Active learning in research perspectives and science communication

Science is a lot more than measuring and testing ideas. It is a rich social endeavor with its own language, its own standards, its own ethics, and its own literature. Undergraduates miss out if they do not learn this. But they must also learn to communicate more broadly.

We attempt to help students learn both their own field and how to communicate it with a course that meets one evening a week, which we call Research Perspectives. Last semester was mixed models in R. This semester it is science communication. We will do a lot of different activities. Some people wonder what to do in class besides lecturing, so here I’ll share a few things we do, week by week.

Today, the first class, we read a paper recommended by mBio for effective writing. It is called Important Science – It’s all about the spin. This is by Arturo Casadevall and Ferric Fang. Even though it is only 3 pages long, it is unrealistic to have students just sit in class and read it. We did something else. We took the 4 points of the paper and assigned each to a pair of students. They were to read those few paragraphs, discuss them with their partner, then present that bit to the group for discussion.

It worked well. The first pair took on S, or size. It is the size of the potential audience and makes the important point that your study should be framed to interest the largest possible audience. The second pair took on P or practicality. They decided that what this really meant was importance of the findings. What good does it do to have a huge audience if you don’t have anything cool to tell them? The third group took on I or integration. This one is about the crucial point that science builds on what went before. Any new results must be put in context. Students need to read the literature and convey that in their writing. Finally, there is N, or new, which the final pair of students worked on. The piece is mixed on this one, first arguing against all the people that claim newness for their work. But it does have to be true that the work should be new at some level.

If from this little exercise the students really absorb the importance of interesting a broad audience with your work, making its importance clear, setting it in the frame of what went before, and identifying its advances, then they will have learned a lot. I think this level of learning does not come from a single activity. But consistent exposure combined with writing will ultimately make these students better scientists, I hope.

This one hour class followed a familiar formula. I or the TA say something for maybe 5 or 10 minutes. Then the students work independently for 7 or so minutes, then discuss with their partner, then present to the group. This gives them group speaking experience in a really low pressure way. I really liked the way they naturally had both partners speak. Katie and I could give opinions and perspective on each point after they and others spoke in ways I hope were more effective than if we had just lectured it. Now wait to see what next week holds!

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Posted in class, Science writing for the public, Teaching, Uncategorized, Writing, Your lab group | 2 Comments

You want to do research but how do you begin?

Dare I say every undergraduate should find a research home on campus? After all, don’t you want to learn at a deeper level how all the knowledge you learn in your classes is discovered? Don’t you want to go from watching the performance to participating? Can this be true for english, economics, and history majors just as it is for biology majors? I think so, but here will stick to what I know, biology. A research home will give your courses perspective. It will give you a friend on the faculty who can give you insight you would not otherwise have. It will provide a new group of friends among the other students in the lab.

So, how and when do you find a research lab to join? I’ll use the Frequently Asked Questions format, but first you might want to check what others have to say. I teach in a certain kind of institution and so what I say may not be broadly applicable, so best to check several different perspectives. Chelsea Prather has a great piece full of links to places you might go to search for summer experiences. Here is another with  lots of tips.

When should you join a research lab? Don’t wait until your senior year! If I had to pick an ideal time to begin research, I would say it is in the middle of your first year. You have one semester mastered and are wondering if there is something more. But don’t despair if you are past that stage since many begin in their sophomore or junior years. Even if you are a senior, if this is something you want to do, go for it.

How should I pick a lab? 1. Subject matter. As a first year, how can you even know what you might ultimately be interested in? Even later on, this might be hard. As much as possible consider your interests both in the kinds of techniques you want to use and the kinds of questions you want to ask. If you want to do field work and not be in a lab, choose accordingly, though a lot of field work is seasonal. Read the web pages of faculty taking students. Your university or college might have an office of undergraduate research. Ask them for help. You might use Scholarbridge or something similar.

How should I pick a lab? 2. Lab structure and philosophy. It is really important that the lab you join involve undergraduates in all aspects of research. You should not just collect data for another person. You should be taught how to analyze the data, how to ask questions, and how to read the relevant literature. Ultimately, you should give a research poster and you might even publish your research, though this latter point varies a lot among fields. From the mentor’s perspective, training an undergrad can be costly so there is a temptation to train them on one technique and leave them there. The best outcome is a balance that leaves the bench mentor, usually a grad student, postdoc, or more senior undergrad, rewarded while exposing the new undergrad to all aspects of research. We have a philosophy document, here. We also have a one credit course to help with the research experience. We do fun things like this at the beginning. So ask your friends about their research labs. Study the web pages. Find a place that values undergrads.

How should I pick a lab? 3. Credit or pay? Many research groups do not pay undergraduates except during the summer, or if they do pay them it is only to wash dishes and the like. I deplore this situation for it makes it so hard for students that need to work also do research. It is great if you do not need to be paid, but if you do, there are labs that will pay during the year at most universities, particularly if you make your case clear. If that is not possible, getting credit for research can mean you take fewer classes. Get the specifics up front.

How should I pick a lab? 4. Summer research. I highly recommend summer research. It is likely to be paid. It can be much more intensive since you have all your time to devote to it. If you do it on campus, you can continue the work during the academic year. But there are also advantages to going to field stations, or other places that offer different summer opportunities. Remember to seek out these opportunities and apply early.

How much time should I expect to do research per week? During the academic year, it is best to be able to do research 8 to 15 hours a week. Fewer than 8 and it is just hard to get anything done. You should also plan to go to lab meetings, and to attend departmental seminars in your research area. Take fewer credits and this will be feasible. You only need one major.

How can I get accepted by a research lab? Once you have picked a lab, or at least narrowed it down to a few, then is the time to contact the head of the lab. This will usually be the professor. This professor will have two basic considerations. They want to take on  a student that is respectful of the group in all ways. This means being punctual, letting your bench or field mentor know if you can’t make it, answering emails, all that stuff that makes you a responsible adult. It also means treating the equipment carefully, and letting us know if you break something. I hope you are a good person and all this is a given. The second thing we want to know is that you will love or grow to love what we study, and that we are a great mutual fit. Why do we care about grades and stuff like that? It is because decent grades indicate you are respectful of yourself and your classes. You go to class, you do the work, you exhibit the behaviors that will make you a good lab citizen. We don’t mind if you are a genius, but we don’t expect it.

Our wonderful undergrads!

What should I do on the first contact? Contact the professor by email. The email should tell who you are and why you are contacting this professor. You should talk about some of the projects that the professor published on recently, or that show up on the web page, and indicate that you read them and are interested. You should send the professor your Resume or Curriculum Vita, and an unofficial version of your transcript. If you have any friends already working in the lab, mention them. You should ask for a meeting.

What should I do at the interview? You should listen to the professor. You should come with a list of questions, maybe 3 on the research, one on lab policies (what are they), one on how you can succeed in this group. Ask questions if the person says things you don’t understand. Act interested. Personally, if I interview you, you are likely to have the position. I find it very hard to judge undergrads. The biggest way they fail is by not having enough time for research.

How should I follow up the interview? Write the professor an email thanking them for the interview. Ask any additional questions that occurred to you. And remember, professionally we communicate by email, not texts.

What next? If you get the position, great. If you don’t move on to the next person. I don’t think it is a good idea to have multiple people in play at once, so you deserve a timely answer.

Go for it!

Posted in Recommendations, Research, Uncategorized, Undergraduates | Leave a comment

Your web page is out of date – how to fix this forever

I like looking at faculty web pages. I like seeing what they are up to, how they frame their research, who is on their team, and what excitement there is. It is really fun to see how much creative, collaborative energy is out there and applied to science and scientists.

If you want to build a fabulous web page, there are some great ones out there. Look at what Liz Haswell has done, everything from a calendar to a lab manual. A more minimalist page that still has everything is Vanessa Ezenwa‘s one. My own page is somewhere in between.

But this piece is not about having a great web page. It is about keeping it up to date. Almost no one does this, for good reason.  We are busy teaching, mentoring, writing, and doing research. But a web page that looks like you fell off a cliff along with your entire group in 2013 is not good either. What to do?

Have a minimalist web page. The front cover should have on it a picture or two and what you do, a paragraph on what questions you ask and a paragraph on what you have figured out. Each can have links to longer entries elsewhere, but these should be on the front page. The latter is almost never there. Contact info for the PI should also be on the front page.

If you want a very minimalist page, you can have just 5 tabs. I think these should be Home, Research, People, Public, and Join. They should be constructed so they need as little updating as possible. Home is that top page I already talked about. Under research the first thing you should have is a link to your Google Scholar page. You do have one and have made it public, right? If not, do it. Here is a link to how. Having this will keep your publications up to date. Below that, you can expand on the different research questions you ask, and what you have discovered.

The People tab should have a photo and maybe a link for each person in your group. It should say what they do. I prefer that they be sorted by postdoc, grad student, undergrad and so on, but any way is fine, provided their position in the group is named. These people should be encouraged to start their own WordPress blogs to which you can link. If they do it with WordPress, then as they move to different universities, or outside the academy, the page can remain.

The Public tab should have something for the public. You could describe your outreach, point to good resources in your area, indicate the kind of thing you are willing to do, have links to things like the National Academies evolution page and the like. After all, we are funded by the people. Make them glad about science.

Finally, you should have a Join-the-lab tab. This is for a category of people looking at your page that you might be particularly interested in. Tell them under this tab how to contact you, what you would like to see from them, and whether you have openings. For experienced people, this may seem a bit extra, but it can be helpful for people looking for a program.

If you do this carefully, this web page will not have to be updated very often. Put a tickler on your calendar for once or twice a year when you can add new people and tweak other sections. Or not. Your pubs update automatically with that Google Scholar link. This is in some ways the most important besides the overall descriptions of your research questions and what you have found out. Also, if you use WordPress, then updating is easy and in your hands.

Remember to think about who looks at your web page as you make changes. Here are some of the kinds of people that look: nominators for prizes, recommendation letter writers, introducers for talks, curious students, potential grad students, people writing papers, colleagues, the general public. A minimalist page works for all. But remember you will hear those words come back at you in introductions. If you don’t have a strong section on what you have figured out, it will be harder to nominate you for awards or write recommendation letters.

It is also great if you want to do a whole lot more with your web page and have many more tabs. Look at your colleagues and see what they think of for this. But if you do, keep it up to date!

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Choosing a graduate program and advisor: avoid vampires

A vampire professor will suck you dry. They will rob you of your life essences. Exactly which essence they will remove might vary with professor. Some will suck away all your time. Such a professor will notice when you arrive and leave, but not necessarily whether you are productive or spend your day reading my blog. You may work all night in the lab, then come in at 10 instead of 8 and be criticized. The only way to please this kind of vampire is to be in the lab all the time. Tricks like opening your door whether you are there or not may sometimes help. Weekend time at the lab is mandatory, but must overlap with when the vampire comes in.

Another kind of vampire professor will claim all of your ideas, rather than nurture them. I once read a web page of a professor who said that all ideas anyone in his lab had while in his lab were to be considered his (the professor’s) ideas. Furthermore, no idea had in his lab could be pursued after leaving the lab. Ideas should be shared, coddled, elaborated, enhanced, celebrated, so the best ones can be pursued. Vampire professors want your ideas, but what they want to do with them is not always clear.

Perhaps the worst kind of vampire professor wants your soul. They want your life to center on your work in the lab and your relationship with the vampire. They do not want you to have outside interests, or to develop outside scientific interests or skills. They want your very blood.

Is it worth joining the lab of a really famous professor doing super cool research who also happens to be a vampire? I say no. Research should be mostly fun. Grad school should be mostly fun. But above all, the lab community should be nurturing to you, not to the professor alone.

Garlic won’t help avoid vampire professors. Read their web pages. Talk to their current graduate students. There will be plenty of clues of a vampire professor. They are insecure and you can smell it.

Posted in Graduate school | 1 Comment

What you really need instead of an elevator pitch

The chairlift might be a time to talk about your science!

I bet you’re feeling a little guilty whenever someone asks you if you have an elevator pitch, you know, those 30 second or 1 minute talks about what you do that can be given in the time it takes to go up from the first to the fifth floor. You don’t really have one. If you do, you probably worry that it sucks. You know not to be too technical, that if you had taken a course from Alan Alda on improv, you would be much better.

So maybe you feel a little relief when I tell you that really you don’t need an elevator pitch and there is a good reason you don’t have one. Even improv champs like Alan Alda or Aniek Ivens might agree with my following reasoning. First, consider the elevator ride. Actually, people generally do not talk to each other in elevators, even at scientific meetings. So, it is not going to be an elevator pitch, because you are not going to blurt out 5 sentences to strangers and in any way communicate science.

When might you actually have a chance to have only a few minutes to explain your science? The most plausible scene I can think of is in a group where you know some but not all the people. So there is already a bit of a comfort level since you have friends in common. The stranger next to you turns to you and asks “What do you do?” or “What do you work on?” At this point I think I would use one of these five sentences. 1. I am an evolutionary biologist. 2. I work on social behavior in microbes. 3. I study the evolution of symbiosis in a social amoeba called Dictyostelium. 4. I am at Washington University in St. Louis. 5. I teach behavioral ecology and undergraduate research perspectives. Just one of those, no more. I would pick which one depending on the audience.

The next sentence I would say would be to ask the questioner what she does. However she answers, I would ask a follow-up question. I would try to turn the conversation to what she does. This gives me several advantages. First, I get to learn something new. Second, if the conversation does get back to what I do, she is much more likely to listen. Third, she will have an overall positive opinion of me because I am interested in her work.

But what if she never does ask me what I do? Have I lost an opportunity? No, for two reasons. First, if she really doesn’t care what you do, forcing it on her won’t help. Second, by letting her go first, you can figure out which of your many cool stories will most interest her, and tell that one. You should never spend much time on an overview of your work. Do that with a sentence and then turn to one cool story.

But what if she is really famous and you already know what she does? You can ask her about one particular study she has done. Or you can ask her what she is most excited about now. When it gets to your turn, if it does, then you already know which of your stories she is most likely to be interested in.

So there you have it. Conversation is a dialogue. Turn the conversation to the other person and you will learn something and have a more willing listener should it come around to you. And then tell one story, chosen to fit best with this particular listener. Have fun!

Posted in Communication, Talks | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

For your NSF proposal, fit your Broader Impacts to existing infrastructure

One of the challenges to writing a compelling Broader Impacts section in your grant proposal is that we are not generally educated in this area. We are not high school teachers. Most of us have never made a museum exhibit, or done meaningful outreach of any duration. We generally do not even know what a high school curriculum in our field looks like, or what kinds of activities are desired.

Think of the next generation of scientists and citizens!

So we invent something that sounds cool and hope it doesn’t sink the research we really want to do. In doing this we ignore all the research into pedagogy and learning that is out there. We ignore curricular standards. We ignore our own colleagues in other areas. This is terrible. Fortunately there are a few really simple fixes that will empower your efforts toward real impact in schools and communities.

First, ask the experts. Find teachers in your community and ask them what they need. Ask them how you and your team might help with a curricular need. They don’t get to teach whatever you invent. They have standards to meet, test goals to cover, whether it be higher level International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP), or simply the standard for the US, SAT or ACT. You owe it to them and to yourself to figure out how your research can fit their needs. Make the link explicit. It is easy to find the education goals of all these programs. You could start with what the National Academies thinks is important.

Second, plug your projects into existing infrastructure. Does your university already have a way of helping public schools? Mine does, with the Institute for School Partnership. We also have a way of interacting with the community, The Gephardt Institute. We have a volunteer program for graduate students, the Young Scientists Program. What does your institution have? Use it!

You may feel this is not doing something totally new, but I disagree. It is a way of using existing infrastructure to find the audience for your cool outside-the-university modules. It is also a way of discovering what the teachers and educators that engage at this level most need. Innovate with your science activities and messages, not with the way of bringing them to the community.

There are other existing venues you can use, from farmer’s markets to museums. When I set up a science booth at the farmer’s market here, I sincerely hope others will want to use this venue too, just as they do with the physicists at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. My science cannot sustain it. Together as a community, we could have a permanent series of activities. Together we can bring change. If broader impacts are too scattered and not part of a broader infrastructure they will not actually endure. We have been putting broader impacts in NSF proposals for a long time now. What can we point to that we have actually changed? We are so creative and so hard working. Now it is time to tie with structures that will let our ideas best serve the community and endure.

Posted in Broader Impacts, Grant proposals, NSF, Outreach | Leave a comment

Improv for scientific communication with Aniek Ivens

Children get improv, naturally

How I wish I understood you, but I have no idea what you are talking about. You seem friendly and animated and clearly love your research, but what is your question? Why do you like this figure so much? What is important? How does your work fit with what has gone before? How does it fit with what I already know? Oh, right, you don’t know what I know any more than I know what you know, so how do we ever move forward?

Steve Pinker calls this the curse of knowledge. Alan Alda asks you why he’s making this face if he understands you. Figure this one out and not only will you communicate your work more effectively, but you might also learn to ask bigger questions and answer them more ingeniously because you have learned to communicate across boundaries.

It is hard to communicate because the details are things you think about all the time. How could anyone not know them? The broader the audience, the deeper the chasm. National meetings may seem to be the most challenging of all because the audiences are so varied. However you should also be talking about your research with people who do not share your background at all, which is another set of skills. If we did this better, maybe our governments would get the importance of investing more in research.

Learning to bridge to others may best be done with tangential exercises. Learn to explain something you are not invested in, then apply those same skills to your science. This is sort of like cross training. The fastest runners don’t get that way just by running, do they? Or maybe a better analogy would be a team sport where you have to figure out the actions of others, not just your own. This is key.

Pay attention to your audience. Pay exquisite attention to your audience. Talking is not communicating, after all. Communicating is a dance of talking and listening, building your story according to what your audience is getting. Know your audience is a start.
Improv? Isn’t that where you keep a blank mind and say or do something that follows only from what another participant said before? Isn’t it where you get to put others in embarrassing positions, setting them up for a story that cannot easily be continued? No! Actually in improv the actors try to set each other up to shine, something that requires exquisite between actor connections. Improv in front of an audience might seem like a party that you don’t get to attend, only watch. But of course the whole point of improv is an intimate connection to the audience, almost as if they were another actor. How the script goes depends on the audience reactions in the best cases.

We were fortunate enough to have Aniek Ivens teach us in a too-short workshop an introduction to improv for science communication. We started with learning each other’s names. Besides Aniek, there were 14 of us, a challenging number to learn quickly. We all got in a group and chose an adjective and an action to attach to our first names. Aniek started as anxious Aniek who showed us clawed hands in front of her. We had juggling Jenna, miming juggling, ecstatic Erica who jumped up spreading her arms up. We had yucky Yunji who made a face and artistic Allison, who air painted. We had fast Freddie, extended Ethan, and terrible Tony. We went around the circle a few times saying our names and showing our actions. Then we all did each person’s action, passing around the circle. Would this work in class? I might give it a try. After all, this was an easier way to learn the names than what Aniek would call dry names, without the accompanying adjective and gesture.

Clearly we still had a lot of loosening up to do and I could see Aniek was mentally sorting through hundreds of possibilities. She chose a circle game in which we clapped our shoulder on one side counting to six, then arced our arm over our head for seven. After a few rounds of this, she added a twist. It was that the direction could reverse if we simply used the other arm to slap the other shoulder. And we still had to keep track of the different gesture for seven. It sounds easy, but speed it up and we made mistakes, missing the seven, or failing to detect a change of direction indicated by our neighbor. It got fun.

Then Aniek broke us into two circles. If we made a mistake we had to run to the other circle. No one else could tell us to go. We had to self-police. I suppose we could always use more self-policing and less other policing. This got crazy and fun. We could hardly stop laughing. Maybe the point of it was to loosen us up and to make us comfortable with mistakes.

We did some other things before we got to explain stuff to each other. All of it had to do with communicating, I think. Here is one that was intense. We stood opposite another person. One of us was the leader. That person had to do movements that the other had to mirror so exactly that a third person could not identify the leader. This meant we had to move slowly and look the other person in the eyes continuously. I still remember channeling Aileen’s every movement as she moved slowly and carefully. It helps in doing this to follow some kind of pattern. Clearly Aileen had some familiarity with ballet moves, but I did not, just as she did not know yoga moves I fell back on when I was the leader. I like to think we were pretty good at slow, symmetrical moves that were not too hard to match. But what did this have to do with either improv, or communicating science?

I guess it isn’t too hard to figure out that the connection has to do with exquisite communication. You can’t follow a predetermined script if your audience doesn’t follow you. How can you tell if you are actually communicating the ideas you care about? Only by having a great connection to your listener. I suppose you get better as you do this at guessing what your listener gets so that you get better with even a huge audience in a dark auditorium. This exercise was mesmerizing, even though we weren’t using it the way others have here, here , here and here.

The next exercise we did was lighter. Someone began with a word and around the circle the story grew, each person adding a word to the previous one to tell a story. Aniek reminded us a story begins with a scene, has a problem, then has a resolution to a problem. Your science stories should be the same. She also reminded us to keep a blank mind, so we could best respond to what the person before us said. I could say a lot about the power of a blank mind, open to discovery. If you really listen to what your audience is saying, you may begin to avoid the curse of knowledge.

Now that we were all loosened up, comfortable with making mistakes, in touch with our blank minds and the supremacy of the audience, we were ready to do some activities that got really close to actually explaining our science. Aniek told us we had to do a kind of role playing, explaining a modern device to 15th century people. This required us to imagine our audience and their world. It made us think about the world they knew as different from the world we know. This is an important skill for explaining to any audience, particularly those with less of a science background.

Finally we got to the actual science part, which was just as interesting as the rest. I wonder how we would have done if we hadn’t gone through the earlier exercises. Frankly, I believe they made us much more in touch with the goals of science communication, actual understanding of what our partners understood and when we needed to back track. As before, we each took a turn being actor and recipient. The actor told the recipient what role they should take. I paired with Tony and he wanted me to be a prospective graduate student since he is starting a new lab. When my turn came, I wanted him to be a recalcitrant editor that keeps rejecting my papers without review. One person worked through a two-minute presentation, then a 1 minute, a 30 second, and finally a 15 second spiel. After the two-minute one, we answered questions about what we understood.

It was transformative. If ever I felt I had time to ramble in two minutes, it was after having said essentially the same thing in 15 seconds. I think it not only helped me communicate better, but also helped me understand what my real message was. It helped me think about where the weaknesses were also.

We wrapped up with some group discussion and then one last exercise. We got back in the main circle, juggling Jenna, artistic Irene, angry Aileen, basic Brandon, and all the rest. Then we started with the one word thing but instead of going around the circle, the person that said one word pointed to the next speaker. When we felt the idea was complete, we indicated it with all yelling out ‘right on!’ These were sort of like proverbs. We did a bunch of them, then ended the fabulous 100 minutes with applause for amazing Aniek.

Can I keep everything I learned that afternoon? Will I actually find and take an improv class?Or I could look for TJ and Dave, or, according to Aniek again, read Jagodowski or  Keith Johnstone,

But really, I hope I get to work with Aniek again. If you want to, here is her contact:
Or you could try your local improv groups, or Alan Alda:  or lots of other publicity on the role of improv in communicating science, like this.

So, have fun, pay intense attention to your audience, help everyone shine, and figure out what your big ideas are and what the evidence for them is.

Posted in Communication, Creativity, Science writing for the public, Scientific meetings, Talks | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment