Spring 2020 Updates

2020 has … gone in a very different direction than the way we probably all thought that it would back in early January. The emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) pandemic has dramatically altered the way we live our day-to-day lives, and the way we think about ourselves as a global community. To reduce the transmission of the virus, the University of Maine, and many other schools and institutions, made significant alterations to their operating policies over spring 2020. This included sending students home (where possible), moving classes to online instruction only, asking faculty to work from home, and restricting laboratory and field work. This has resulted in some disruption to my plans, so here’s an attenuated post about updates over the last few months.

Teaching

The courses I am teaching this spring lent themselves well to being taught strictly online, with some modifications. Naturally, the presentations class works better in person where the stress of having an audience present promotes in situ training. The students were able to give an elevator speech, a regular short presentation for a peer-level audience, and a peer-level audience presentation with random technical challenges introduced by me into the slides. The remaining portion of the semester was devoted to giving presentations to a public-level audience, which requires a different presentation style and a good deal of thought into how much info is condensed and what you can and can’t expect your audience to already know. It was going to be too logistically challenging to organize public presentations remotely with short notice, so instead I had students create annotation notes for someone else’s slides, described here.

The data analysis class was easier to adapt, but required adjustment nonetheless. Instead of hosting a three-hour video meeting each week, I recorded the remainder of my lectures and made them available well in advance, so that students could watch and listen when they had time and internet access. During the class period, the class met to collaboratively work through data, which was always the goal, but with the challenge of remote work some re-imagination of the assignments was needed to allow students to opt-in to some of the work at times convenient to them.

To simplify the work, instead of having students independently perform similar analyses on different sets of data, I had them perform similar, somewhat independent, analyses on the same dataset, allowing them to all work collaboratively. As a bonus, this unpublished dataset was one that I have been working on collaboratively over the past year, so the students will be able to opt-in to participating in the publication of this work. This is in addition to the two manuscript which are slated to be submitted for review in the next few months, and two more under development. Because that’s still in development, I won’t share more detail now, but stay tuned to those results, and a more in-depth discussion on integrating student data analysis education with research.

Looking ahead, I am making plans to teach my fall classes online as well, including AVS 254: Introduction to Animal Microbiomes, and AVS 401 Senior Paper.

Research

Since starting at UMaine in September 2019, I have been working on establishing my lab. Most of that effort thus far has revolved around rearranging my lab spaces and acquiring specialized lab equipment. This aspect hasn’t been negatively impacted, outside of the new logistical challenges of delivering large pieces of equipment to locked buildings without coming into contact with delivery drivers.

However, acquiring supplies has been impacted, as certain materials are suddenly in extremely high demand, while production of others has dramatically reduced for the time being. Although I hadn’t begun any wet lab research which needed to be halted, I was just about to start culture work and training students on laboratory protocols, which has now been delayed for at least two months. Instead, I am in the process of transitioning student projects from benchtop-based to data analysis-based, at least for those students planning on graduating between now and spring 2021.

I am also focusing on trying to get previously completed projects written up and sent out for review, including a study on bacterial communities around window components in hospital rooms with the BioBE lab, a few collaborations on gut microbes in different animal species with the Yeoman Lab, and two more papers on the effect of climate, farming system, weed competition, and plant health on wheat production and wheat-associated soil bacteria with the Menalled/Seipel Lab. You can read the pre-print (meaning it hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet) on the soil microbes one here.

I do have some concrete exciting news, though, two graduate students will be joining my lab this summer/fall to start work on master’s of science degrees! Johanna Holman will be working on diet and gut microbiome in humans, for a master’s in Nutrition and Food Science, and Sarah Hosler will be working on new methods for investigating gut microbial communities in animals, for a master’s in Animal Science.

Looking forward, I’ll be changing my plan for training students on laboratory work, to facilitate social distancing measures while ensuring that students aren’t alone in the lab. Luckily for me, my labs and soon-to-be-office have windows between them so I can hover from a different room entirely.

Outreach

Social distancing has temporarily impacted my outreach activities, particularly in the short term as we try to adjust. A lecture I had planned for the Maine Organic Milk Producers annual meeting was canceled in April, although I’ll now be able to talk about Microbes and Social Equity at the Institute for Health in the Built Environment Industry Consortium annual meeting in May since it has been moved from in-person to online. Similarly, I am participating in a few discussions for other summer events and whether they might be transitioned to online formats. In the mean time, I’ve been practicing coming up with pithy interactions on Twitter.

A number of scientific conferences which I was planning to attend and/or have research presented at have made the decision to postpone, including the American Society for Microbiology’s Microbe 2020, International Society of Microbial Ecology’s ISME18, the Gordon Research Conference’s Microbiology of the Built Environment (MoBE) 2020 meeting, the American Society for Nutrition 2020 meeting. Other scientific conferences are attempting to switch to online formats, such as the Ecological Society of America (ESA) 2020 meeting, but bringing thousands of participants together in an interactive way is an extremely ambitious adaptation in such a short period of time.

Looking forward, I hope that many organizations will adjust and maintain their commitment to online accessibility of conferences, meetings, talks, and other outreach events, as well as making these resources available after the event. Attend a conference or public presentation is important to building you research program and improving the impact of your work, but financial, physical, logistical, or familial considerations often make it impossible to participate. Maintaining remote-accessibility, and making content available after the event, are important steps in making science more inclusive and allowing a broader audience to participate.

Establishing a research laboratory

As a new assistant professor at the University of Maine, 50% of my appointment is research. To establish my research, I started with curating a space to fulfill the needs of my work — “professional nesting”, if you will. I was allotted two adjacent rooms for my lab work, one as a microbial culturing space, and one for genomics work. I asked for and was granted separate spaces to reduce to likelihood of contamination sourced from my culturing space.

Prior to my arrival at the University of Maine, both lab spaces were set up to perform different research from what I do. This may not seem like it would interfere with my work, but the type of research you do will influence the machinery you need, each of which may have space or utilities requirements, as well as the flow of traffic through the room. To reduce the amount of time you spend moving around the room in search of elusive supplies, it’s best to curate work stations within the room. To that end, the Ishaq lab team spent several days re-arranging the large machinery and the table-top equipment, and then moving the supplies to the cabinets in corresponding locations. This change was most evident in the genomics room, that was previously used for human cell culture and biochemistry, shown below. At this time, I’m still working on updating the microbial culture room, which is larger and contained many more bits and pieces to organize.

  • An image of a microbiology and genetics laboratory.

Most research labs use extremely specialized equipment and machinery. Some of this was made available to me immediately; when research labs are discontinued, ownership of equipment and consumable materials reverts back to the researcher’s home department. I needed to purchase some of the more research-specific equipment, using some of the funds allotted to me for this purpose. Buying equipment can be stressful, because it can be incredibly expensive, and you want to be sure you selected the machine brand and range of capabilities for what you might want to do over the next 5 – 10 years, at least.

Finally, you need to stock your lab with reagents and researchers, but both of these have been temporarily put on hold as of March 2020, as we do our part to reduce the transmission of the Covid-19 virus. Whenever it is safe to do so, I look forward to completing the updates to my spaces and opening them up for collaborative work.

Welcome new lab members!

I’m delighted to officially announce that the Ishaq Lab is welcoming two new graduate students this year, Johanna Holman and Sarah Hosler! Both of them will be working on dynamics of the gut microbiome, and starting a master’s of science this summer/fall. Johanna and Sarah are wonderful additions to our current, enthusiastic team, and the Ishaq Lab can’t wait to see what you achieve!

Johanna Holman

Fall 2020 Masters of Science, Human Nutrition and Food Sciences

A sheep posing for a photo.

Johanna is joining the lab in Fall 2020 to investigate the effects of diet on the gut microbiome, and on host-microbial interactions.

Sarah Hosler

Fall 2020 Masters of Science, Animal Science

Photo of Sarah Hosler in an elevator.

Sarah is from Newton, NJ and has lived in NJ her whole life until she started college at Albright College in PN. Her undergraduate research was on protein classification. Sarah is joining the lab in Fall 2020 to create new methods for studying host-microbial interactions.

“I am excited to see how much I grow through my graduate experience at the University of Maine. I’m also a little bit nervous about the cold, but I’m sure I will get used to it.”

Sarah, Apr 2020
Woman dressed in a costume of a dissected cat, to teach a class on Halloween.

Teaching students to give scientific presentations

This semester at UMaine, I’m teaching a section of AVS633/FSN671 Graduate Seminar, for students in the Animal and Veterinary Science and the Food Science and Nutrition grad programs. Naturally, I decided to spice up the course requirements.

In all the presentations I have given; during classes, teaching, as public lectures, guest seminars, and conference proceedings, I’ve faced a great deal of technical and audience-related challenges. There is a wealth of information on the formatting and content aspects of building a scientific presentation, but in my experience, that’s only half the battle. The other half is in being able to accurately and interestingly relay that information to your audience. Even in professional settings, I have faced disruptive technical failures that caused me to alter my talk or have to adjust my narrative, and I have fielded poorly-crafted or poorly-intended questions from my audience, all while trying to maintain my composure.

I felt that this was what the graduate students needed to learn, and in a safe space where it was OK to simply, well, give a bad presentation. To convey this, I put together an introduction to the class (below) and a series of assignments.

The Elevator Speech

Their very first assignment was to stand up, with notes but no slides, and give a 3 minute speech on a topic of their choice. It had to be non-technical, and designed to provide information in an approachable way such that the person stuck on the elevator with you would actually want to hear more. As academics, especially when you are a student, you often get caught up in repeating jargon or with having to explain yourself in highly detailed language to faculty who are training and testing you. You forget how to present your work to someone who has absolutely no background, and only a few minutes worth of attention span to devote to hearing about your very niche research question. To give an effective elevator speech, the students needed to distill only the critical information for someone to follow their line of thinking, and to not get bogged down by extraneous detail.

Peer Presentations and Awkward Audience Questions

For the second assignment of the course, each student was required to give a presentation on their research, their program of study, or a specific topic they were interested in and the relevant research. Due to the number of students and course time allotted, this presentation only needed to be 10 minutes long, but I’ve found it can be more difficult to present your material concisely. The students presented as if to a peer audience, so they could use a certain amount of jargon or introduce methods with minimal explanation. This style of presentation is common in graduate school, and as expected, the students all did incredibly well.

To add a challenge here, I instead focused on the audience (in this case, the rest of the class). The thing about being an audience member that most people never think about, is that you also need to conduct yourself with a certain level of professionalism. It might not be polite to shout a question or snarky response in the middle of a presentation, your comments might seem complementary but are in fact back-handed, or your question might simply be poorly crafted. I have been asked, or been witness to, a lot of poorly-worded audience questions and responses, and I’m not referring to general public audiences, I’m talking about academics who should know better.

To that end, for each student presentation, I gave an index card to another student in the audience to ask or perform during the talk. Participation was voluntary. Some of these are well-meant questions that are simply commonly asked. Others are silly, and some are rude. I didn’t include anything offensive or abusive, but those examples abound. The list is pretty funny, but please, NEVER DO THESE AS A REAL AUDIENCE MEMBER.

  • Ask the speaker if they will be a medical doctor (or veterinarian) after they finish this [research] degree.
  • State that you have a question. Then pose a statement/comment that is not a question.
  • Be on your phone (texting) or overtly not paying attention to the entire presentation.
  • Ask them to explain a simple concept that they covered in their presentation (but that you missed because you weren’t paying attention).
  • Cough or sneeze comically loud, or drop something during the presentation.
  • Ask the speaker how they chose this topic or how they got into this type of research/work. (This seems benign, but can take away from more specific questions during a peer presentation.)
  • Ask if the speaker is familiar with a field/event/discovery that is somewhat related to their presentation but not actually in their presentation.  Example, speaker presents about infectious disease in cattle and you ask them about “cow farts and global warming”.
  • Comment that the speaker looks really young for someone in their position.  Example: “Wow, I thought you were an undergrad! You look really young. I mean, that’s a compliment.”
  • Get up during the presentation and adjust the lights or shades in the room. You don’t have to make them better, just change them.
  • Ask the speaker a multiple part question. They can be simple questions, but ask them all in one, long, run-on sentence.
  • Begin your question with “As a parent,….” even if you are not a parent and the question has nothing to do with being a parent. 
  • Ask the presenter who analyzed their data for them (even if they have already said they analyzed it themselves).
  • Tell the speaker that their method is not valid (but don’t explain why).
  • Tell the speaker: “This was a pretty good presentation. When you have been in grad school a few more years I think you’ll be a really good speaker.”
  • Tell the speaker that this kind of work has been done before and ask what they have done that is unique.
  • Raise your hand to ask a question, but then sit back, squint your eyes, exhale loudly, pause for a moment, then say, “Never mind”.

The Technical Challenge

On multiple occasions, I have had to give a short (10 min) presentation by memory because the slideshow wouldn’t open or advance. I have had poor lighting, or poor color contrasting from the projector, which made it difficult to read my slides. I have had projection screens which were much smaller than I anticipated such that my text was too small to read on figures, and I’ve more or less given up the hope that I will routinely encounter “presenter mode” when using podiums or other people’s machines. I’ve had a projector that kept shorting out during the talk and creating blank screens for 10 seconds, something which you can hear me talk about in the lecture recording but not see on the recorded slides. I’ve had my available time cut in half, had to cut my presentation short because I included too much detail, realized I had poorly organized the presentation of material or forgotten to define a critical aspect, been unable to play videos or animations, had hand-held slide advancers with low batteries, had automatic slide advance turned on by mistake, and more.

When you face these surprises during a talk, you often don’t have the time, never mind the presence of mind, to resolve the problem. You simply have to make the best of it before your time runs out. It helps to know your material, but it also helps to be able to improvise, which is a skill best developed in practice. You might need to fill air time, or reconstruct your presentation on the fly, or make light of the situation to cut the tension in the room. To help my students prepare, I asked them to send me their peer presentation, as I wanted them to use a presentation they had just given and were familiar with. Then, I introduced mistakes into the presentation without disclosing what those might be, only that they would be there.

To think up enough technical problems I could use, I enlisted the help of scientists on twitter. Click on the Tweet below to find the thread and see the other contributions from @HannahMLachance, @canda007, @Wymelenberg, @vaughan_soil, @murphyc1928, @cskrzy, @maria_turfdr, @mcd_611.

I came up with this non-exhaustive list:

  • Replace a video with a still shot
  • Have 2 students make slides on the same topic, then have them present the other one’s slides (to simulate when a co-author gives you some slides on their contribution and you forget what they mean).
  • Reorder some of the slides
  • Remove a lot of the text on the slide
  • Resize images to be too small for audience to see resolution
  • Introduce blank slides to simulate projector connection issues (like screen flickering on/off occasionally)
  • Ppt won’t open at all or won’t advance beyond title slide
  • Change font on all text to tight cursive
  • No ‘presenter mode’ available
  • Resize slide dimensions and don’t adjust proportions to ensure fit
  • Turn laptop around so can’t see screen as if presenting at a podium
  • Add animations to everything
  • Add notification of email on timer (created a shape with animated pop in and out, as well as notification chime).
  • No photos
  • Slide advancer with poor quality batteries
  • Automatic slide advance

Public Presentations

Public presentations are an overlooked part of academia, but a crucial aspect. If you are at a public university, or you receive state or federal funding, your work is being supported by tax dollars. Many federal grants require an outreach or public education portion to your project, where you make the results available to interested parties (called stakeholders). Science communication is also extremely important in bridging the divide between scientific and public communities.

Public presentations need to present information approach-ably. I don’t mean they need to talk down to people, I mean they need to consider that the audience might not have a frame of reference for what you are talking about. I have a PhD, but it’s meaningless if I attend technical lectures on physics. For the third challenge in class, students can give their presentation again but with the knowledge that they can’t throw 20 slides worth of dense information at their audience, they can’t use technical language without defining it, and that sometimes the best way to explain complicated information is using pictures or analogies.

Update: In light of Corvid-19 concerns, campuses have been closing and switching over to remote instruction. This was rather challenging to do well with a presentations class, as giving a webinar isn’t the same as giving a public presentation. To be more creative, I am having students submit their public presentation slides online. I then assign them to another student, who has to annotate the ‘presenter notes’ with the speech of how they would present these slides. I then return the annotated version to the original presenter so they can see how well their slides spoke for themselves. In this “presentation telephone game”, I hope they will see how easy their slides were translatable to someone else, which is a common problem in slides put online without any notes or audio: so much gets lost when the presenter isn’t providing the information and filling in the additional information that is only briefly noted on the slides.

Learning (to Pretend) to Enjoy Giving Presentation

You can’t always control the technical aspects of your talk, or select your audience, or even be prepared for the weather that day. You won’t always be well-rested, or in good health, on the day of. Fun fact about stress, it can trigger spotting or early menstruation. There’s nothing quite as terrifying as being in the middle of your presentation when you are suddenly aware that you have a limited amount of time to get off stage and hope that there are feminine products available for free in the nearest restroom, because your women’s dress pants don’t have pockets for you to carry quarters for the dispensary machines.

You won’t always have time to prepare. Once, I had 5 minutes of notification that I would have to stand up in front of 50 – 75 other college students and Jane Goodall and present a recap on a service-learning course, at a time when I dreaded any and all public speaking. But you can’t really decline the offer to talk in front of Jane Goodall when she had taken the time and effort to be in the room to listen to you all. So you just have to stand up and start talking before you convince yourself you can’t do it.

You can have faith in yourself, know that you will try your best, and remind yourself that it will be good enough. I’ve been an audience member at perfect presentations, and I remember that it went really well and nothing at all about the content. The talks that I remember most are the ones where the speaker connected with me. They were funny, they were humanizing, and they took technical problems and awkward interactions in stride.

The best way to become a better speaker, I think, is to be open to the idea that you are going to mess up. A lot. But each time, you will learn from that experience, you will ask for feedback, and you get back out there. As academics, we have to present information on nearly a daily basis. It is, in fact, a significant part of the job. So instead of dreading it, we should at least pretend to enjoy it until, one day, we find that we do.

Image of plastic wrapped over soil to inhibit weed growth.

NE IPM funded collaborative proposal!

I’m pleased to announce that a small grant proposal I am part of was just funded by the Northeastern Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Center! The proposal, “A Working Group on Tarping and Soil Solarization”, brings together researchers and food production professionals from across New England to identify the current use of tarping and soil solarization to prevent weed growth without the use of chemcials, as well as identify barriers to adoption of this practice, and develop research proposals to fill any knowledge gaps related to the use of these methods and their effect on crop production, weed suppression, soil microbiota, and the local ecosystem.

Led by Dr. Sonja Birthisel (UM), the working group team is comprised of Dr. Alicyn Smart (UM), myself, Master Nathalie Lounsbury (UNH), and Eva Kinnebrew (UVM). We will be joined by over a dozen other researchers across New England who perform agricultural research, along with dozens of ‘stakeholders’: producers and other food production professionals who have an interest in the group findings and would make use of any knowledge we generate.

Featured Image Credit: Soil Solarization, Wikimedia

Blueberries on a bush

My first funded proposal at UMaine!

Now that I’m an assistant professor, a significant amount of my time is spent writing grant proposals to fund projects I’d like to do in the future.

Many large federal or foundational grants take up to a year from submission to funds distribution, and the success rate, especially for newly-established researches, can be quite low. It’s prudent to start writing well in advance of the due date, and to start small, with “pilot projects”.

To that end, I’m pleased to announce that Dr. Lily Calderwood and I just received word that the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine is funding a pilot project of ours; “Exploration of Soil Microbiota in Wild Blueberry Soils“. We’ll be recruiting 1 – 2 UMaine students for summer/fall 2020 to participate in the research for their Capstone senior research projects.

Dr. Calderwood is an Extension Wild Blueberry Specialist, and Assistant Professor of Horticulture in the School of Food and Agriculture at UMaine. She and I developed this project when meeting for the first time, over coffee. We realized we’d both been at the University of Vermont doing our PhD’s concurrently, and in neighboring buildings! We got to chatting about my work in wheat soil microbial communities, and her work on blueberry production, and the untapped research potential between the two.

This pilot will generate some preliminary data to help us get a first look at the soil microbiota associated with blueberries, and in response to management practices and environmental conditions. From this seed funding, Lily and I hope to cultivate fruitful research projects for years to come!

Featured Image: Wild Maine Blueberries, Wikimedia

STEMMinists of Maine inaugural meeting announced!

One of the biggest challenges faced by STEMM (science, technology, engineering, math, medicine) advocacy groups is finding the time and resources to propose and execute initiatives, as well as find the time for social media engagement to grow the group. There are a number of groups already established in Maine which seek to promote STEMM advocacy/education, accessibility, diversity/equity/inclusion, campus community members, and the general public. 

STEMMinists of Maine is a newly-formed STEMM advocacy group, which seeks to bring together these various groups. Our goal is to act as an umbrella organization, to create a cohesive social media presence that makes it easier for people interested in STEMM advocacy and inclusion to find resources, coordinate events, and get the message out.  All participating groups will remain autonomous, but participation (which is free) will hopefully allow us all to reach a broader audience and have a greater impact in both campus and state-wide initiatives.

Our inaugural meeting will be held at the University of Maine campus, 57 Stodder Hall, to introduce STEMMinists and invite others to be part of our work to promote a better STEMM community. All are welcome!

Shortly after, our website and social media will be finalized and launched!

First official Ishaq lab meeting!

The Ishaq lab has been quietly growing, and we had our first official meeting today! I can’t wait to see what we accomplish together.

Screenshot of group meeting in a video conference call.
We are all such rock stars, we needed to meet virtually to keep up with our busy schedules!

Top left: Adwoa, a PhD student in Dr. Jen Perry’s lab, working on kombucha microbes. Top right: in the office with me, Alexandria, an MPS student working on research techniques for gut microbes. Bottom left: senior member Tindall, a MS student at Montana State University in the Menalled/Seipel lab working on soil microbes. Bottom left: Johanna, incoming MS student in nutrition who will be working on diet and gut microbes. Undergrad Emily couldn’t make it, and we have a few more pending members and affiliates joining us in 2020.

Perspective on developing curricula

At the University of Maine, I am currently developing two new courses based on similar material I’ve taught previously at the University of Oregon and Montana State University. I’ve written about several of those classes, including a retrospective after teaching ‘Introduction to Mammalian Microbiomes’ to humanities students. Here, with the spring semester commencing this week, I thought I would share my approaches to developing coursework. While a class doesn’t stand on organizational physique alone, it can go a long way to facilitating your communication with your students, their understanding of course expectations, and their ability to assimilate the information you are disseminating.

Organization of materials

The nature of my teaching means means that I don’t assign readings from a textbook, I curate reading lists for my students from current scientific literature, which changes a little each year. Because of this, and the need for file management, I have a few tricks. First, I have a folder (on my computer and the online teaching tool) specific to readings for that class. I curate the file name with first author, year, and few words from the title so I can keep track of what it is (ex. Zhulin_2015_databases_review). I duplicate that file name in my syllabus, so I can copy and paste instead of writing it out again.

I format my syllabus as a table, and add each reading to the day on which it is assigned. If I move lectures around, I move the whole table row, so I can migrate assignments and readings along with lecture titles. Lastly, because the readings are specific to lecture and date assigned, I mimic that order in my file names by numbering them all instead of leaving them in alphabetic order (ex. 10_Zhulin_2015_databases_review), to facilitate knowing when and which is assigned.

And I don’t just number them by order, I number them by lecture so students or I can just match the lecture number across the lecture files, assigned readings, etc.

Written assignments (when logistically possible)

A stack of papers facedown on a table.

There’s no easy way to grade written assignments from students, but I prefer it to exam-style assessments. Particularly in teaching microbial ecology and sequencing data analysis, there’s not a lot of strict memorization like there is in anatomy. The material lends itself more to critical thinking and debating theory, to presenting a scientific argument, to problem solving, or to composing mock scientific manuscripts. In allowing students the word count to work through their thoughts, they are able to find the words to express their opinion on, say, the Hygiene Hypothesis when only weeks before they didn’t know that some microbes can turn the immune system on or off.

Written assignments allow me to give them feedback, including grammatical corrections, suggestion on sentence structure, pointing out leaps of logic where they left readers behind, and of course, on the strength of the scientific argument. This is particularly helpful when learning to write technical science.

Red pen.
Photo credit: Merriam-Webster

In giving students the agency to choose a topic to write about from the curricula tasting menu I’ve provided in my lectures, I receive back more information than just what I provided, which keeps things interesting for me. And, in giving them assignments which practice their writing voice, I witness their progression towards mature scientific writing.

Stacking assignments for improved retention

It takes time to become familiar with new information. That’s why school subjects are taught multiple times, or in specific orders, as you progress through education. I have 13 – 15 weeks in a semester (or 10 in a quarter!) to on-board students and teach them a skill. For most of the students I have taught, my class is their first introduction, or their first formal introduction, to the subject.

Especially for my host-associated microbial courses, there are hundreds of years-and-counting worth of history which led us to our current understanding of the microbes that inhabit us. Without that history, an explanation of the available technology, and a discussion of how that technology shaped the view we had, I can’t do justice to the majority of the coursework where I explain how we discovered the relationship between salivation and the microbial community geography in your mouth. The first section of my ‘host-associated’ course includes this background information, and a discussion of current technology, which is reiterated when later discussing literature and how technological shortcomings can hamper our understanding of a microbial community.

To give students more time to practice the material, I give related readings, have a guided discussion at the end of lectures, and stack assignments. Students start with a non-technical summary of a paper; 1-ish paragraph where they have to introduce the paper and why it was done, the methods used, and a major result or two. Trying to explain a complex experiment in simple terms is a great way for students to gain familiarity. When it comes time to write a two-page essay for a take-home exam, I allow the students to build off those summaries, if they choose.

An inclusive syllabus

A syllabus is a document which encompasses the important information for the class, including meeting times and rooms, grading policy, lecture and assignment schedule, required reading materials, and more. It can be used to recruit students to sign up for the class, and once in attendance, it’s the first impression students have. It’s where they refer for questions about the course, what’s expected of them, and where to find instructions on assignments. I write my syllabi in a way that makes sense to me, the instructor, and I welcome feedback from students when my instructions are confusing. But, I also welcome feedback from different student populations in order to make the language and presentation of the document more approachable. Sometimes you just need something to break the ice. Like a paper turkey hat.

Sue wearing a paper hat shaped like a turkey.
Wearing the turkey hat that my mentee and I made.

I haven’t actually worn a turkey hat to teach a class, that’s too informal. I dress up like an anatomically-annotated dissected cat, because I’m a professional. Or, I ran regular class discussions that occasionally got heated and were monopolized by a fraction of the class. The next year, I took a stronger moderator stance and would impose more restrictions (“Ok the next comment HAS to use the word “microbes”). I don’t like calling on students, so the next time I have discussions I think I’m going to give them all D20 dice and have them roll for initiative on the order of presenting comments. I also added this to my syllabi:

Class participation: Students are expected to participate in discussions in class.  I strive to create inclusive discussions, but if students still find it challenging to participate please notify me and I will alter the discussion format as needed.

AVS 590 Syllabus spring 2020

Most universities also require text or links to their campus policies, driven by federal, state, or university law. These include a statement about accommodations for disabilities, although many faculty are happy to make accommodations without the student receiving prior approval. I started allowing students to occasionally attend lectures by video conferencing, if they notified me ahead of time. It allowed students who were ill or traveling to keep pace with the material, and I have even remotely conference-videoed in to a student’s laptop to present when I was home sick but didn’t want to cancel class.

New this year, I’ve included text about students missing classes for parenting or caregiving responsibilities, something I don’t currently participate in, so it was not something I thought to include information on until someone else (Jenn Perry) gave me their perspective. Now I have this:

Pregnancy, lactation, and parenting: I am happy to make accommodations for students based on pregnancy, lactation, and parental needs, as well as work with the Office of Equal Opportunities. Maine state and UMaine policy allows students to breastfeed in any space, including in class. If a lactation space is required, please contact E.O. for arrangements.

AVS 590 Syllabus spring 2020

Similarly, a tweet by Dave Baltrus about including inclusive statements such as information for food insecure students led me to add this:

Food insecure? Need clothes? Check out the Black Bear Exchange’s Food Pantry: https://umaine.edu/volunteer/black-bear-exchange/ or Old Town Crossroads Ministry.

AVS 590 Syllabus spring 2020

And finally, I added text about mandatory reporting. As a public university employee, I am obligated to notify the University of Maine Title IX office about criminal actions towards or by anyone on campus. If a student reveals information to me, I have to pass it on to the Title IX office which will then discretely reach out to the student with resources. The office advocates for anyone on campus, but they are particular important in situations involving students who are low on the power scale and cannot advocate for themselves. While my door is always open to students looking for help, I felt it was important for them to know that I might not be able to keep the meeting confidential.

Inclusiveness in the classroom is important to me, because if students don’t feel welcome, comfortable, and free from hunger, they can’t learn. Despite what opponents think, this doesn’t involve “coddling” or “being too soft”. It means being realistic in my expectations about how people learn and what else they are dealing with that might be inhibiting that. It means that I learn to be more proficient at communication and personnel management, which are vital skills for academics. And it means that we all elevate our skills together.

Silhouettes of four people jumping in a dark cave.
Purple flower in front of a lake and mountains in the background.

Pod Coordinator for 500 Women Scientists, Orono!

I’m pleased to announce that I have been elected the Pod Coordinator for the Orono Pod of 500 Women Scientists! This spring, I hope to expand membership in and around Orono, connect with other inclusion and STEMM groups in Maine, and roll out some new initiatives and public engagement events.

500 Women Scientists is a non-profit, grassroots organization started by four women. Immediately following the November 2016 election, they published an open letter re-affirming their commitment to speak up for science and for all genders, minorities, immigrants, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA. This commitment became a global movement, and that movement has blossomed into a formal organization dedicated to improving science communities. As of January 2018, 500 Women Scientists has over 20,000 members and supporters.

Building communities and fostering real change comes from small groups, not large crowds. Our local pods help create those deep roots through strong, personal relationships. Pods focus on issues that resonate in their communities, rooted in our mission and values. As women in science, technology, engineering and math, as role models to young girls and women, as leaders in our communities, we accept this challenge. Accept this challenge with us.

I was previously a Pod Coordinator in Eugene, where I coordinated group networking and public engagement events with a fabulous group. I’m looking forward to developing the same heartfelt connections here.

Featured Image Credit: 500 Women Scientists