Summer 2020 is…. here. This year has been unpredictable at best, but some things have stayed the same. For example, summer is one of my favorite seasons in which to work in science, because things calm down when the university is not in full session and I’m not facing a deluge of emails, meetings, and myriad small interactions that accumulate to eat up the day. I’ve been taking the time to prepare my laboratory, dive deep into scientific writing, and prepare for the increased teaching load I will have starting this fall.
You might think that the pandemic causing months of delayed or reduced labwork would have lightened my research load, but I’ve had more than enough to keep me occupied over this spring. Not only have I been submitting a few manuscripts for peer review at scientific journals from my time at the University of Oregon and Montana State University, but I have been working on some unanticipated manuscripts that coalesced this spring. This has included a project with a previous collaborator on diet and health, another based on soil microbial ecology led by master’s student Tindall Ouverson at MSU, and three more which were generated during my DNA sequence data analysis course that I taught this spring! Of these, I am lead author on two and contributing to the others at a variety of depths. Some require a great deal of my time, while others require only editing and review.
And then there were 10! I now have three University of Maine master’s students and 4 undergraduate students performing research in my lab, as well as three other graduate students from other labs who are affiliated with us (as in, I am on their committee). In addition to training them on scientific research theory, laboratory protocols, and data management and analysis, they are getting general training in scientific literature review and critique, scientific writing and presentation, and laboratory management.
Lab space renovations
I am preparing the second of two laboratory spaces for my research, and this space hasn’t been fully renovated in years. While still very functional, there have been a number of remodeling, refinishing, and reorganization steps which needed to be taken to get it in line for biosafety level II microbiology work.
I have been doing much of this work personally, because it’s cheaper, and I have experience in basic home renovations. And, I enjoy the opportunity to put my email inbox away and let my thoughts wander to scientific theory while I use power tools.
When it is ready, I’ll be starting the wet-lab research into gut microbiology and doing more culture work to supplement the genomics work. To aid in that research, I’ve been acquiring more nifty bits of equipment.
Course materials development
Over the spring, I piloted a new course as a special topics version, and I have just been approved to teach that as an official course starting in spring 2021! This summer, I have and will continue to revise my teaching materials from the spring version to prepare them for AVS 454-554 next year.
I’ll be teaching two courses starting in fall 2020, one on animal microbiomes and one on undergraduate research for animal science students. AVS 254, on animal microbiomes, is material I have taught at other institutions with a different course focus. For that course, I will be updating the course material, adding new lectures from scratch, and revising the formatting of powerpoints. I’ll also need to make some of it more accessible for asynchronous online learning, depending on how the semester is organized this fall. This means pre-recording the lectures, and putting more effort into the online learning software I have available.
The other course I am teaching is new to me, AVS 401 (and 402 each spring), the AVS Capstone experience. I’ll be teaching students how to write scientific proposals, research papers, and give scientific presentations, as well as guiding them through participation in research along with faculty mentors. For many students, it’ll be their first experience participating in research. This year, since many students are unable to participate in in-person research and labs have been closed, it’ll be extra challenging to come up with projects, but I have some creative ideas in mind.
Works in development
In addition the above objectives, I have a number of things in development which are not yet ready to be shared in detail. These includes new research collaborations, leading a team to organize a journal special collection, and leading a team to organize and host a (virtual) mini conference meeting in the fall!
Faculty positions and summer work
Now, as an assistant professor at the University of Maine, I’m on a 9-month contract. During the academic year, I devote 50% of my time to research-related activities, and 50% to teaching/advising/mentoring– related activities. I have the option of working in the summer, or taking it off unpaid. However, my summer salary is contingent on me being awarded research funds which will pay for the work, something which is not guaranteed in this funding climate. It is generally not advisable for pre-tenure faculty to spend summers idle, and in any case, I would inevitably have to perform work of some kind over the summer to keep pace with my workload.
I am lucky enough to have start-up funding which can pay up to 2 months of summer salary per year during my first 3 years; however, I am expensive: one month of my summer salary is the equivalent of 1 full-time undergraduate researcher for 3 months, or a sizable chunk of a research project. On the one hand, I want to value my time and effort, and being paid for summer research helps close the gender pay gap for salary and retirement contributions. On the other hand, I am also forced to consider how to get work done on a reduced budget, should federal funding not come through. After all, being awarded tenure is contingent on productivity.
In May, I was adamant about taking the entire month of July off, as 2019 and 2020 have been incredulously busy and stressful and I haven’t had a vacation since Feb 2019. Now, at the end of June, I’m not sure I could take off a full summer month and still output all of the above, plus be prepared for the challenges of teaching this fall. At least my working-from-home view is more or less a vacation-scape, and some surprise home renovations will at least keep me away from electronic screens for some of it.
Not only is the ongoing ‘COVID-19’ pandemic a collective experience and historical event, it has changed the way we interact with each other and with our infrastructure. It’s pertinent to incorporate these events into teaching curricula, not only to study these changes in real time, but to help us make sense of what is happening during these difficult days. A number of faculty at the University of Maine have been and will be integrating various aspects of the pandemic into their teaching. For my part, I’ll be guiding students on research projects related to how COVID-19 and public policy has affected agriculture and veterinary practice.
“COVID has very suddenly and dramatically changed the way we interact with each other, and has had repercussions for food, agriculture and animal care industries,” Ishaq says. “Students need to understand these changes to build more resilient and sustainable food and health care systems.”
“Faculty incorporate COVID-19 content into curricula”, Marcus Wolf, June 23, 2020
AVS 454-554 teaches bioinformatics using DNA data. Starting with raw DNA sequencing data, students go through the process of quality assurance, statistical analysis, graphics design, as well as drafting a scientific manuscript. The course integrates research into teaching by using unpublished data, ideally data the students bring from their own research projects. Not only do students learn highly sought-after analytical and scientific writing skills, but it makes them active participants in research and their own learning. Most of the course time and skillset are focused on amplicon sequencing data, but we’ll also dabble with whole-genome, metagenomics, and metatranscriptomics.
Along with my Introduction to Animal Microbiomes course, I hope to get students interested in microbial ecology earlier in their studies, such that they have time to get involved with microbial ecology research in Maine in time for them to develop a Capstone research experience around it in their senior year. And what a coincidence, I’ll be teaching the Capstone courses for AVS (401 and 402) starting in fall 2020, as well.
This course is based on the precursor version, AVS 590, which I taught as a small, special topics version in the 2020 spring semester. And, even that is conceptually based on a lab section I taught at Montana State University in 2015 and 2016. DNA data analysis and I go way back.
It can take several months to get course proposals approved, especially if you are proposing they meet general education requirements, are listed as required for a major degree, or have other levels to them. I started Sept 1, and the AVS faculty curriculum committee, the first step in the approval process, was meeting in early October. I didn’t have time to develop two course proposals in time, so I first proposed my data analysis course as a “special topics” version. These versions are offered selectively and are not counted the same way as an approved course. But, it gave me time to shore up my teaching materials, and teach several students who were graduating and couldn’t wait another year to learn these skills.
DNA sequencing data analysis is challenging to teach as well as to learn, but once over the learning curve, it can be extremely fun and rewarding. I’ve previously taught bioinformatics to undergraduates, and have or continue to publish with a number of them. In AVS 590 in the 2020 semester, there were 4 datasets being analyzed, and 3 of those led to manuscripts which are anticipated to be submitted to for review in scientific journals sometime this year!
What do compost, food security, and social justice have in common? They are all part of creating sustainable, more localized food systems that benefit the community. Want to know more? Check out the piece I co-wrote for The Conversation, along with two other soil microbe researchers.
Seems like a lifetime ago that I walked the stage and was hooded during the graduation for my doctoral degree, just 5 years ago. In 2020, most Universities have cancelled their in-person graduations due to pandemic concerns, with faint hopes that they might be able to host the opportunity for 2020 graduates “to walk” at a future ceremony. It’s a good day to reflect on the opportunities and privileges I’ve been afforded that have helped me along the way.
I defended my PhD in mid March 2015, and within two weeks had driven with Lee from Vermont to Montana, flying back to VT for the ceremony in May. In those 5 years, I moved to Montana, then Oregon, then Maine; I’ve worked for 4 different departments in 3 Universities; I’ve had several different hair styles; I adopted a dog, got married, and bought a house; applied to dozens of jobs almost every year because of the short-term appointments I held; and established a research lab at the University of Maine as an assistant professor. It’s been a pretty busy 5 years, all around. I look forward to the next 5 years, and the opportunity to help the next generation of researchers begin their journey.
IHBE meeting organizers did a fantastic job at facilitating a remote meeting with a dozen speakers across multiple time zones. This included creating formatted slide decks for speakers to populate, coordinating sections by colors and symbols and providing respective virtual backgrounds for section speakers to use, and use of breakout rooms for smaller discussion groups.
I presented “Framing the discussion of microorganisms as a facet of social equity in human health“, and you can find a recorded version of the presentation here. There are no closed captions, but you can read the audio as annotations here:
The concept of “microbes and social equity” is one I’ve been playing with for a little over a year, and has developed into a colloquium course at the University of Oregon in 2019, an essay in PLoS Biology in 2019, and a consortium of researchers participating in “microbes and social equity part 2”. The Part 2 group has been developing some exciting research events planned for later in 2020, and those details will be forthcoming!
A collaborative review article that I was last author on was listed in the top 10% most downloaded papers of 208/2019 in the journal Indoor Air! Even more impressive, this review was published August 20, 2019, and it was still in the top 10% spanning from January 2019 – December 2019!!
This paper stems from my work on the microbiology of the built environment at BioBE, and reviews the interaction between chemistry, microbiology, and health in the built environment. It was co-authored and led by undergraduate students I was mentoring at the time, as well as research associates and PIs from the BioBE lab, and a variety of fabulous collaborators!
I’m pleased to announce that I have been approved for full Graduate Faculty status in the Ecology and Environmental Sciences Program at the University of Maine! EES is an interdisciplinary program that allows for flexibility of scope in research and graduate study. I am now able to:
advise PhD, MS, and non-thesis MS students in EES
serve on the graduate committees of EES students
design and teach EES-designated grad and undergrad courses
Today a large-scale federal grant proposal was submitted, bringing me to four proposals submitted so far in 2020 (and eight total in the 2019/2020 academic year)! I have one more that is planned for the end of May, and two more that may be submitted this summer depending on the disposition of my pending proposals. Each of these proposals takes weeks to months of planning, writing, and coordination between the research team. The proposal submitted today was 107 pages, and only some of those materials can be re-used between grants, such as descriptions of equipment and research facilities.
The success rate for obtaining federal funding for your project varies by agency, year, and category of project/principal investigator, nicely tracked here (updated Dec 2019), and currently ranges from 8 – 30%. For example, “pilot” project (small projects to “seed” your long-term research), student-specific, or “new investigator” grants may have a higher rate of success because their applicant pool is restricted by eligibility. Competition is fierce, especially when federal agency budgets are cut or re appropriated.
If projects are not funded, they are returned with reviews from typically 2 – 4 experts in the field who provide comments and recommendations for strengthening the experimental design, or the presentation of the project itself. You might think that proposals are judged on the merit of the science alone, but the ability of the team to manage the project, and the research team, is also being evaluated. Principal investigators (researchers like me, leading the project) need to show that we have good ideas and the organizational skills to implement them, especially if the project spans multiple years or institutions.
Submitting a research proposal is worth celebrating – it represents weeks of effort – but especially during this time when we are all trying to keep our head above water, never mind accelerate or productivity. It’s important to take a few minutes to relax, work can wait, because ‘the grind’ will be there waiting for you when you get back.