How to choose a graduate program in STEM

I frequently receive requests for advice on choosing graduate programs, or to work in my lab, and have conversations with graduates who are struggling with program, department, or university policies which they were not aware of when they began. I decided to put those thoughts and conversations in one place, to create a non-exhaustive list of advice and considerations for choosing a graduate program. This will mostly be applicable to STEM programs, but some aspects will be universal.

Some of this will be discouraging, because graduate school is not a thing to be entered into lightly. But, I also believe that anyone can participate in science, and that many times when people think they couldn’t succeed in science, it’s not because they aren’t good enough, it’s more of a problem with an environment that selects for just one type of researcher.

Define your goal.

What do you want to do with your career and why do you need to go to graduate school to accomplish this?

I spend more time talking people out of graduate school, or into a lesser commitment, than I spend convincing people to go to graduate school, because there is an inflated sense of the need and prestige of having a graduate degree. And, many people assume they need a degree, or the highest degree available, to get the job they want.

When I was in 6th grade, I decided I was going to be a veterinarian because I wanted to help animals, and I refused to consider other career paths which felt like a lesser calling. Three weeks into my undergraduate degree in animal science, I realized that the reality of being a veterinarian is very different from its portrayal, and it wasn’t what I wanted at all. I had only thought I wanted it because I had gotten a very limited exposure to career choices prior to going to college. I see the same mistake with people considering, or in, graduate school. I don’t mean to disparage having a veterinary or graduate degree, I just mean that the way they are portrayed to prospective students is not always accurate. Do your homework before committing to those career paths.

More than that, when you receive career advice or look into career paths, the advice tends to focus on the highlights or major types of jobs and ignore the nuance of interdisciplinary or support-level careers. Not only does this mean that everyone in animal science thinks they can only be a veterinarian or a professor to be in the field, but the way that careers are portrayed makes students think that the only suitable use of their time, and justification for massive financial burden of higher education they incur, is to go for the career with the highest prestige – whether they want that or not. Unfortunately, when students realize they don’t have the grades and the accolades to make it into the career with the most prestige, which also has the most strict entry requirements, it means students are more likely to give up entirely, consider leaving their degree unfinished, and feel guilt or shame for having failed. But here’s something no one tells you up front: choosing a different job doesn’t mean you failed to be the boss, it means you chose a different job. A veterinary technician isn’t a failed veterinarian, and a laboratory technician isn’t a failed researcher, they are performing different functions in a setting which requires collaboration from various job types.

So, I’ll ask you again, like I ask all prospective graduate students: what do you want do with your life, and do you need graduate school to get you there? This question helps you focus on creating stepwise objectives to meet your goals. Maybe you need a specific degree, or a degree in a specific field, or don’t actually need a degree at all, maybe you need an internship or professional training, and those might require a specific order to the events. Do you want to travel for work or not? Do you want to have clear definition of your job responsibilities, or the flexibility to determine your own to-do list? Do you want to be at the bench, in the field, or at the keyboard and to be doing the research, or do you want to be writing proposals and papers, and administrating the research and the lab personnel? And, do you actually want to work alone or are you alright in a social environment? Spoiler alert, most jobs in science actually require daily socialization, communication, and presentation.

All of these aspects will determine the particulars of what you need out of a graduate program and the type of degree you get. It’ll also help you in the future when you need to decide if you have met your grad school goal and are ready to move to the next phase of your life.

You can probably outline your personal goals and constraints, but defining your professional goals will take some homework. I’ve previously described the academic ladder, with descriptions of responsibilities of students, post-doctoral researchers, adjuncts and researchers, and tenure-track faculty. I have also compiled some “science journeys” into a video. Professional research blogs can be a good way to learn about life in academia, although keep in mind many labs only post about their successes and not about their failures. You can also connect with faculty on campus, and most labs will take on undergraduate (or even high school) students to participate in research. If you aren’t sure if you would be interested in research, you can ask to shadow researchers in the lab, attend a few lab meetings, or otherwise participate in a voluntary and commitment-free capacity. There are also plenty of research opportunities off campus, as well.

Volunteering for Adventurers and Conservationists for Science, collecting water samples to look for microplastics. Photo: Lee Warren.

Define your limits.

Graduate programs can be demanding, and you may need to relocate to find the topic, project, and mentor who is right for you. Before you start applying everywhere and racking up application fees, think about your constraints, your limits, and what would be a “deal-breaker” for you. Defining your limits (especially if you have a lot of them) will feel like you are writing yourself out of the possibility of finding a graduate program that works for you. In reality, it will help you find an institution that matches your life better and will help you focus on what is really important to you. You don’t have to erase all other aspects of your life in order to be a scientist.

Often, you feel pressured to give up everything to go to graduate school or other professional degree programs. The perception is that because there are fewer available positions than applicants that you need to underbid everyone else and give up everything, essentially that you need to recruit the graduate program. You assume you have to relocate and out of your own pocket, you need to put family on hold, you need give up job benefits, and you will have to work all the time.

I’ve moved over 7,000 miles for academic jobs.

Some of that may be true, and you should think about what you are able to manage and what you can’t live without. Some of that is just perception cast by work-a-holic culture and you will be able to reject or negotiate aspects. Think of your list of limits as conditions your employer might need to meet in order to convince you to take the position.

Narrow down your interests.

What do you want to do day after day, failure after failure?

If you start to make a list of things you are interested in science and you start writing down all the cool things you saw on social media – stop right there. Science is cool, but most of the time is cool in retrospect after the work has been completed and narrative added in. Science is arduous, iterative, and requires a lot of process improvement and reflection, and that takes time and focus. You need to be able to work on the same thing day after day and maintain interest even if everything you do seems to fail everyday. Especially when you are trying to develop technical skills and analytical skills, you need to be able to focus and dive deep into your topic, and you can’t be distracted by every little thing you think is cool, otherwise you will never get anything done.

You don’t need to commit to your research interest for life, and you don’t need to have an incredibly narrow scope to your interests, but you should be able to identify a common theme or the aspect that draws you in. Which topic makes you ask “yes, and?” over and over. What cool science story made you look for a second similar story, and then a third?

Search for a program.

There are a few different types of graduate degrees available, and each have nuances about the requirements to get in, requirements to graduate, cost to you, salary and benefits to you, and approach for application and acceptance into the program. I recommend looking into programs first, to find a location and institution that best meets your personal and professional goals and limits, and then trying to find a mentor. Don’t underestimate the importance of geographic location, and the environmental and social climate you will find there. You might need to be close to family, or find a location with a job or program for a partner. And if you are used to sun, several years of overcast winters might lose their novelty.

Most people apply to multiple programs and it can take time to find the right match. If you end up applying to multiple programs at a single institution, you can ask them to waive additional application fees, something that is commonly done but not commonly advertised.

Masters of Professional Studies are designed to give you familiarity with research and build skills. MPS is not thesis-based and requires research participation but not your own research project, so it is often used for people who will be in research-adjacent jobs. Students are admitted to programs based on their GPA, exam, or other numeric qualifications, and during their first semester have to identify a research mentor and two other committee members to guide their curricula and career development. MPS students pay for their own tuition, and most program/university policies stipulate that they are not allowed salary for their research, although they usually can be paid summer research salary. MPS students are eligible for teaching assistantships, but few, if any research assistantships. Because you are categorized as students and not employees, you do not receive health insurance or other fringe benefits, but you are eligible for student health insurance plans. MPS are completed in 2 years, but can be completed over longer periods of time to accommodate working professionals.

Master of Science programs are thesis-based, and require research study in a project you co-lead. Applications may be accepted year-round or according to deadlines, depending on the program. Master’s programs are designed to last 2 -3 years (credit hour requirements make it almost impossible to accomplish in fewer than two years), and beware mentors or projects which assign you a PhD-level amount of work to accomplish in just two years. Finding funding for master’s programs can be tricky, as many universities prioritize PhD students in order to boost their Carnegie research rating, but master’s programs are needed for training the majoring of the research workforce. Typically, you are paid a salary for your master’s, including partial coverage of your health insurance, and full coverage of your tuition. Most programs do not cover full health insurance, or semester fees, both of which can cost a thousand dollars of more in each of the spring and fall semesters, but you might be able to negotiate these to be paid by your advisor. You are considered both a student and an employee, but most university policies make graduate students ineligible for university-based or even individual-based pre-tax retirement savings programs for employees, although you can configure a post-tax retirement savings plan on your own.

Doctorate of Science programs are dissertation-based and requires that you (more or less) lead a research study and have contributed significantly to the theory behind its design, or theory behind its analysis and interpretation. PhD programs are designed to take about 5 years in the US (3 years in many other countries which don’t require coursework). Credit hour requirements make it almost impossible to accomplish in fewer than 4 years in the US, and PhD time can vary between 4 – 9 years, depending on the research and other circumstances. Applications are accepted year-round for direct-to-lab admissions (see below), and once or twice a year to be considered for lab-rotation-based fellowships.

Thesis-based science programs have two paths to admission, which is not always common knowledge. You will always have to apply to the graduate college of a university and meet the qualifications set by the university, as well as the program/department. After passing initial qualification checks, the graduate school will forward applications to the department to review, and it is this step that offers two paths.

If graduate programs have a collective fund to support students (teaching or research assistantships), they might accept a certain number of students as a cohort based on their qualifications. The top number of applicants will have some sort of recruitment event in which you are shown the facilities, have a chance to talk to students and faculty, and are interviewed by the program admission committee. Applicants who are admitted as a cohort have salary provided for the first 1 – 2 years as they take classes and rotate through different research labs. At the end of rotations, you match with a lab that has money to continue funding your salary and your research. Most programs will not accept so many students to the cohort that they will be unable to find them funding to continue their graduate work.

However, because thesis-based study is a funded position, you might apply to a department as a “direct admission”. This means that you have already matched with an advisor during prior conversations, the advisor has already looked through your application, and that the advisor and the department have informally agreed to offer you a position. But, this method is entirely dependent on that advisor having funding to pay your salary, tuition, and your research costs. You need to start the conversation with a possible mentor 6 months or more before you want to begin, unless you are applying to an advertised position in their lab. Finding research funding takes 6 – 18 months because of the slow pace of federal funding review and allocation, so if your advisor needs to find funding it will take planing ahead of time. Direct admission can happen on a rolling basis, but you will still need to apply to, and meet the qualifications of, the graduate college. Because of the unpredictable nature of the funding, you can defer a direct admission offer for a year, as needed.

Interviewing and searching for a mentor.

Whether you are applying as part of a cohort or a direct admission, you will have some sort of interview. It might be a series of informal conversations with potential advisors, or a formal interview with a program admission committee. When you are going into a graduate program interview, it feels daunting, and it’s not until you advance your career enough to be on the interviewer side that you realize it is supposed to be a conversation and not a test.

The graduate interview is not really about proving your qualifications because you have already met that hurdle with your application. The interview is to match students to mentors, and to confirm your interest in research. By having conversations and interacting in real time (whether in person or via electronic chat), interviewers can assess your communication skills, and get a better idea of your goals and interests.

The graduate advising relationship is quite different from what you might have experienced with previous instructors or undergraduate advisors, so it’s important that your personal and professional goals line up with those of your advisor. It really helps if you actually get along. You’ll be working together for several years during your degree, and will maintain a mentoring relationship for a good portion of your early career after you graduate. As a member of their lab, you’ll be performing a lot of their research and representing them at conferences and other venues during presentations, collaborations, or future work. It’s important to your career and theirs that you are able to work well together.

Therefore, during your grad school interviews you should remember that you are interviewing them, as well. The interview is an opportunity for your future advisor and institution to impress you and convince you to take a position with them. This is your chance to ask them about the projects you might be doing, where former lab members are now, their expectations of you, and more. Many federal funding proposals require a detailed mentoring plan, so advisors already have an idea what your professional development might look like. Importantly, get an idea about the lab culture. Some advisors feel you should work nights and weekends and during all breaks, others feel that your contributions belong to the lab and you might not have as much access to your own intellectual property than you think. And, not every lab has made a commitment to equity and inclusion. Here’s the policy for the Ishaq Lab.

It’s also a great time to ask grad program coordinators about university policy, departmental expectations, and financial support opportunities which might affect you. Does the program provide some or all financial support for health insurance, tuition, salary, and student fees? If not, what opportunities are in place to secure these? Are you able to switch mentors if there is a professional or personal mismatch? Is childcare available for graduate students? What about time off for maternity leave, and is this paid or unpaid? Family or medical leave? What if you need to take a semester or a year off, can you get back into the program and would you lose your funding? How many papers will you need to publish, or scientific presentations to give, and will there be financial support for those costly endeavors? While no one would ask you to pay publication fees out of pocket, I have heard of researchers refusing to financially support grad student travel to conferences, despite many departments requiring students to present in order to obtain their graduate degree. Travel to scientific conferences can run to several thousand in travel and participation costs per trip, and one trip to a national-level conference could cost an entire month’s graduate student salary.

Adopt healthy habits.

If everything comes together and you’ve been accepted into a graduate program that works for you, congratulations!! I wish you the best on the next step of your journey. If you are looking for more advice for once you get there, check out my previous posts, including preparing yourself before you start by adopting good habits for organization and work-life balance.

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.

Research

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!

Teaching

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.

Outreach

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…

Blog

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.

Life

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!

Emily awarded an undergraduate research fellowship!

The very first Ishaq Lab undergraduate researcher, Emily Pierce, has also been awarded the first fellowship of the Ishaq Lab!

Emily has been awarded a Faculty Fellows Research Assistantship for spring 2021 from the University of Maine Center for Undergraduate Research (CUGR)! The $1200 award will provide funds for salary to Emily and research materials, and will support her project for her AVS Capstone Experience (selected Capstone project summaries are here, but Emily’s is not included).

Portrait of Emily Pierce

Emily joined the lab in early 2020 to work on a project investigating calf health and gut microbes, but very soon after joining the lab, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic emerged and changed the way we were able to interact on campus. Without missing a beat, Emily shifted her efforts from helping me wrangle the lab renovations and sorting out our inventory, to helping me improve my teaching materials, to diving deep into previous literature to dig up protocols for her experiment in 2021: “Ideal Conditions for Cryptosporidium Attachment and Infection.

We’ll be performing the experiment itself over the winter break, and then using the spring to analyze the data and write them up. As part of the CUGR award, Emily will be presenting her work at the 2021 Student Symposium in April, which will be held virtually this year. You’ll have to wait till then to get more details!

“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

A very close-up image of a small, dark brown mouse perched on the arm of a graduate researcher wearing a surgical gown.

The first mouse study involving the Ishaq Lab begins!

Mice have arrived for a collaborative project on diet, gut microbes, and health in conjunction with researchers at Husson University! This is the first mouse project for the Ishaq Lab, and also my first hands-on mouse project (in my previous publications with mice, I received datasets but the mouse work was performed solely by my collaborators).

This is one of my first new collaborations at the University of Maine, which began in September 2019 as I was just finding my way around campus. An established researcher at Husson University, Dr. Yanyan Li, reached out to welcome me and talk about overlap between our work. Yanyan, her husband Dr. Tao Zhang, also a researcher at Husson University, and collaborator Dr. Grace Chen at Michigan State University, had been working on beneficial compounds found in broccoli using mice as an experimental model for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Over the past year, in consultation with IBD experts Drs. Gary Mawe and Peter Moses (who I worked with previously while at UVM!), we have written several proposals for funding to expand the project.

Johanna Holman worked for several years with Yanyan and Tao, as an undergraduate researcher and then as a research assistant. She joined the Ishaq Lab this fall to continue her work as a graduate student and add gut microbiology to her skill repertoire. This experiment will form the base of her graduate thesis, and Johanna is taking a lead role in managing the project as well as several undergraduate researchers, including Dorien Baudewyns, assisting with the mice and lab work. As an early career researcher, and new to mice, I’m extremely lucky to be able to learn from an experienced team of researchers!

Title slide of a presentation on "Framing the discussion of microorganisms as a facet of social equity in human health" by Dr. Suzanne (Sue) Ishaq for the inVIVO Planetary Health 2020 conference.

The year of the virtual conferences

2020 has been an interesting year for scientific conferences and meetings, which typically bring dozens to thousands of researchers and professionals together to share their work. Some of the bigger meetings, or those occurring early on in the pandemic, elected to cancel their events because there was no time to adjust the logistics for hosting a massive meeting online.

As the year progressed with no sign of the pandemic abating, more conferences opted for a modified event online. This included live-stream and/or recorded content, spacing the event over a longer period to reduce “zoom fatigue”, and making network events smaller virtual versions. It certainly would have been more rewarding to be able to have these in person, but I am pleased that conference organizers chose safety as their priority.

In some ways, having virtual content made the material more accessible. recordings meant you could watch content at your convenience, more organizations provided or required subtitles for presentations, and those who would otherwise not be able to attend, because of cost, childcare, or travel constraints, were able to participate.

The Ishaq Lab presentations for 2020 is below, with presenters denoted with an asterisk (*).

  1. Ishaq*, S.L.”Framing the discussion of microorganisms as a facet of social equity in human health”, inVIVO Planetary Health 2020 meeting. (revised to virtual) Amsterdam, Netherlands. Dec 2020.
  2. Yeoman*, C., Lachman, M., Ishaq, S., Olivo, S., Swartz, J., Herrygers, M., Berarddinelli, J.  “Development of Climactic Oral and Rectal Microbiomes Corresponds to Peak Immunoglobin Titers in Lambs.”  Conference of Research Workers in Animal Diseases (CRWAD) 2020. (revised to virtual) Dec 5, 2020.
  3. Ishaq*, S.L., Hotopp, A., Silverbrand, S.,   MacRae, J.,  Stock, S.P.,  Groden, E. “Can a necromenic nematode serve as a biological Trojan horse for an invasive ant?” Entomological Society of America 2020. (revised to virtual). Nov 15-25, 2020.
  4. Ouverson*, L..,  DuPre, M.E., Ishaq, S.L.,  Bourgault, M., Boss, D., Menalled, F., Seipel, T. “Soil microbial community response to cover crop mixtures, termination methods, and climate in the Northern Great Plains.” Ecological Society of America (ESA) 2020. (revised to virtual) Salt Lake City, UT. Aug 2020.
  5. Menalled*, F.D., Seipel, T., Ishaq, S.L. “Agroecosystem resilience is modified by management system via plant–soil feedbacks.” Ecological Society of America (ESA) 2020. (revised to virtual) Salt Lake City, UT. Aug 2020.
  6. [meeting cancelled] Horve*, P.F., Dietz, L., Ishaq, S.L., Fretz, M., Van Den Wymelenberg, K. “Characterization of Viable Microbial Communities on Healthcare Associated Window Components.” American Society for Microbiology Microbe 2020, Chicago, IL. Jun 2020.
  7. [meeting cancelled] Horve*, P.F., Dietz, L., Ishaq, S.L., Fretz, M., Van Den Wymelenberg, K. “Characterization of Viable Microbial Communities on Healthcare Associated Window Components.” 2020 Microbiology of the Built Environment (MoBE) Gordon Research Conference, Andover, NH. Jun 2020.
  8. Ishaq*, S.L. “Framing the discussion of microorganisms as a facet of social equity in human health”. 3rd annual  Institute for Health in the Built Environment Build Health 2020. (revised to virtual) Portland, OR. May 2020. (invited). Video.
  9. Zeng*, H., Safratowich, B.D., Liu, Z., Bukowski, M.R., Ishaq, S.L. “Supplementation of calcium and vitamin D reduces colonic inflammation and beta-catenin signaling in C57BL/6 mice fed a western diet.” American Society for Nutrition 2020. (revised to virtual) Seattle, WA. June 2020.

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.

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.

UMaine Institute of Medicine seminar available online

Last Friday, I gave a seminar on “A crash course in the gut microbiome” to the University of Maine Institute of Medicine as part of their fall seminar series. You can find the previous seminars in that series here.

I was delighted to have the opportunity to share my science to researchers around Maine, and to have so many engaging questions!

You can find my seminar recording here, and a pdf of the slides with my presenter notes as annotated comments can be found here:

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.