Sunday, February 21, 2016

Never underestimate the impact you have on your students

This weekend I had a rare opportunity to give thanks to someone who was likely unaware of the tremendous impact they had on my life. There are many great teachers and mentors that contributed to my decision to go into and stay in science, and each one of those people and experiences helped shape me. Therefore, they each represent a piece of who I have become. Here I will share one of those pieces:

When I was a junior at Centenary (my small liberal arts undergraduate institution), our small biology department of five faculty got two new professors in one year. For me, this meant a range of new and exciting classes in my junior and senior years that were at the cutting edge of scientific research - a rare treat! One of these professors was a female scientist, who among other things, developed a 3 hour lab course where we the students got to be researchers. Each group had a small piece of a larger project and by semester's end, the picture that emerged forever changed my perspective on the possibilities of scientific research. If you're like me, you still have several binders of notes from classes you took in college. The binder from this class is one of the ones I've kept over the many moves in my academic career! As part of this course, I also had the chance to present several times, which was new for me. I wasn't that great at first, and like many other women, I wasn't shy about admitting it in the middle of my presentation. I had been made to feel inferior my whole life, I felt no hesitation in admitting it to myself or others. After class, my professor pulled me aside and told me how smart I was and how well I was doing in the course. She told me that it was not okay for me to say those things about myself (because they weren't true), much less in front of an audience. This has stuck with me throughout my scientific career and I now twinge every time I'm in a seminar and a woman does this (sadly, this occurs often).

So, imagine my surprise when I get a facebook message (yes, we're friends on facebook!) Saturday morning that this same former professor and her family are visiting Auburn for her daughters swim meet! We meet for coffee. Me a new PI and her a now seasoned professor. We reminisce about folks we overlapped. She is now at a new university, and we have new people in common there as well. I joke about my teaching and adjusting my expectations to my students, realizing that I was among the crop of students she had to adjust her own expectations against. I remind her of the awesome lab course I took with her that did so much for me. She laughs because she ended up never teaching it again because of how much prep time it took and how much effort it was for her. I completely understand as the design for my current active-learning course was inspired by this ambitious design she modeled and it has been a solid amount of effort for me as well. I only hope that the experiences I am giving my students will be the same as the one she provided. Though, now I wonder if I will be able to keep up this momentum for future courses in an equally demanding position.

Nonetheless, my ability to share with her the impact she had on me not only as a scientist, but as woman scientist felt amazing. I only hope that it made her feel as good. And perhaps I will have another opportunity to learn from her. In addition to teaching, she now helps PI's at her home institution develop active learning courses and research based learning courses, and other learning experiences I've never heard of. I am definitely humbled by how much I still have to learn about teaching. But like my students, I will continue to 'learn by doing'.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Can I be an effective speaker without being humorous?

I have seen several talks where the speakers have done very well to deliver good humor throughout their talks. I am not talking about the old tradition of starting with a joke, but well-timed jokes throughout the talk in key places. Recently, I remarked to a colleague that my conference talk would be a version of my job talk.  She then mentioned that by the time she got her job, she knew her job talk in and out and "where all the jokes were". I suddenly thought to myself - are folks funny because they give the same joke every time they give a talk? Is this indeed rehearsed? And most importantly, could I be a better speaker if I did this?

While I suspect some speakers do rehearse their jokes, I doubt this would work well for myself without a LOT of rehearsing. When I try to deliver a planned joke of any kind, even retelling simple jokes to my friends, I often deliver the punchline first and realize I've already ruined the joke. Though, "even a really lame joke will get a good laugh in a science talk".

Some argue that humor makes the speaker more relaxed and in turn the audience. What about spontaneous jokes then? Sometimes things go wrong (projector breaks, computer is incompatible, slides are cut off, etc.) and having a sense of humor about it indeed relaxes your audience. However, as a scientist, my off-the-cuff jokes don't always come out great, so best to vet it to a smaller audience first. Preferably friends who aren't afraid to tell me that I either am not funny or am offensive. While humor could definitely improve my overall speaking ability, it could also detract from my work and make me some enemies.  So, if the overall goal of humor is to connect with my audience, and I can do that effectively without humor, I am doing okay!

Maybe I can work on becoming humorous in the future, but I am glad to know that I can still be an effective speaker without it.

Friday, July 17, 2015

One year strong

I recently realized it's been about a year since my first blog post and I was surprised since I also realized I haven't posted in a few months. I've really enjoyed having an outlet for my thoughts here and hope to keep it up. So, be expecting more posts from me in the near future!

To my credit, the last few months have probably been the busiest of my life so far. Since my last post in March:

- I have finalized the details for my academic position and am happy to report that I will be joining the faculty at Auburn University in the Department of Biological Sciences

-In May, I got married and went on a 10 day honeymoon to Hawaii! Okay, maybe Hawaii wasn't very busy, but I definitely needed and deserved the vacation!

-In May, my new husband and I also put an offer on our first home in Auburn, AL and on June 16th, we closed on that home.

-In late June, we packed up our stuff and shipped it nearly across the country from San Francisco to Alabama! Then, with cats in tow, we drove for 6 days straight to get to our new home. This was definitely a fun road trip, but also pretty fast paced with very little free time. Though we managed a few fun stops including the Grand Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns.

-In the first few weeks in our new home, both my husband and I celebrated our birthdays and bought our first ever living room set from an actual furniture store! It arrived yesterday.

-And here I am in my new office as a professor. Though I have the office now, my official title will come later on my start date in August. Meanwhile I have plenty to do as I wrap up my postdoc remotely and settle into the house, the town and the new office/lab.

-And coming up, I head to Switzerland in early August for a conference.

<sarcasm>I'm hoping the first semester as a professor will allow me time to decompress from all of these personal milestones and bury myself in my work. I hear they are good for that, right? </sarcasm>

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Why giving a chalk talk is such a dreaded academic past time

The academic job search can be a challenging time in one's career, but it is also a great time to really reflect on where you see your research in the next 5-10 years. One of the biggest excitements comes when you actually land your first interview. With the interview ahead of you, you begin seriously toying with the possibility of joining this institution. In fact, your odds of actually getting the job just went up tremendously, so pat yourself on the back! But, of course then comes actually prepping for the interview. This shift from cloud in the sky to a real possibility is a pretty big shift in the job application process. Most of the parts of this process are pretty well covered by others here, here and here and include advice you may be more familiar with if you've been in academics for some time. You've likely seen job seminars and met with scientists in one-on-one fashion before. For the most part, you've even given a dissertation seminar so you know what to expect from most of the individual pieces.

Though, the one piece of the interview process that is most likely to be completely foreign to you is the chalk talk. There are several reasons for this, but for the most part the reason is that typically only faculty are invited to attend these talks, and also not all departments require a chalk talk in their searches. I too found myself in a pretty scary place when, in addition to going on my first job interview - a collectively foreign process - I was faced with giving a chalk talk - a pretty foreign concept. Even my PhD advisor's experience with the chalk talk was pretty limited and so I found myself consulting the web and asking friends recently off the market. Unfortunately, I found this level of preparation completely insufficient for the first time I had to give a chalk talk. In fact, my first chalk talk was the worst talk I have ever given and was a complete embarrassment to myself as a scientist. I don't say this for pity, but to emphasize how little you can ever prepare for something like this. Not surprisingly, I didn't get a job offer after my first interview and went on the market a second year. Knowing how terrified I was to ever do this again, I was determined to do better the next time. So, soon after my interviews were over, I asked the faculty to attend a chalk talk in my department of a job candidate. As it turned out, the chalk talk I attended was given by an already established assistant professor, but it was a pretty good model for many of the insufficiencies in my own chalk talk. So, I put it out of my mind until the next job cycle came back around and I was invited for another interview. This time, I was determined to identify all the holes in what I did wrong and I am happy to say that the chalk talk I gave that ultimately landed me an offer went amazingly well. But it was a process and it certainly did not start out that way!

Here are a few reasons I think I didn't do so well and the things I learned in my preparation that made a world of difference in my delivery.

1. Don't draw parallels to other experiences - chalk talks are in their own category!

While for the most part you haven't been told much about chalk talks, you will undoubtedly start researching and talk to others, and start to form an idea of what it's like. You may even try to relate it to a similar experience you've had in your academic career. I was told that it is a test of "How well you think on your feet" and that it should mostly be off the cuff rather than a prepared talk. So, I related it to my preliminary exams in graduate school. You may also relate it to a committee meeting. For me, drawing parallels was a horrible mistake for several reasons, most importantly due to the differences in the audience and expectations. A chalk talk audience can range from the entire department to only the search committee, but often you don't know ahead of time who will be there, so you just need to be prepared for anything. The expectations for a chalk talk are also very different than other talks. You are expected to give a broad overview of your research program and each individual project you will discuss. This means that there will be at least 10-15 minutes in the beginning where you should be doing the bulk of the talking. Of course, you should assume that no one has ever heard of you, read your CV or seen your earlier job talk. Despite what you may have been told, you can practice and even rehearse this part. For the most part, you can also rehearse your explanation of the big picture and major motivation behind each project you present. Do not under any circumstances try to 'wing' these parts of a chalk talk. Remember, this exercise is also an evaluation of how well you will teach, so imagine you are explaining your work to a student in your office. The 'think on your feet' parts come after you are done with the overview, and the motivation/big picture for your first project. But even then, you don't just open it up for Q/A like at the end of a seminar. In fact, in the off chance you have a pretty quiet audience, you should be prepared to talk the entire time if needed. Then let them interrupt you in a more natural way. Of course, you can use the transition between topics as a chance to open it up for questions just in case you aren't getting too many.

2. With mixed expectations from different faculty, you're very unlikely to please everyone!

It can really be hard to go into a talk assuming that several in your audience are almost certain to be disappointed in your performance, but this is the case with the chalk talk, especially for interdisciplinary searches. Most of the folks I interact with in my postdoc come from more traditional math/physics/statistics backgrounds. They thrive in a chalk talk because they are used to being at the board for general conversations, but if you are a biologist this may not be the case. So faculty with different backgrounds will have different expectations. Then there are the old school folks who may have a very different opinion of what it takes than a newer faculty who may not even have had to do one in the past. In fact, many search committees now-a-days encourage candidates to use powerpoint, but most advice suggests NEVER to do this no matter what the search chair tells you. I think a big part of this is to temper the differences in expectations between young and more established faculty members. I am sure this is the result of seeing many more of these types of talks over the years which alter how high your expectations might be. It's the same for seminars. When you were an undergrad attending conference talks, they probably all seemed amazing, novel and insightful. Now that you are a seasoned scientist, your expectations are very different and you might come away from a conference thinking that everyone is still presenting the same work they talked about 5 years ago. Perspective makes a huge difference.

I think the most important thing to realize is that you are reaching a stage in your career where you need to convey that you are an independent scientist. You are not seeking the approval of your graduate committee or your advisor. You are interviewing to be their colleague and as such you need to show that you have opinions and ideas that are going to make you an important part of their department. Of course, just because pleasing everyone isn't necessarily your goal, offending anyone is a huge mistake to make! You want to avoid anything that might suggest that you would be a hostile colleague or someone who is going to work in a bubble.

3. It is easier to criticize ideas than results

Part of the reason that you are not likely to please everyone is that it is much easier to criticize an unfunded idea than a published paper. The ideas you are presenting typically have not been validated. You likely haven't even submitted any of them for funding or gotten much feedback before now. This is where giving a practice talk can be very helpful (see below). You want to vet your idea to an audience prior to being in a high stress job interview situation. It may also help to go ahead and write up a 1-4 page sample grant proposal. This is a useful exercise and the writing will absolutely come in handy when you go to write the grant anyway. Perhaps this can even be turned into a young investigator award application. Chances are you have a starting point in your research statement, so go from there and develop your ideas into at the very least a specific aims page.

If you are short on preparation time, consider using notecards. The first time, I didn't have the notecards and found it very hard to use a 3 page grant proposal during the middle of a talk. Instead, a combined approach worked best for me. I had a manila folder laid out in front of me with notecards on each project and my overview. I also had a notecard on funding sources and on answers to expected questions from many of the links above. I also had the full write up for each of three projects in the folder as more of a crutch. I didn't refer to it, but it helped to know that if I got any hard questions, I could refer to it.

4. Practice makes perfect - conquer your fears in a safe environment!

If you can, you should absolutely practice your chalk talk before doing the real thing. The practice talk should be done in person, with at least 5-10 people, and at least half of them should be faculty. While a fellow postdoc or grad student can provide great feedback on projects and ideas, they may give you a false sense of security based on their minimal expectations of a chalk talk. Alternatively, a faculty member in the same talk may have a very different interpretation of your performance and likelihood to get the job. Of course, since different profs will have different expectations, you should have a least a few there (see #2)!

If it was your first time ever giving a talk at a meeting would you ever consider doing it without giving a practice talk? Then, you should consider the same is true for a chalk talk. A practice will also help change your expectations and identify places where you are less knowledgeable on your project. It may even help you develop your ideas further as you talk through it with others. If time is a factor, I had my practice chalk talk the Thursday before my Tuesday talk (though I left for my interview Sunday AM). I sent the email Monday PM to nine people in my department (6 faculty, 2 research scientists and 1 postdoc) and 5 people showed up (3 faculty and 2 research scientists). So, in relatively little time I was able to assemble a small group of very helpful people to make me feel 1000% more confident when I had to do another chalk talk!

In addition to giving a practice talk, if you can I would strongly encourage attending a chalk talk in your department before you ever have to give one. This may be a year before you want to go on the market. While these may only be open to faculty, they almost always make exceptions for postdocs on the market. That also means that there may be a postdoc or two at your chalk talk there looking for pointers.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Vaccination Craze

I am currently planning a wedding and among other things it involves the fears of my Southern family traveling to California. Some of it I was expecting, but when my mom asked if she needed to get a measles vaccination, I was pretty surprised. Indeed, coming to the Bay Area specifically right now may be pretty scary given the news on measles being everywhere. Although, I am glad the measles parties turned out to be a hoax.

I also have some postdoc friends with children under 1 years of age who are constantly terrified that their kids are going to get exposed here, so it's not a threat to be taken lightly. I am just glad I don't have any young kids. I do find that I am very frustrated by the many years of vaccine use and near eradication of major diseases that are now being undone by very ignorant parents.

I personally feel vaccination for lethal diseases, such as the measles, should be mandatory, except in immune compromised children. I experienced mandatory vaccine implementation firsthand when I traveled to Peru in 2012. In doing so, I was required to get a series of shots including Typhoid, Hepatitis A, Chicken Pox (I never had it growing up and it is required for SA travel) and Yellow Fever. I'm very grateful I did this in the states, because while taking a bus from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado (part of the Amazon basin), our bus was boarded by health officials checking yellow health cards for proof of yellow fever vaccination. For those without proof of vaccination, they had a small ice chest packed with syringes. It was a bit surreal to be honest and certainly not how I think 'mandatory' vaccinations should be carried out in the US. Nonetheless, it seems to be a strategy that is working in that Yellow Fever is much less prevalent in that area since its implementation.

In the mean time, I am not sure what to tell my family and friends as they prepare to travel to the Bay Area for my wedding. Although I take the situation seriously (I don't find it funny that kids are dying from going to Disneyland!), I do find it amusing/scary that anyone needs to consider getting vaccinated for travel within the US.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Why do folks only make resolutions at New Year's?

I have always been vehemently opposed to making New Year's resolutions mostly because it seems like an arbitrary time to focus on self-improvement. I've always maintained the mindset that you should constantly find new ways to make yourself better and make resolutions throughout the year to incorporate those changes into your life.

However, 2014 was a particularly challenging year for me and reminds me of my own 14th year in life. I guess the age of 14 whether it applies to yourself or your current millennium is a hard one. I saw on Facebook, many of my friends shared the same sentiment towards 2014, and I'm sure it can be agreed that 1914 was a pretty bad year as well. In fact, there are several similarities between the two years a century apart, including the reemergence of polio. Thus, with my energy drained from these challenges, I see the new year as an opportunity to wipe away the stains from those challenges and start new. With that my resolution for 2015 is to keep a more positive outlook by letting go of negativity more easily and not carry the weight of challenges and failures with me so much.

So basically, I've learned something I will likely learn again later in life - that principles I once held to strongly don't always apply to my current situation. This doesn't make me a hypocrite or anything, but time has changed my opinion... and it will probably change again later.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How food documentaries have changed the way I eat and think

Moving to San Francisco and getting out of graduate school have really opened my eyes to what I eat and prioritizing my health. I grew up in the south and despite having a mom who grew up on a farm, 'eating your vegetables' still means mostly canned food that has been cooked to the point of having very little nutritive value. Obviously, this means they had very little appeal to me. Honestly, it wasn't until I was on a trip to Peru and my friend force fed me fruits/veggies to help 'keep me regular' that I realized why they are an important part of one's diet. This was a much better argument than my mom's argument that they'd make my eyelashes grow longer. I've never once cared about the length of my eyelashes! In fact on a recent visit to family, I was eating some baby carrots and made fun of for 'eating rabbit food'. I think that made me realize that my family's notion of a healthy diet and mine were dramatically different. This is in part due to several food documentaries I've watched over the last few years that have changed the way I eat and think about food.

The first food documentary I watched was recommended by my fiance.  We watched the documentary Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead on Netflix, which opened my eyes to juicing. This follows the journey of an Australian man as he travels the US and completes a 90 day juice fast. He has been on immune suppressants for an autoimmune disorder related to his horrible diet. We immediately had my mom send us her unused juicer and started juicing. I'm sure my body was in total shock. Of course, like any busy couple, we eventually fell out of habit in juicing. Later, we watched the documentary Forks over Knives, also free on Netflix (we like documentaries!). I really liked this one because it wasn't as much anecdotal evidence so much as hard numbers and statistics. It really plays up the importance of a meat-based versus plant-based diet and the incidence of certain diseases and health problems. So, of course we tried having less meat-based protein in our diets. But, since I was born in Texas, I can never grow out of loving a good steak every once and a while! I can say that this transition was easier to stick to now that I had made an effort to have a serving of fruits or veggies with every meal.

Recently, we watched the documentary Fed Up (can rent from Netflix). This was by far my favorite. It gives a historical perspective on the battle between big food companies and health legislation, really highlighting how corrupt our government is. Most shocking to me was the unfamiliar landscape of children's cafeterias which resemble a fast food restaurant. I remember in high school when my school was 'sponsored' by Coca Cola and we got our first coke machines. I can only imagined how terrified I would be as a parent if my child's options for a 'healthy' lunch included pizza and hamburgers. So, of course, now we are working hard to pay attention to our sugar intake. We'll see how long it lasts, but I have noticed I feel much better overall. I don't even have that much of a sweet tooth, but this transition was especially hard for me. I never really noticed how much sugar I take in on a regular basis.

One thing that struck me about all of these movies is that they focus on the individual rather than how we can change society to help combat these health ailments that are plaguing our country. Living in SF, I have seen two major pieces of food legislation go up for a vote only to be voted down. One was the labeling of GMO's and the other was the recent soda tax. I voted against both of these. For GMO's I feel we'd basically have to label everything and that there is really no harm from eating GMO food. As for the soda tax, I feel strongly that the consumer should not be punished for consuming high-sugar beverages when our government is too weak to fight big food corporations who advertise to kids and are unwilling to admit the serious health risks they are imposing on our society. It is ironic when you realize that we as a country spend an exorbitant amount of our budget on defense, yet we are unable to defend ourselves against corporations. One piece of legislation I would like to see, which was mentioned in Fed Up, is to add a percent daily recommendation for sugar on nutrition labels. The recommended daily dose of sugar is 24-36 grams. However, many items in your local grocery store nearly reach that in a single serving, including soda. Adding 100% next to that 30 grams of sugar on your can of soda would help parents who are desperately trying to keep away unhealthy food options from their children.