The power of explaining someone else’s idea

In our short evening class we like to have time to think, time to write, time to talk, and time to share. When these go together well, it is transformative.

Last week in the last class before spring break, we paired up the undergraduates to write the first draft of their abstracts for the university-wide poster session. It is nearly 2 months off, but beginning early is what results in powerful posters.

We might have had each of them write a quick rough draft, share, comment, fix, then read aloud. Yes, we can do that even in our short class. They are used to the pace.

But instead we did something else. We had them take 15 minutes to explain their project to their partner and then the partner wrote the abstract. Of course there was a lot of back and forth during the 15 minutes. The students knew we expected only about five sentences. One would introduce the general topic. The next one would explain the problem. The third sentence would give their approach to the problem. The fourth sentence would give their results. The final sentence would relate their results to the field as a whole. IMG_3289

The natural tendency of early students is to focus on what they did rather than why they did it or what it means. But explaining it to someone else makes this impossible. The other person is not obsessed with the daily work and simply wants to write a thorough abstract.

Then we had them read their abstracts aloud to the class. We did not have time to switch roles, so the other half of the class will have to wait until after break to either write or explain, depending on what they did previously.

This sort of explaining is surprisingly hard. I first had to do it introducing myself and my partner at a small meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in the Galapagos. I remember my shame when I somehow confused the very organism my partner worked on, something I knew perfectly well. This made me sympathetic to my students and understanding when some of them came to me saying they didn’t really understand their own projects well until this simple exercise.

I should put together a whole semester’s worth of exercises like this one for small classes where each has their own out of class project. But next semester we’ll be delving into statistics with R. I can hardly wait!


Posted in Communication, Posters, Presentations and seminars, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Why are chalk talks so hard?

Have I ever heard a good chalk talk? Do they really even help us make a wise decision? I can think of some spectacular failures in hiring the right person based on the chalk talk in the past at another institution. Should we even have chalk talks?

I’ve written before on how to avoid problems with chalk talks. But how do you give a really good one? From our perspective, we want you to give a great chalk talk. We want to have a hard time picking our candidate. So the first thing we should do is give you as much detail as possible as to what we want to see in the chalk talk.

In the Biology Department at Washington University in St. Louis, we want to hear from you without interruption for the first ten minutes. After that, we may really sideline you with questions. I’m not sure that is a good thing, but that is how it is. So you have to prepare for a talk that will take from 10 to 50 minutes. After the first 10 minutes, the talk might need to go in different directions.

Here is some advice that might help in my department and might even help generally.

First, don’t use chalk, or markers if at all possible. Use Powerpoint or something like it. But keep it simple.

Don’t assume people all went to your main talk the previous day, so a little overlap is all right, but it should take the form of going into more detail on your main ideas.

The main thing the chalk talk should do is to show what ideas you are going to be pursuing first. It could be in the form of a proposal plan. If you have already written and submitted a proposal tell us about it. Present a problem in the field and your exciting solution and why you are uniquely poised to solve it.

Remember, when you become a faculty member you are a group leader. It is no longer about just what you do, but about the whole group and how you will lead others to do cool research. I like it when people talk about what they will do and what others in their group might do.

Do all those things that make you look like a great colleague, with potential collaborations, energy, enthusiasm, eye contact with at least some people, and clear organization.

If the talk is entirely derailed by questions, try to bring it back to what you want to talk about. Bring it back to research, to the main questions. Look like you are excited and enjoying yourself. After all, this is all eyes on you with a very interesting dialogue. It shouldn’t be hard. Don’t get off on your fringe ideas, your side projects, your teaching, or your outreach excessively. But all of these are great to mention as part of the package. Maybe that is what makes the chalk talk so tricky.

Posted in Interviewing, Jobs, Talks, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Teaching effectively and efficiently: abstract writing

img_3291Are you happy with how you teach writing? Do you have a trick? The only tricks I have are to give good examples and to have students write a lot. Beth Fisher at a Wash U writing workshop convinced me that line editing is seldom read, so I give a few narrative comments.

Yesterday, in a class I love to teach, Undergraduate Research Perspectives, my co-teacher, Debbie Brock and I had an intensive exercise on abstract writing. The student knew they would soon have to make their posters for the spring poster session on research. The abstract is a good place to start.

But instead of having them work on their own abstracts, I had them write abstracts for published papers. I chose 5 fairly straightforward papers from the journal Biology Letters since we were going to do the whole exercise in a single one hour class. I covered up the abstract with green paper and put two copies of each paper on the table. This meant 2 of the 10 students would read and write an abstract for each paper. I also gave them an entry I wrote earlier on excellent abstract writing, here.

They could hardly believe I expected them to read the paper and write an abstract following this rubric in 40 minutes. But I did, so they got to work. I always let them talk to each other. Also Debbie and I circulated and offered comments. They did have the example, broken down sentence by sentence. Here is the bit on the first sentence to get the flavor, but the link is there to be followed:

Then Lindsey says in Sentence 1: Recent research suggests that female birds could use eggshell color as a signal to advertise their quality or investment in order to secure more parental care from their mates. This sentence very clearly tells what the paper is going to be about. It is about variation in egg color in the nest, and a potential adaptive explanation for it. There is a lot packed in there, and she may not really address it all. Here’s a list. 1. Eggshell color varies with the quality of contents. 2. Females have evolved to use this to advertise high quality. 3. Males detect the variation. 4. Males have evolved to invest more in higher quality babies. 4. Males use this signal to do this investing. You could imagine that males would invest less in higher quality babies, assuming mom could pick up the slack. You could also imagine that males pick up on the difference, but it is just an incidental effect to laying good eggs, not a strategy by the females. But, hey, we are only one sentence along!

How did my students do with this? Fabulously well. After 40 minutes they read aloud their abstracts, paired according to the paper they did. Then they could tear off the green paper and compare their abstract to the one published with the paper.

I pointed out that this was a very effective way to get them to think about abstract writing. If I had just given them the rubric without requiring them to use it, it would not have stuck. The other thing that stuck was whatever was in the paper they read, since they had to absorb the main points and apply them. This one hour exercise should help a lot when it comes to writing their own poster abstracts.

I also pointed out that they could try to structure learning for themselves along these lines, taking content and summarizing it in a certain way to prepare for the kinds of tests they might see in other classes.

Now they’ll polish up those abstracts and send them in, feeling empowered.

Posted in Teaching, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

How many hours a week can you work on research?

img_1516What are my colleagues around the world doing on this Sunday, a brilliantly sunny February day too warm for a jacket in St. Louis? Are they out hiking, bird watching, or cooking a delicious meal? Are they playing with their kids, or kayaking? Are they skiing? Or are they working inside? The work could be grading papers, preparing for class on Monday, polishing a grant proposal or paper, or reading proposals of grad students. It might even be time in the lab, doing a little experiment, or running a complex model.

If ever a day is our own, it is Sunday, so we can view the way we spend it as a choice. So why are so many of us spending at least part of it working? I think the answer comes from the varied nature of our work. If we did one thing, I could well imagine being sick of it and spending the weekend doing something entirely different. But the job of a professor is a varied one. The big categories are teaching, research, and service, but each of these can be broken down into sub-categories. Teaching includes class time, preparing for class, evaluating student work, and consulting with co-teachers and others. It might also cover curriculum decisions and student advising. Research includes writing grant proposals, doing experiments, analyzing data, reading, planning, and teaching your team to do all these things and mentoring their efforts. Service can be to the department, the community, or the academic community. It includes writing letters of recommendation, coordinating different activities in the department, reviewing papers, outreach, and many other things. Really, you could fill your time with any one of these, or even one thing under any of these headings. But you cannot. Who decides how you spend your time? Mostly, you do. That is important to remember. Let no one take this away from you.

A particular challenge is that a beginning assistant professor has most likely come from a position of research. She is likely to have had to balance her time between planning experiments, reading, doing experiments, writing them up, maybe mentoring an undergraduate or two and applying for jobs. This is challenging, but there is so much more.

It is easy to feel the only real work you do is individual research. You won’t get much of that done during the week if you are a faculty member, new or old. There is too much, if you are at all responsible, so what to do? An easy answer is to work all weekend, balancing weekend time more toward what you want to do. But is that sustainable for long? Do you want them to put on your tombstone: “She got her work done?”

I don’t have any easy answers. I think everyone’s answer is different. Before you go crazy, remember that the things you didn’t used to count as work are work now. So if you spent the week teaching and mentoring, it was not a no work week. But also remember you will be judged at tenure time at most institutions on research output, funding, collegiality, and teaching only if it is terrible.

I started using a little app called Productive with which I can swipe right when I get something done. You can plan for 5 things for free, I think. No doubt there are other apps that do similar things. These things could drive you crazy if you put your whole life on there, but I use it for something specific: fun stuff that I don’t want to skip. It is a kind of mentality like pay yourself first. So I have several kinds of exercises I like to do, some nature stuff, and the languages I’m working on. I do not use it for work. That has its own urgencies.

I am vulnerable to completing tasks on time, so this little app gives the fun stuff a fighting chance. I don’t know what will work for you. Find a trick that does, but remember, as a professor the kinds of things you used to count as work, research, mostly, will seldom get more than 10 hours a week.

Posted in Daily routines, Follow a scientist, Life in a biology department, Managing an academic career | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Have you figured out how to make a graphical abstract?


Debbie Brock teaching graphical abstracts as Rory looks on

Figures make papers easier to understand. I love it when a paper has a flow diagram of what exactly they did, especially when they also say why. I don’t know why, but figures stick in ways that pure words do not, at least for some kinds of information.

So Debbie Brock had the great idea of teaching our undergraduates how to make graphical abstracts. She did this in a class we are co-teaching called Undergraduate Research Perspectives. In it we try to teach all the extra stuff that goes with a research and teaching career. The undergrads in our lab take it every semester so we have plenty of time to cover posters, statistics, experimental design, letters of recommendation, resumes and all the rest. This semester we are doing four things, graphical abstracts, writing for Wikipedia, how to tell opinion from fact in popular editorials, and posters.


Rory Mather’s graphical abstract on the same topic as Richard’s, Debbie Brock’s 2011 Nature paper

Debbie gave a great talk on putting together graphical abstracts. She even found a site that showed good and bad ones on the same material. Basically, the drawings should be clear and simple and illustrate the main points. They should flow in a linear fashion from top to bottom, and should be complemented by the color scheme.


Richard Li’s poster after making it linear

In class we had the students pair up and evaluate papers that had graphical abstracts as to whether they were any good or not. Then on their own they each had to draw a graphical abstract for one of Debbie’s published papers.

Here are some other graphical abstracts. It is really interesting to see how the students treat the same material differently.

So learn how to put your ideas into drawings and it can serve you well for papers, grant proposals and any other way you have of communicating your science. Here is what Clarissa Dzikunu and Stacy Uhm did with Brock’s Proc B sentinel cell paper:

Daniela Jimenez and Xianye Qian had this to say about one of Debbie’s papers:

Anthony Bartley and Erica Ryu had different interpretations of the Stallforth et al. PNAS paper.

Odion Asikhia and Ashley D’Costa read the same paper and had different takes


Posted in Communication, Writing | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Thinking of starting your paper with a quote? Be careful!

It is a wonderful feeling to start a piece with a quote that means something to you. You can connect to someone famous who has said something much more clearly than you might. From there you can move on to your ideas. But there is unfortunately a big trap in starting with quotes. It is that so many people choose the same ones.

What is wrong with choosing the same quote as other people, you might ask. It is that they are not fresh. The reader does not read them and think about the topic. The reader reads it and thinks, oh, not this again, or thinks about where she last saw that particular quote. The point is, the quote does not do what you want it to do.

This is a particular problem for younger writers, because things that are new to them are not new to the rest of us. So if you like to use quotes, how do you find fresh ones? There is only one way. That is from reading original texts and choosing quotes you have not ever already seen quoted. Those texts should be original literature of any kind, and probably over 20 years old.


My best quotes come from my parents and their love of literature.

What is a for sure example of a poor quote source? It is anything you have heard quoted already, anything you have in your mind, anything you have read as a quote in someone else’s work. So just read and keep lists  of possible quotes. I like quotes, but not ones I’ve seen before. Surprise me.

Here are a few quotes that illustrate what I would avoid.

Darwin’s famous one on social insects: “…special difficulty, which at first appeared to me insuperable, and actually fatal to my whole theory. I allude to the neuters or sterile females in insect-communities.”

Darwin’s tangled bank quote with which he ended the Origin.

Dobzhansky’s Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.

And there are others you should avoid. So put a good book of poetry or a classic in your field and find you own fresh quotes. Keep a list and we’ll marvel at how erudite you are.



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Is Wikipedia anti-intellectual? Compare athletes to academics and the answer is yes.


Is he worthy of a Wikipedia page?

Recently some of my students have been writing biographies of scientists for Wikipedia. They wrote one for a research scientist who made a discovery so major she was on the phone with reporters for a week. The discovery was that amoebas can carry bacteria around inside them and farm them later for food, something that also ties to the way harmful bacteria can hide in amoebas and infect us later. It is not her only major work, but I digress. My students also wrote a couple of entries for professors at other universities also. I had planned to ask for more articles on scientists because they are useful and writing them is a good teaching tool. But this is an area particularly fraught, so I may not. Indeed, I wonder if I should abandon Wikipedia writing for students entirely. I spend so much of my time unteaching stuff others put on my student’s work.

I have encouraged my students to write biographies for several reasons. First, Wikipedia is where people turn for a clear introduction to a person when they are looking for something to say when introducing a person. I have been introduced more than once with my Wikipedia entry read verbatim to the audience. That was before someone else deleted nearly all of it. Such is the fate of pieces on Wikipedia. Biographies are particularly tough because neither me nor anyone close to me can touch that entry. I would be so tempted to just say forget Wikipedia. But it is all we have. So why are the trolls destroying useful articles on academics? I do not know the answer to this.

Besides being useful for people looking up visiting speakers, potential mentors, and the like, Wikipedia biographies are useful to the students that write them. It lets them look carefully at a person and see what they have discovered, how the different discoveries link together, and how the person’s education contributed to their future work. It lets them also see what societies the person belongs to, what Wikipedia groups include that person, and generally get insight into the human fabric of scholarship. I hope it makes them think that they too can follow the academic path.

But, the critic would argue, Wikipedia must have standards. Are these people truly worthy? Yes, it must have standards and who can say what or who is worthy? The standards should be about accuracy and about a neutral tone. Like Islam, Wikipedia has five pillars. It is an encyclopedia, written from a neutral point of view, free content that can be redistributed, with editors that are respectful and civil, and it has no firm rules.

Obviously, this is not a piece written on the Wikipedia platform, because I do not have a neutral tone on this. I feel passionately that in the best world, Wikipedia would cover all scientists, whether they be women who for family reasons to not make it to higher degrees, or the very most illustrious. If my students add people who do not have Wikipedia pages, that is something good if they do it in the right way.

Many of the comments on the pages editors want to delete are about how many citations a paper has, or what the H factor of a scientist is. These editors are counting papers, not celebrating ideas.

I am proud to say that a rather illustrious and important organization of which I am a member, the National Academy of Sciences, strongly criticizes the use of H for anything. Let us instead talk about ideas, new techniques, and the power of science in discovery. But, you might say, I don’t understand those papers or those ideas and all I can do is figure out an H and this is easy, so you must have an H of what? 8? 16? 50? to make it in my opinion. OK, if you don’t understand the ideas, what makes you think you can decide what is worth deleting? Why? What do you gain? I am baffled.

Maybe by now you are considering this to be a rant, and it is somewhat. So let’s turn to something else, sports. Apparently just about anyone is deemed worthy in this area. Just choosing the surname of Debra A. Brock, what athletes do we get? I’ll just talk about living ones and only a sampling of them. You get Bryan Brock who was a football quarterback for three seasons in the Arena Football League. Not deleted. You get Calvin Brock who was a boxer forced to retire after an injury at age 32. Not deleted. You get Dave Brock who was a coach for University of Delaware. Not deleted.  You get  Lou Brock, baseball, and his son Lou Brock Jr, a football player. Neither deleted. You get two Pete Brocks, and a Peter Brock and it goes on. None deleted, though for some the editors beg for more information.

So all these athletes are just fine, but when it comes to academics, suddenly there is a lot of soul searching as to who really makes the grade. I don’t get it. You might say my student should not have written about Brock because he was too close to her. However this criticism does not stand with the other academics I suggested that they have no ties to.

I suppose I will be told I should get on the forums of Wikipedia and argue my case with all these judges of H factors. I really don’t have time for this, but I am very disappointed to see this anti-intellectualism in Wikipedia. It clearly is not the electrons or the hard drive space that these entries take up. What is it? Pure American anti-intellectualism rearing its head in yet another arena?

Posted in Wikipedia | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments