiliations: School of Food and Agriculture at University of Maine, Orono

Keywords: Capstone, AVS 401, Undergraduates, Faculty, Stress, Mentor, Curriculum


AVS undergraduates are not prepared to complete the requirements of AVS 401, before taking the course. In the AVS degree program, it is expected that undergraduates will gain knowledge, experience, and ideas to create a research project of their own. In many cases, AVS undergraduates are completing their capstones with never having performed a research project on their own. This is stress-inducing due to undergraduates having to learn both how to complete a research project, and how to write and complete a proposal. Undergraduates are given the choice to join a research project guided by a faculty mentor, but this leads to striving to meet expectations. Others struggle due to not knowing what project or path to go down. Each student needs a different situation that best fits their needs; this project will assist in trying to create a one-size-fits-all curriculum. The question I want to figure out is, can we adjust the curriculum in AVS 401 to meet the requirements of all AVS undergraduates for them to succeed in their capstone research? I hypothesize that we can create a curriculum that meets the requirements of undergraduates by surveying both faculty and undergraduates on their different expectations and experiences. Methods of research that will be conducted are, surveying AVS and other degree professors, surveying undergraduates who have taken AVS 401, reading syllabi, and reading scientific articles. The impact that this research will have is to create a class that is a one-size-fits-all for AVS 401 undergraduates. The curriculum will be adjusted due to the responses from both parties. The results will be a class that teaches undergraduates what they need to know to improve: the quality, efficiency, and reduce the stress of capstone projects.

A clock with wings flying in the air, with another one in the background out of focus. The background is a blurry tan.

Reflecting on “suggested deadlines” for assignments

Over the Fall 2020 semester, I changed my assignment deadline policy, creating “suggested deadlines” instead of enforced ones. I altered the language to “suggested deadline” in my syllabus semester timeline (in which I provide due dates for all assignments), I left submission portals open in the online teaching software, and I did not manually penalize grades for lateness. I made the change out of practicality for the fall semester, and I was personally pleased by the results; however, I wanted to hear from students. After being able to formally obtain student feedback during course evaluations, I wanted to reflect on that change and how I will implement it in future courses.

Previously, when grading policies were up to me, I accepted late assignments with a possible -10% grade penalty reduction per day, although I would waive it for a variety of circumstances. It was easy to enforce using online teaching software which timestamped submissions. This policy seemed to motivate some students, but in retrospect, it made students feel like they had to share their reasons for lateness and justify why they needed an extension. Not only did this late assignment policy increase the number of emails I received and time spent replying that yes, I would still accept it, but it also meant that students were sharing more personal information with me. I suspect that students who did not ask for deadline extensions probably had a reason but didn’t want to share than information in asking for an extension, and really, it is none of my business what else is going on in their life.

However, I made the decision to allow any assignments to be turned in after the due date without a penalty, in part because the pandemic shifted the amount and type of work most students were doing. Many of them reported an increased workload, having to attend remote classes in their car, trouble with internet access with so many other users on their network, and of course, power and internet outages are common in Maine when trees topple utility lines. If I had enforced assignment deadlines, then a third to a half of my students were in danger of failing the course because of lack of work, but not because of poor quality of work. This was unreasonable to me, especially in my undergraduate research course where I would be effectively be penalizing students for delays caused by their research mentors or haled research on campus.

So, I made the decision to trust my students to manage their own motivations and time management. After all, they are legal adults, they are not first years, and they have chosen to continue their education despite the financial burden and other constraints. More than that, almost all of my graded assignments with significant weight in the class are essay based, which means I can get a feel for the students’ writing voice and it is really easy to identify plagiarism by the change in tone or maturity of the writing. If being able to turn in an assignment late meant students’ could copy each other’s assignments, I should be able to catch it even without the online plagiarism checking software.

I was concerned that I would receive all the assignments on the very last day, and was dreading the avalanche of grading that would unleash on me. Instead, assignments trickled in on a regular basis, several hours to several months late depending on the students’ circumstances, some of which were later disclosed to me. Instead of getting sloppy, thrown-together assignments, I think the quality of writing and the depth of student critical thinking were improved. Students later reported being able to spend more time on the assignment when they had control over when that time could be spent. And, despite having the most students in the most difficult semester to get through, I discovered no instances of plagiarism.

I think I will make the move to suggested deadlines semi-permanent (some deadlines will be enforced based on if it is time-sensitive). The online teaching software I use can be set to assign a 0 to missing assignments, to email me when submissions are received, and to add conditions to submission portals, such as having first submitted another assignment or having received feedback on a previous assignment (like a previous draft of a paper). I can schedule automatic email reminders about assignments, email only students who are missing assignments, and students can check their grades and assignment lists online at any time. Not only does this dramatically reduce the time I spend chasing after assignments, but it gives students more agency in being able to participate in the class on their own time.

Certainly not every class can be structured this way or allow for flexible deadlines. But, I think a lot of them could be, and I think in most cases it would improve student engagement and learning outcomes. Below, you can find the comments on my two fall course evaluations, and you can check out my previous posts on curricula development or my teaching statements.

For much of the fall semester, assignment deadlines were open ended. Do you think keeping open ended deadlines (as in, you turn in things when they are ready but [not] on a specific date) next year would make this class better? Do you think you would be able to keep up with assignments without deadlines? Or do you think the deadlines help keep you on track?

My question from the course evaluations for this fall


  • I think the soft deadlines kept me in check, however it’s nice to know that if things unexpectedly get crazy for me that I won’t be penalized for taking extra time to make sure that I submit quality work.
  • I very much appreciated the flexibility in deadlines for this class as many other classes ramp up at the end of the semester. I felt as though I could control my workload with the assignments set up like this, and would recommend keeping the deadlines as suggestions to where you should be up to date in the course, but the actual submission deadline remains later in the semester.
  • You could do once a month check ins or something to verify nobody is completely slacking off. Maybe have three major deadlines to force people to keep up – one at the end of October, end of November and then the final submission?
  • The deadlines really helped keep me on track. Dr. Sue Ishaq was more than lenient with due dates and the work load, so I do not think anyone would have an excuse to not do well in this course (although this was really helpful with the troubling times humanity is facing). I think being more strict would be more fair to her as a professor and would help students not take advantage of being able to put things off and not learn the material.
  • I think the open ended deadlines was really helpful. It allowed me to put the time in when I could rather than rushing to get it done and turned in for the due date.
  • I appreciated having the due dates so I could try to get stuff in at a reasonable time but also that the deadlines were flexible so if something came up I wouldn’t turn in something I wasn’t happy with. I had a different class with no deadlines and it was horrible, I need the structure to be there but to also have the leniency for when things aren’t going well.
  • In this new quarantined world, the open deadlines were essential to academic success. While I didn’t struggle in this class necessarily, I did struggle in chemistry, pre calculus and lab with out the aid of study groups, math labs, and lab partners. Having open dead lines in this course not only affected my academic success in this course, but it also snow balled in a positive way and helped my GPA overall.
  • I think open ended deadlines with a suggested deadline would be the most helpful, because it will reduce the stress of deadlines, and allow for leeway in the case of multiple courses having work do on the same day, but it also gives a time frame around when the work should be done
  • The lack of deadlines required self–discipline but also removed the daunting aspect of the due date, which I often find myself deterred by and ultimately more likely to put off the work. I felt that the assignments were more inviting this way.
  • I think that this semester it was very beneficial to have the open ended deadlines. For me personally, I prefer to have deadlines to keep me on track, but I appreciate the flexibility of the open–ended deadlines.
  • I think having the open ended, suggestive deadlines made for a much easier semester. It took off a lot of stress to know that I could have an extra day if needed. Sometimes we get peaks in the semester where we’re slammed with work and knowing that if I needed an extra day or two to complete an assignment was really reassuring.
  • Thank you for being understanding on deadlines as this semester has been crazy, although the soft deadlines kept me on track without penalizing me for taking extra time if needed.
  • I think ended open deadlines do help due to things become crazier as the whole covid thing continues
  • I feel that open ended deadlines next year would make this class better because due to recent events in the world it is sometimes difficult communicating with project mentors. By having open ended deadlines, I know when it is supposed to be due, but if I am missing some information from someone on the project I do not worry as much about getting in trouble for handing it in late.
  • yes this is hard to juggle long term projects with weekly class deadlines. So open ended is the best for this class.
  • I believe the structure of fall semester deadlines was great.
  • I feel like open ended deadlines are very helpful because you would be able create better quality work with your research. I feel like I would be about to keep up with work without deadlines or just create the deadline for the end of the semester and put reminders.
  • I think a more strict set of deadlines could’ve been helpful as far as tracking progress. Exceptions could still be made for those struggling on a topic, or who are unable to start for some reason out of their control.
  • This semester, while everyone has been adjusting to the new way of pandemic life, the open ended deadlines were extremely helpful and stress relieving.
  • yes I think there should be soft deadlines, there is a date that it should be done but we didn’t have to have it done by then
  • Having a general guideline about when things should be turned in has been helpful, but keeping the deadlines open ended has relieved a lot of stress and has enabled me to produce better work because I was not rushed.
  • The deadlines kept me on track and having no deadlines would have me just turn everything in at the end which is bad.
  • I liked the deadlines. I would have kept all the work till the last minute if we didn’t. However, the open ended deadlines meant that even if you were behind, you wouldn’t be penalized which really helped.
  • I think open ended deadlines are a great idea because it allowed me to not feel pressured to submit something that I did not feel was ready. Without that stress, I was able to submit all of my assignments on time with the open ended deadline and not during the later one, which was helpful!

Featured Image Credit

A close-up picture of petri dishes containing a light yellow film of microbes.

2020 Year In Review

As has become a New Year’s Eve tradition, here is the Ishaq Lab’s Year in Review for 2020! In previous years, I remarked on difficult and delightful times alike, but 2020 has been a year full of intense loss for so many, and some have unfairly borne more of that heavy weight. In reflecting on whether to go ahead with the post for this year, I chose to do so and to include a tone of optimism and hope because, for the first time in the Ishaq Lab, I am not writing the story of me, I am writing the story of we. Even though we couldn’t all be together this year, the Ishaq Lab has tried to do our best to stay connected, and I have had the pleasure of watching my new lab team work together and grow as scientists. I am proud of how they have handled this year, and I wanted to share their triumphs.


2020 was the year for launching the first official projects of the Ishaq Lab, including a field project, a mouse project, and a handful of data analysis or microbial community projects.

A screenshot from a virtual lab meeting, featuring 5 women.

Early in the year, students began joining the lab, and we had our very first lab meeting, featuring Adwoa Dankwa (UM Perry lab), Alex Fahey (in the office with me), Tindall Ouverson (MSU, Menalled/Seipel lab), and Johanna Holman. Ironically, we had our first lab meeting over Zoom to facilitate students in multiple geographic areas, not suspecting we would only have virtual lab meetings this year.

The first field project was a literal one – a soil project! Because of the pandemic response in the spring and early summer, laboratory work was reduced until we could do so safely in enclosed spaces. But, we were able to launch a field project because the samples could be collected and processed by one person alone over the summer. Undergrad Nick Hershbine, who is majoring in Ecology and Environmental Sciences, has been investigating the microbial community in blueberry soil from farms around Maine. This is part of a larger project led by Dr. Lily Calderwood, and is supported by the  Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine (“Exploration of Soil Microbiota in Wild Blueberry Soils“). Nick is in the process of data analysis and interpretation, and we hope to write up the preliminary results over the winter.

The Ishaq Lab also launched its first mouse project! This is my first time managing mice, and luckily I have expert collaborators at Husson University and a stellar grad student taking the lead on those portions. I’ll be overseeing the microbial ecology aspects, done by master’s student Johanna Holman for her graduate work. Joe Balkan, a Biology undergrad at Tufts University, has been reviewing previous literature for culturing protocols, and will be joining us for two weeks over break to help with some bacterial work. Undergrad Evan Warburton, who started in the fall semester, will pick up that microbiology work from Joe at the beginning of the spring semester.

The Ishaq Lab also had its first student presentation this year, by master’s student Sarah Hosler giving a graduate seminar on her proposed research for her degree, which involves host-microbial interactions in ruminants. The first portion of laboratory work for her project will take place starting in winter break. We’re not ready to share any details, but first we will be trying out some new methodology, as well as recreating some older methodology which has fallen out of fashion.

As part of that first step, Sarah will be assisting with the Capstone project of undergrad Emily Pierce, who was awarded a UMaine CUGR undergrad fellowship to fund her work this spring. Emily will be investigating host-microbe interactions during Cryptosporidium parvum infections, something which routinely devastates newborn livestock. We had anticipated running this experiment last summer, but postponed it for safety. Emily and master’s of professional studies Alex Fahey have made good use of that delay, however, and have been spending the time reading scientific manuscripts, assembling experimental protocols, and designing their project. Alex does not need to complete a thesis for her degree, it’s more about assembling a variety of skills, so she has participated in a number of supportive activities this year.

Undergrad Jade Chin has been working on her Honor’s Thesis project, the scope of which has had to nimbly pivot over the past year as we weren’t sure what we would be able to accomplish during the pandemic. For example, we spent two months waiting for DNA extraction kits to arrive due to supply shortages and the federal disruption of the postal service. Those kits are critical to the very first step of the experimental procedures and one we could not skip. Jade will defend her Honors thesis in spring 2021, including a written thesis, an oral presentation, and even a short interview with her thesis committee, although it will be less formal and less strenuous than a graduate-level defense.

Grace Lee, an undergrad at Bowdoin College, has been working on data analysis of microbial communities associated with lobster in aquaculture, which is part of a larger project by Drs. Debbie Bouchard, Jean MacRae, and Heather Hamlin. The dataset is a large and complicated one, though with an elegant experimental design. We anticipate writing up the results beginning this winter and continuing through the spring. Grace will be joined by an undergrad who I have been mentoring in my AVS 401 Capstone class, who will be contributing a literature review for the manuscript.

Three papers were published this year, which were all part of previous projects at former positions. This included the culmination of my post-doc work in the Menalled Lab from back in 2016, and one of the small projects I participated in while at BioBE from 2017 to mid 2019.

  1. Horve, P.F., Dietz, L., Ishaq, S.L., Kline, J., Fretz, M., Van Den Wymelenberg, K. 2020. Viable bacterial communities on hospital window components in patient rooms. PeerJ 8: e9580. Article.
  2. Ishaq, S.L., Seipel, T., Yeoman, C.J., Menalled, F.D. 2020. Dryland cropping systems, weed communities, and disease status modulate the effect of climate conditions on wheat soil bacterial communities. mSphere 5:e00340-20. Article.
  3. Ishaq, S.L., Seipel, T., Yeoman, C.J., Menalled, F.D. 2020. Soil bacterial communities of wheat vary across the growing season and among dryland farming systems. Geoderma 358(15):113989. Article. This was accepted in 2019 but not officially published till 2020.

It’s very common to have a slump in publications when starting a new position, and particularly when that involves moving to a new institution and establishing a new lab group. Research can take awhile to gain momentum, especially when you need to recruit and train new lab members. Or, when those lab members have to pause their lab work for global public health reasons. The Ishaq lab isn’t worried, we’ll make up for it in 2021. With all the ongoing projects, we anticipate a handful of other papers being developed next year. I’ve also got four manuscripts that have been in review for months, a process which has also been (understandably) delayed because of the pandemic.

Five stickers advertising the Ishaq Lab, with different photos of lab equipment, bacterial culture plates, and sheep.
We tried out some designs for Ishaq Lab stickers!


I taught three new classes this year; one that was new to me and two that I developed myself. In spring 2020, I taught a special topics version of my DNA sequencing data analysis class, which means that I got provisional approval to teach it as a one-off while I completed the full course approval. Because the data analysis class is cross-listed for undergraduate seniors and for graduate students, it needed to go through two different curricula approval processes, and curricula must be approved a certain amount of time before the first instance of the class. That class has now been formally approved as AVS 454/554. From the spring version, two scientific manuscripts are in review, and a third is in preparation while more data are added. We managed to achieve a lot in the spring class, considering halfway through the semester we switched to remote instruction only as the early throes of the pandemic descended.

The other two new classes I taught this fall, including the first part of the Animal and Veterinary Sciences Capstone Experience, AVS 401, which instructs students on writing and presenting research proposals and matches students with a research mentor to try and complete the project. It was particularly challenging to do that this fall, when many researchers still had their work on pause because of the pandemic. I’ll be continuing this class in the spring as AVS 402, in which students present what they’ve done. While only a few AVS students will pursue research as a career, they will all need to implement the scientific method and the ethos of research into their lives no matter where they end up. Being able to find, assess, and critique information are all critical skills which this Capstone Experience helps them to develop.

I taught AVS 254, Introduction to Animal Microbiomes. I’ve previously taught some of this material, but to very different student audiences, which required a lot of course development on the fly over the semester. Even with the previous material, I still needed to revise all my previous lectures to adapt to a new lecture length, add new ones to make up about half the semester, and, as our understanding of host-associated microbiomes evolves over time, the course materials needed to be updated (annually) to present up-to-date knowledge. The last lecture of the semester was a compiled video of ‘science journeys‘, featuring researchers in host-associated microbiology sharing what they work on and how they got here. You can watch the video, too!

I also spent a lot of time this fall curating the Teaching Statement portion of my tenure packet, some of which I shared as a series of posts this fall. Next spring I will have my third-year review, which will be the first official hurdle and where I get more substantive feedback from my peer committee about the trajectory of my teaching, research, and outreach as I develop my packet to apply for tenure in ~ year 5. In 2021, I have a planned blog post describing the history and process of tenure, and I will likely share other portions of my tenure packet, such as my research statement.

Presentations from my couch

As I recently posted, 2020 has been The Year of The Virtual Conference. Many conference in spring and summer of 2020 were outright cancelled, but some managed to revise their format and be held virtually later in the year. This was achieved with a combination of live-streaming and pre-recorded content, all of which became on-demand during the conference. Viewers could ask questions through a chat function, or by posting questions directly to the presentation page. While early attempts to host large virtual meetings with researchers in multiple time zones faced a steep learning curve, overall, I think many people realized the potential provided by a virtual platform. For example, without travel costs, more students and early career researchers could afford to attend, and researchers with family care, health, or other constraints could participate on their own time.

Seven of the eight planned scientific presentations of my work took place in 2020, listed here with some links to video content.


Screenshot from an online seminar. The video of the speaker is in the upper right corner, and the title slide is the rest of the image. The seminar is "A crash course in the gut microbiome" by Sue Ishaq at the University of Maine.

Similarly, seven of the eight planned public presentations took place, with some links to video content in the list below:

  1. University of Maine Medicine seminar series (virtual), “A crash course in the gut microbiome” , Nov 6, 2020. pdf of slides with annotated comments: ishaq-ummed-gut-crash-course-20201106
  2. Genomes to Phenomes (G2P) group, University of Maine. Co-hosted a session with grad student Alice Hotopp, on gut microbes and survival of reintroduced animals. Oct 30, 2020.
  3. University of Maine Cooperative Extension Oxford County 4-H Teen Science Cafe (virtual), “Gut microbes on the farm”, Oct 15, 2020. 
  4. BioME (Bioscience Association of Maine) Virtual Coffee Hour, “What is a microbiome and where can I get one?” Oct 14, 2020. I introduced myself and my research to 65 participants, who are biomedical professionals and state representatives in Maine. 
  5. University of Maine Cooperative Extension Oxford County 4-H Jamboree (virtual), “Gut microbes on the farm”, Aug 13, 2020. Video.
  6. Invited to lead Journal Club with the Fogler Library, August 4, 2020. led a 1 hour discussion on gut microbes and survival of reintroduced animals.
  7. Albright College Science Research Institute summer program 2020, which engages grades 5-12 in research.  “A crash course in the gut microbiome”, virtual presentation, Aug 4, 2020.

I’ve also been endeavoring to promote the AVS Capstone Experience projects, in part by sharing student-written project summaries on social media and UMaine news outlets. I will do something similar at the end of the spring 2021 semester when projects are complete. And, the online conferences have gotten me thinking about how to create an on-demand virtual symposium that is open to the public…


I published 45 posts this year, including this one, and was much chattier this year with over 26,000 words total. The most popular post this year was What is academic Outreach/Extension, a sleeper post from 2017 which finally ended the popularity reign of Work-Life Balance: What Do Professors Do?. A number of posts were tied for the least popular this year with one view each, but at the bottom of that possibly-arbitrary list, was A collaborative project got published on the biogeography of the calf digestive tract!, a publication announcement from 2018.

My site had its most popular year, with just over 5,000 visitors taking >8,250 views from 112 countries, as shown in the image below. This November had a record number of visitors, with >1,100! In total, my site has had >15,200 visitors and just under 24,000 views since January 2016, more than I had imagined possible when I began. The website visitors are joined by 64 wordpress followers, 100 on Instagram, 113 on Facebook, nearly 1200 on Twitter, and 0 on Tumblr, which I set up because wordpress will auto-reblog to there, just in case anyone still uses Tumblr.


I picked up a new hobby this year – axe throwing! I tried it at an axe bar last winter and instantly took a shine to it. We made wood targets at home and bought a few throwing axes, and while I haven’t become the maverick I had hoped, it is a lot of fun. I’ve also picked up an arguably more useful skill, basic electrical work to change outlets and light switches! We’ve been slowly updating and renovating our house, and I’m looking forward to learning drywalling and flooring next near.

Looking Ahead

2021 is anticipated to be an exciting year, and will be a combination of wrapping up current projects so some of my students can graduate, as well as progressing the graduate work of Johanna and Sarah. In my “free time”, I’ll continue to fine-tune my curricula, and it’ll be back to the writing table as I revise the research proposals that I submitted this year which were not awarded funding. Of the twelve proposals I submitted in 2020, two were awarded, one is already revised and back in review, at least two will be revised and resubmitted, and at least two new ones are planned.

I’ll be part of my first graduate thesis defense as part of the committee, as Tindall Ouverson is expected to defend her master’s in 2021 from Montana State University. Tindall’s first paper on soil bacteria in agricultural fields is currently in review, and the data analysis for two more (one of which is not on soil microbes) is underway.

I’ll also be leading the committee for Jade’s Honors thesis defense in March. Alex won’t be giving a defense to finish her degree, but she’ll still be informally meeting her committee to reflect on her academic journey and if she’s prepared for a professional career. Johanna and Sarah will soon be inviting faculty to their committees, and next year I will be chairing those meetings.

I’ll be teaching the AVS 402 Capstone class for the first time, but as I already spent the fall semester with AVS seniors in AVS 401, it shouldn’t be any trouble. Just a LOT of revising papers and giving feedback. I’ll be teaching my DNA analysis class again, and will spend the next few weeks updating the materials from last spring when I taught the special topics version. I’ll also be compiling datasets for my students to work on, and hopefully, to turn into scientific manuscripts by the end of the semester.

A number of events developed by the Microbes and Social Equity working group will come to fruition in 2021, and I will finally be able to tell you about them in detail! Stay tuned for information on a speaker series running from February through April, a hybrid (virtual and in person) symposium in June, and a public announcement of a scientific journal special collection.

I’m also pleased to say that one of my cousins will be joining the website behind-the-scenes in 2021, to add alternative text to my website images to make them more inclusive. This and other work will serve as part of the requirement for science/service hours for membership to the Science National Honor Society! I’ll leave it to my cousin to make a formal introduction in a blog post on science accessibility, but welcome to the team!

See you next year!

“Now what? Science journeys into host associated microbiomes”

With the closing of the fall semester, I said goodbye to the students in my AVS 254: Introduction to Animal Microbiomes class. Despite the challenges and turmoil of fall 2020, these students have been engaged, enthusiastic, and creative. After presenting lectures on the microbial communities in and on animal hosts and how they can impact health and fitness, for the final class of the semester, I wanted to close with perspectives from the broader world of science.

To that end, I compiled several videos of “science journeys”, as told by active researchers in host microbiology, with an introduction to the class/video and my own science journey. I hope to compile a new volume each year I teach the class, to gather diverse paths.

I am extremely grateful for the time, effort, and thoughtfulness of the researchers who were able to contribute during a hectic semester to volume one:

  • Edna Chiang, University of Wisconsin Madison, @EdnaChiang  
  • Dr. Kaitlin Flynn, Benaroya Research Institute in Seattle, @microkaitlin  
  • Kiran Gurung, University of Groningen, @kirangurung29  
  • Jocelyn R. Holt, Texas A&M University, @JocelynRHolt  
  • Chissa Rivaldi, University of Notre Dame, @Powerofcheez  
  • Dr. Laura Tipton, Chaminade University of Honolulu, @lauraomics  
  • Dr. Benjamin Wenner, The Ohio State University, @Bynjammin

Reblog: “Animal and veterinary sciences seniors: Capstone stories”

Starting this fall, I have been teaching the UMaine Capstone Experience courses for Animal and Veterinary Sciences students (AVS 401 and 402). To complete the University of Maine requirements for graduation, students must participate in a Capstone Experience to knit together the work of their undergraduate degree into a cohesive project. AVS students are required to part pate in research under researcher mentorship. Some of those students felt comfortable sharing short descriptions of their project. The slightly edited summaries and my intro were posted to the University of Maine news page for teaching experience updates.

Teaching Statement development series: evaluating my approach

This is the final installment of the selected portions of my Teaching Statement as part of a development series, drafted as I refine my philosophies for the submission of my second-year review this fall. I welcome feedback! Feel free to comment on the post (note, all comments require my approval before appearing publicly on the site), or contact me directly if you have more substantial edits.

*Please note, these are selected portions of my Statement which have been edited to remove sensitive information. These are early drafts, and may not reflect my final version. Tenure materials that I generate are mine to share, but my department chair, committee, and union representative were consulted prior to posting these. Each tenure-granting institution is unique, and departments weigh criteria differently, thus Statements can’t really be directly compared between faculty.*

Evaluating my approach to teaching (modified to remove sensitive information)

I regularly solicit student feedback in my courses, either in class, or via anonymous surveys using online teaching platforms (Brightspace), to improve the quality and content of my teaching materials.  For example, a voluntary, anonymous survey of AVS 401 Senior Paper in Animal Science I students in fall 2020 on lecture content and order revealed that the material presented (see Developing curricula) was all or partly new to them, that they would have preferred to learn about Project Management and Experimental Design earlier in the lecture series, and that they found all lectures to contain useful information. Survey report available upon request. Student comments included

  •  [ Student comments redacted for the blog post]

Similarly, I solicit feedback from my peers, including an ad hoc Pedagogy in STEMM working group on campus.  The working group meets semi-weekly to discuss curriculum development, and in particular, including social issues into science courses. I led a one-hour meeting on re-thinking tense classroom conversations, as well as making student contribution equitable and productive. My re-devised strategy, a result of that working-group meeting, for discussion topics which do not elicit student engagement is to ignore the topic discussion and jump to resolution planning in the short and long-term using starting scenarios which include cost/benefit analyses, if applicable. 

Finally, the use of online teaching software (Brightspace) allows me to evaluate student engagement in real-time, from tracking assignment submission times, to identifying patterns in grading that point to poorly-worded or confusing assignments, to participation in online discussion forums by topic.  The software facilitates tracking progress by individual students or the class over time, allowing me to parse when I need to reach out to offer additional help, or when I need to change an assignment deadline because it conflicts with large assignments (such as mid-term exams) from other courses which divert student attention. 

Previous installments:

Teaching Statement development series: science and society.

Teaching Statement development series: research mentorship.

Teaching Statement development series: research and education.

Teaching Statement development series: scientific literacy.

Teaching Statement development series: developing curricula.

Teaching Statement development series: accessibility.

Teaching Statement development series: science and society

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing selected portions of my Teaching Statement here as part of a development series, as I refine my philosophies for the submission of my second-year review this fall. I welcome feedback! Feel free to comment on the post (note, all comments require my approval before appearing publicly on the site), or contact me directly if you have more substantial edits.

*Please note, these are selected portions of my Statement which have been edited to remove sensitive information. These are early drafts, and may not reflect my final version. Tenure materials that I generate are mine to share, but my department chair, committee, and union representative were consulted prior to posting these. Each tenure-granting institution is unique, and departments weigh criteria differently, thus Statements can’t really be directly compared between faculty.*

Tying science course content to other aspects of society

I have two goals in my attempt to connect my science curricula to other aspects of society: to provide a broader educational perspective on science, and to stimulate imagination regarding the application of scientific knowledge to community building and civic engagement. Students need to understand that science is ongoing, and that there are yet many questions in the field for them to answer.

One technique to connect science and society in my coursework is to encourage students to self-identify as scientists, and to understand that they are able to participate in it. For example, on the first day of AVS 401 (Capstone), the students made a word-cloud of adjectives to describe their idea of a scientist, shown below.  At the end of the academic year, after participating in research and learning about the process, students will make another collaborative world-cloud.  As a class, students will reflect on whether their understanding of science and scientists has changed, and whether they are more (or less) likely to perceive science as a field that they are able to engage with.  Hopefully, this participation in research and reflective exercise will accentuate their use of effort-based descriptors, such as “patient” or “methodical”, rather than ability-based descriptors, such as “gifted”, when thinking about scientists, and thereby when thinking about themselves.  It is important for students to learn that science is a process to participate in, not a gift that you are born with.  In fact, a large-scale research study found that student achievement gaps were more dramatically narrowed when the instructor held the personal view that ability could be taught, rather than ability was fixed, i.e. you are born with it  (Canning et al. 2019, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aau4734).

Word-cloud of adjectives to describe a scientist, AVS 401, Sept 1, 2020.

Another technique is to highlight the importance of the principles of research (i.e. finding and testing information for accuracy) and how those principles can be integrated into daily life or future careers, regardless of what those are. This includes teaching the AVS 401 students about why we need research, for example, in order to be more objective and remove our personal biases.  I explain how search engines work, and how the design of algorithms can contribute to the popularity of search results outweighing the quality and correctness of the information.  I talk about the importance of unbiased data in training sets, highlighting examples of artificial intelligence programs which were trained on social media interactions espousing violent rhetoric because human users thought it was fun to tell the AI that all humans held such views. 

In addition to providing information about the process of research and how to design an experiment, I give AVS 401 students information on the administrative aspects of research, including personnel and project management.  For example, I teach students about how researchers find funding and the goals of writing research proposals, and highlight the importance of including descriptions of project management in research proposals to prove you have the capacity to perform the experiment  I also give examples of demonstrated implicit bias in proposal reviewing that creates inequality in funding availability to different demographics of scientists, and how this artificially makes them look less competent when it comes time for internal review.  While this may seem immaterial to the class, reminding students that science cannot be divorced from the views of society, and that in order to overcome our bias as scientists we need to overcome our bias as people, too.

Thus, I provide background information of science and society to my classes, where pertinent.  For AVS 254, Introduction to Animal Microbiomes, the first section of the course (8 lectures) are devoted to the development of microbial ecology theory and technology over time, from the discovery of “wee animalcules” to the use of metagenomics. During these lectures, I provide annotations on historic scientists who have been lauded for their work, but who used that science for discrimination.  For example, James Watson, one of the researchers credited with determining the structure of DNA and the process of replication, was famously racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic, to the point where some of his awards were later revoked by institutions.  In one of his biographies, he devoted an entire paragraph to denigrating the appearance of Rosalind Franklin, whose originally-uncredited work was integral to Watson’s own success (https://www.vox.com/2019/1/15/18182530/james-watson-racist).  By telling this story in lecture, and following up with a discussion on “Elitism and Credit for Intellectual Contribution”, I place what is clearly a monumental scientific discovery in the context of society and human interactions.  It is critically important for students to understand that the journal articles they read about animal microbes in the rest of the class is the result of hundreds of years of effort and thousands of contributors, because it starts a discussion about power dynamics in science and in workplaces, in general.  It is important for them to understand how implicit bias, stereotypes, elitism, or even poor interpersonal relationships can affect science, as well as for them to learn that they have rights to their intellectual property and that they can actively make their future workplaces more equitable such that we do not continue to make the mistakes of the past.

Another technique is getting students to appreciate the hundreds of years-and-counting worth of history which led us to our current understanding of the microbes that interact with us. Without that history, and a discussion of how that technological journey shaped our current scientific understanding, I cannot do justice to the majority of the coursework. By and large, DNA sequencing is the technology behind much of the subject material in my AVS 254, Intro to Animal Microbiomes class. Sequencing is often portrayed as a panacea for all scientific questions, yet I teach students that as this technology improved we realized our experimental procedures were biased.  Being able to see this change over time requires perspective and time spent in a field, something that most undergraduates do not yet possess for microbial ecology.  And without the historical perspective, how can we understand that the most prevalent DNA sequencing technology today owes its success, in partm to the acquisition of a patent the company bought in a ‘fire sale’ because no one wanted to buy the patent outright from an African American with no higher education degree. In science courses, we only have so much time to disseminate information, and for that reason we often skip to the results, the end point, the cutting edge. Yet in telling only one story, or only the ending of the story, we rob students of the opportunity to see that science is a living process over time.  To see that scientists may be fallible, or that technology has both limited and informed our understanding of the natural world, or to understand why “some scientists” may disagree about the effects or scope of climate change.  Students need to understand that science is ongoing, and that just because knowledge is not fixed does not mean that is unreliable.

Towards the second goal, I use assignments and in-class discussions to stimulate imagination towards applying scientific knowledge to life outside of the classroom for the purpose of community building and active citizenship. In fact, the AVS 254 discussion on “Elitism and Credit for Intellectual Contribution” is a great example. Students engage with this topic because it is a situation that they can identify with. An in-class discussion on “Are your microbes really yours?” similarly stimulates student engagement. I think this topic succeeds because it is a novel concept and it sparks curiosity, and because it is a neutral topic in that there is no wrong stance, and asking questions about the topic is not associated with a moral judgement.

However, not all topic discussions are successful with all student groups.  For example, “Do we have a right to tell people how to conduct agricultural practices?”, after a lecture about agricultural practices which affect gut microbes and may trigger disease in livestock  This topic is one that I had devised at the University of Oregon for non-science-majors, who were interested in human connection to animal-microbe interactions.  Asking them questions which deliberately set up a pro/con side appealed to them because they were used to being asked to debate stances they did not espouse and they found it an interesting thought experiment.  However, at UMaine, teaching to animal- and life science students, the same question failed to engage them because the topics were not hypothetical as they had direct experience in it and they had already formed conclusions about the topic.  UMaine students also felt that the phrasing of this question was insensitive, which had been my point – I wanted them to practice arguing a stance for agricultural sustainability in the face of opposition.  Because UMaine students had already come to the same conclusion about this topic – that agricultural sustainability was important and could be used to improve economic security of food systems, they felt there was no question for them to answer.  

As my first semester teaching AVS 254 has been fall 2020, in a remote format during a pandemic, the conversational interaction that I typically have with my students is lacking, which is usually the basis for how I develop the topic and phrasing of discussions. Instead, to improve my curricula and my strategy for using discussions to improve student critical thinking skills over the course of the semester, I workshopped my approach to discussions in an ad hoc Pedagogy in STEM working group on campus.  The working group meets semi-weekly to discuss curriculum development, and in particular, weaving social issues into science courses. I led a one-hour meeting on re-thinking tense classroom conversations, as well as making student contributions equitable and productive during discussions. My re-devised strategy (a direct result of that working-group meeting) for discussion topics which do not elicit student engagement is to ignore the topic discussion and jump to resolution planning in the short and long-term using starting scenarios which include cost/benefit analyses, if applicable.  Instead of “Do we have a right to tell people how to conduct agricultural practices?”, the set-up will be “How do we plan for more sustainable ruminant agriculture?”  Students will be given a scenario of a farmer in Florida that wants to switch their cattle herd to a heat tolerate breed.  A brief economic analysis will be provided, such as cost to buy new cattle, as well as management concerns such as availability of markets to sell off current stock or sourcing new animals from less-common breeds.  Students will then have to decide how they will “get there from here”: what will they do today? Tomorrow? In one year? In ten years?  Changing industries and human societies is a slow path, and many people get discouraged by their lack of progress and move away from active citizenship.  Having students plan out short and long-term goals for change will ideally help them to learn to apply knowledge to planning actions today, and in the future.

Previous installments:

Teaching Statement development series: research mentorship.

Teaching Statement development series: research and education.

Teaching Statement development series: scientific literacy.

Teaching Statement development series: developing curricula.

Teaching Statement development series: accessibility.

Teaching Statement development series: research mentorship

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing selected portions of my Teaching Statement here as part of a development series, as I refine my philosophies for the submission of my second-year review this fall. I welcome feedback! Feel free to comment on the post (note, all comments require my approval before appearing publicly on the site), or contact me directly if you have more substantial edits.

*Please note, these are selected portions of my Statement which have been edited to remove sensitive information. These are early drafts, and may not reflect my final version. Tenure materials that I generate are mine to share, but my department chair, committee, and union representative were consulted prior to posting these. Each tenure-granting institution is unique, and departments weigh criteria differently, thus Statements can’t really be directly compared between faculty.*

Research mentorship (modified to remove sensitive information)

For students in my lab, who are listed in the Student Research Mentoring section, I approach mentorship the same way I do my in-class pedagogy, which is to say that I stress the importance of both technical skills and communication skills.  A large portion of their time is spent developing laboratory skills, many of which are translatable to other fields and types of research.  These skills include sample collection, DNA extraction, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), qualitative PCR (qPCR), DNA purification and quantification, gel electrophoresis, DNA sequencing library preparation, DNA sequence data analysis, microbial isolation from mixed communities, microbial culture under aerobic and anaerobic conditions, microbial biochemical testing and microbiology, microscopy, as well as some mammalian cell culture.  In addition to learning these skills, students are responsible for performing related data analysis, developing or refining protocols, and learning to care for the equipment they are using. As for communication skills, students must read and translate information found in scientific articles, perform literature reviews, present their updates or results in lab meetings, write scientific protocols, generate and give scientific presentations, and write scientific manuscripts or other documents for dissemination.

However, I feel that learning to manage scientific research is also a critical skill for students, and all participate to some degree, including my undergraduate students. Students are asked to take the lead on contacting other faculty with questions, calling manufacturers for information on supplies and reagents, generating shopping lists for materials and comparing products, updating inventory, and sharing and curating information or data. Once students feel proficient in a particular skill, they are encouraged to teach it to another student.  Likewise, multiple students are grouped together on projects, giving them a cohort of peers to trouble-shoot and discuss their research with.  For projects involving culturing work, this also requires them to learn division of labor, time management, and coordination of research efforts in order to maintain the experiment and share equipment.  For graduate students, these project management skills also include a small amount of personnel management, as they are designated as project team leaders and participate in coordinating undergraduate students in the lab.

I have been mentoring student researchers at the University of Maine since January 2020, beginning with undergraduates and a non-thesis graduate student, and adding two thesis-based graduate advisees as of fall 2020.  I am currently a documented committee member for three graduate students, including two in the School of Food and Agriculture, and one at Montana State University in Land Resources and Environmental Sciences.  For each of these students, I provide mentoring, training, and high-level perspective on microbiology lab work, including DNA extraction, PCR, qPCR, and sequencing library preparation, as well as DNA sequence data analysis. All three projects relate to my work on microbial communities in agriculture, or which would impact the gut. Several of these students are working on collaborative projects between myself and other researchers, including those on and off campus.  In particular, students from other majors and departments bring their scientific skills to my microbiology and microbial genetics work, and increase the overall competency and skill set of my lab. These students support interdisciplinary work, and have contributed or will contribute to scientific publications and presentations as authors. 

I strongly believe that students who contribute to research should have the option to contribute at an author level, if they choose, but many are unaware of their intellectual property and publication rights that the University supports.  In my varied experiences in academia, I have been witness to research disputes on authorship which inevitably ended in the student researcher being negatively affected by the resolution of the dispute.  In nearly all of these cases, guidelines on publication rights and expectations in the lab were not clearly outlined between the student and the advisor.  Nor were there guidelines in place for resolving disputes via mediation from a true third party. In one of the labs I trained in, a Memorandum of Understanding was developed by the researcher to outline rights and responsibilities for new lab members, and over the years I adopted this document to be pertinent for my research situations.  At the University of Maine, I heard a similar need for this type of document from students, and have been working with students, faculty, and administrative staff to revise an MOU for use on campus.  At present, we are in the process of finalizing a clear first draft, after which we will invite campus members, such as those in the Graduate College, unions, tech-transfer office, and Student Life, to a focus group to discuss the document. It is my goal to have the Graduate College adopt a modifiable version of the MOU and encourage faculty to discuss it with new lab members.

[The rest has been removed for this post as it contains student information.]

Previous installments:

Teaching Statement development series: research and education.

Teaching Statement development series: scientific literacy.

Teaching Statement development series: developing curricula.

Teaching Statement development series: accessibility

Teaching Statement development series: research and education

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing selected portions of my Teaching Statement here as part of a development series, as I refine my philosophies for the submission of my second-year review this fall. I welcome feedback! Feel free to comment on the post (note, all comments require my approval before appearing publicly on the site), or contact me directly if you have more substantial edits.

*Please note, these are selected portions of my Statement which have been edited to remove sensitive information. These are early drafts, and may not reflect my final version. Tenure materials that I generate are mine to share, but my department chair, committee, and union representative were consulted prior to posting these. Each tenure-granting institution is unique, and departments weigh criteria differently, thus Statements can’t really be directly compared between faculty.*

Integrating research and teaching

AVS 454/554 DNA Sequencing Analysis Lab encourages students to bring their own microbial community data, or allows them to work on unpublished data donated by my research collaborators.  By working with unpublished data, and connecting to active research projects,  students have the opportunity to develop real-world skills in a lifelike research context.  While I teach them how to perform statistics or create figures, as well as when they are contextually appropriate, the development of their research narrative and results presentation is somewhat-student led.  They learn to explain their data, not only to me or to other students during peer-review, but to researchers who typically have expertise in fields other than microbial ecology.  And, the use of unpublished data creates the possibility to pursue submission of their manuscripts, generated for class assignments, for scientific publication along with cooperating researchers, which engages students in research beyond the scope of the class.  

There is a critical need in the research community for analysis of small projects like the ones used in this class; often these data are from low-priority small projects, or researchers simply do not have the time or expertise to train students in data analysis and interpretation.  The special topics version (AVS 590) in spring 2020 was composed of 7 students, with 2 additional graduate students informally attending the class as they were graduating that semester.  The work in class resulted in 3 scientific manuscripts submitted for review in fall 2020, all with student authors and some with student first-authors. In particular, the extended interactions of students through internal and external review offers them an opportunity for guidance through what can be a challenging process for new researchers. For the spring 2020 class, I was presented with two unpublished datasets from collaborators at UMaine and across the US, and I view this class as an opportunity to assist UMaine students in networking to improve their career trajectory. I anticipate more enrolled students, and more collaborative projects, in future offerings of this course.

 Beginning in the 2020/2021 academic year, I began teaching AVS 401 (fall) and 402 ( spring), Senior Paper in Animal Science I and II, respectively.  Together, they form the Capstone Experience for AVS seniors.  The scope of this class was and remains student involvement in a research project, for which students develop a research proposal in written and oral presentation formats, and then develop a research report in written and oral presentation formats. Animal and Veterinary Science is heavily focused on professional development for animal science, production, and veterinary careers, which most accurately serves the interest of the majority of our students.  The final component of their education with us is to learn to apply that knowledge in an informational-seeking capacity, i.e. research.  Most students in the department and on campus, in general, have no prior experience participating in research. Or, their participation extends to sample collection and processing, and data analysis.  It is difficult to incorporate the aspects of experimental design conceptualization and project management, despite being critical aspects of scientific research and development.  Thus, in fall 2020 I began with an academic approach to applying these aspects of research in education, through the use of lectures.  Feedback from students early on in the fall semester indicated that many of the concepts I included in my lectures (see Developing curricula section) were almost or completely new to them. 

To provide a more comprehensive experience in conceptualizing research questions and developing plans to test them, I required students to include other components in their research proposals in addition to the background information, hypothesis, objectives/aims, and experimental design or project description.  These additional components include a project timeline, a list of project personnel and their responsibilities or contributions, a statement on data management and sharing, and a statement on information dissemination and sharing, with specific outcomes or outputs listed (if applicable). The infection-preventative measures enacted to contain the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has shifted the amount and type of research on campus, and the way that students are able to engage in active research.  Thus, for fall 2020 I did not require students to consider some aspects while writing their research proposal in the fall for AVS 401, such as budgets and justification, whether they had available equipment, and a description of their available facilities, but these will likely become small written components in future years.  For the research proposal, I do not consider any of the materials that students generate to be binding, as projects evolve during their course and many student projects are redirected by advisors, and I clarified this point to students.  As long as a research proposal was well-thought out, it could be materially different from the research report they generate by the end of the spring semester.

Previous installments:

Teaching Statement development series: scientific literacy.

Teaching Statement development series: developing curricula.

Teaching Statement development series: accessibility