Do your undergrads actually understand their summer research project?

Cara Jefferson, undergrad extraordinaire

All over the country, undergraduates are embarking on research projects. They are banding birds, squeezing ticks for parasites, culturing bacteria, seining streams, cutting open mice, and many other things. If you ask them what they are doing, they will be able to tell you. They can probably go over their methods in some detail. They will have learned techniques, how to measure properly, perhaps to use a fancy microscope, or how to untangle a bird from a net.

But do they understand why they are doing this particular project? Could they explain to their congressperson or their friend what questions they will answer and why these questions are important? If they were given a list of 5 projects could they pick out the one that is best for asking and anwering a big question? The answer to this is all too often no. But why?

In a way it is simple. The things that matter on a day to day basis are what they know. They may not have been there when the project was devised. They may have had it explained at the beginning and not again. So it is up to their mentors, the PI of the lab and their bench or field mentors to explain the project, to provide readings on it, and then to listen to the students tell it back to them so it is clear they understand. This should be done orally and in writing. It should be reinforced frequently.

This came up in a different way this week with one of our undergraduates. She is very ambitious and eager to do the best possible work this summer.  Her project is going very well so far. She is very organized and has figured out exactly how much time her project will take and would like another one to fill her time.  So what did we do?

Instead of taking her word for it and moving on to discussing different projects, we had her meet with us and explain the existing project in detail. This gave her another chance to show us she understood it. It gave us a chance to remember in detail exactly what it was since it is a project that spins off of a graduate student project. Of course he was also present. With that refreshed understanding, we were then able to guide her not to a side project, but to ways to augment the existing project. Sometimes this involves additional replicates. Sometimes it involves growing things on their own and just looking at them. Sometimes, for our work which is on a population of evolved bacteria, it involves plating them out clonally and looking for morphological variation in the population. These additional parts of the existing project are the best approach in this case. This will give our marvelous student a better understanding of the project, a way of discovering new angles herself, and a way to fill her research time.

What is the main message? It is that students should be given lots of opportunities to explain the point of their main projects. They should grow with the project, adding dimensions as they find time. It isn’t that a second project is never all right, but in a short summer, doing the best on the main project, from the daily work to writing and analysis, will likely take all the time. Even beginning with a dummy dataset for practicing analysis can be a good idea.

Pay attention to your undergrads and be sure they get the point of the research project, not once, but daily having to remind you and themselves what it is all about and how it can be enhanced. After all, pipetting can get old if you don’t remember the point of it all.


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We have a position for a postdoc on amoeba-bacteria symbiosis available immediately!

The fabulous Queller-Strassmann lab group!

Finally we got the call from NSF that our grant proposal was being recommended for funding in full. This new funding uses the social amoeba bacteria symbiosis to tease out exactly how mutualisms work, with both empirical work and theory. I am the PI on this grant. We have another one funded last year that David Queller is PI on. A new postdoc can work on a variety of topics since some on each grant will be covered by existing postdocs and graduate students. Join us! We have a very collegial group excited to have someone new!  Here is the full ad, below. Please spread it around since we are ready to hire now.

One word of warning is that Dave and I will be in Berlin or elsewhere in Europe from 22 August 2018 to 25 August 2019. Ideally someone would start before we go, but we can still communicate electronically and leave a very capable team behind who know more of the bench work than we do.

Postdoctoral position on amoeba – bacteria symbiosis available immediately

This position is for research on the farming symbiosis between the social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum and certain Burkholderia bacteria. Specifically, we have funding for work on the existence and effect of partner choice, the effect of symbiont kin selection and kin recognition on the symbiosis, finding genes underlying the symbiosis in both partners, the molecular evolution of these genes, the theory and measurement of mutualistic selection, and co-evolutionary specialization at the level of species and clone between an existing NSF grant, a newly funded one, and other resources. We are seeking an energetic postdoc with interests in some of these topics and a strong background in one or more of the following: evolutionary biology, social behavior, mutualism, microbial evolution, genomics, molecular genetics, and coevolution theory.  The position is in the biology department at Washington University in St. Louis and is available immediately but the start date is negotiable.

David Queller and Joan Strassmann lead a friendly and interactive team of highly motivated, creative, and smart investigators. They are committed to diversity, to the career success of their team members, and to a collaborative and productive approach to research and mentoring.  Check out our website, ( for more information on our lab, or Strassmann’s blog (

If you are interested in joining our group, please send an email to Joan Strassmann ( with a single file including CV, statement of research interests, and the names, phone numbers, and email addresses of three references. Please specify which of the research areas appeal to you.  Women and underrepresented minorities are particularly encouraged to apply.  We will begin reviewing applications by 15 June 2018 and will continue to accept them until the position is filled.


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What professors really want from graduating students

It is that happy-sad time of year when students I cherish move on to the next step. They have been in our research lab for one year or for four. They have taken classes from us and have learned from us just as we have learned from them. And now they are mostly gone.

It was wonderful to meet their parents on Friday after graduation and see where our precious students came from. I suppose it is also good for the parents to meet us, often for the first time.

Some students want to memorialize our bond with a gift, particularly if their parents are from cultures where this is common. Gifts can be awkward, should not be worth much, and are entirely unnecessary.

But there is one kind of gift we will always love. It is a note from the student reflecting on their time in our group. It can be emailed, handwritten, or printed. We don’t care. We just love to get such memories. In fact, I keep them forever in a special place and I look at them when feeling overwhelmed.

So, if you are wondering what on earth to get your professors, remember, the best gift is that note. Let us know what your time here meant and we’ll be happy.

Oh, and stay in touch!

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Send in a title the minute you agree to give a talk!

All the talks at the Dictyostelium meeting had titles well in advance

There are lists of talks for the semester on our department web page. There are compiled lists for the university, weekly blasts, summer lists, and more. All too often most of these talks have an author listed with the talk title as TBD, to be determined. If we don’t know the author, it could be about gating channels in neurons, fire ecology, or fish development. Even for talks generally targeted at ecology and evolution folks, there is a huge spread.

The titles would not matter so much if we simply went to all the talks no matter what they are about. I tend to do that for our Thursday Evolution, Ecology, and Population Biology (EEPB) talks, but less so for the other series. Titles help!

I think the reason people hesitate on turning in the title is that they have not decided which of their wonderful stories they will share with us. They are anxious to please and want the title to be perfect. Please stop. Just give us a title that covers the general area of study. It doesn’t have to be different from your other titles. It doesn’t even have to have a close match to the subject you ultimately choose. But it will give us an idea as to what we will hear. It is a bonus if it is fun, of course.

And if you are the person inviting rather than the person talking, insist on a title. If your speaker does not give one, make one up. If you have invited the person, you have a general idea of what they do. Once they see your invented title, they may simply like it and use it, or it will inspire them to give a better title. And the rest of us will have a clue.

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Why vacations matter for work excellence

Everyone says that vacations refresh. But what do they mean by that? Are vacations just good for the person and the spirit or do they actually improve work? Here, I’ll discuss one point for the latter. It may even apply to those stressful vacations where keeping the family fed and happy seems like more work than non-vacation days.


This is the point where I should vacation rather broadly as anything that gets you into a strongly different mindset for a week or more, though this could be flexible. Another essential feature of a vacation is you don’t keep up with everything flowing in on your email, though you may not necessarily shut it off entirely.  So a vacation could be a trip somewhere, camping, or even a scientific meeting if it is a real break from the normal obligations.

So the last week Dave and I spent at the American Ornithological Society counts as a vacation, though we went to most of the talks and learned a lot. I did check email, but couldn’t figure it out at first, then was in the field, so little got dealt with until today, the day we travel home.

What I found on going through several hundred emails, Facebook posts, and Twitter news was a sudden clarity as to what was important to me. Against this metric I accepted and rejected tasks with an alacrity that I had lost. The longer time you go without a vacation, the more you lose the ability to see what is and is not important to you. It is like a ship encrusting with barnacles and moving ever more slowly. A long time without vacations and you might feel you have no time for even the important things because you are less good at sorting out the unimportant.

Right now I relish a certain clarity and hope I get a lot done before it fades away. I say yes to a lot of tasks, but will also say no to those that are not in my profile. After all, only I know how much is asked of me. Only I know what commitments I can make and what I must reject. With this extra focus, I hope to do the things that are important.

Posted in Creativity, efficiency, Travel, Uncategorized, Vacations | 1 Comment

Who is your lab aya?


Alicia Hubert, lab aya

Last Monday I met with Alicia Hubert, our lab technician before she moves on to a fulfilling job in sustainability. I wanted to understand in more detail exactly what she did for us. I knew she did research, running bacteria through Biolog plates to understand their carbon usage, or pulling clones out of the freezer and letting them grow. I knew she did a lot of teaching of newcomers to the group. I knew she helped others when their own projects became unmanageable. I knew she ordered supplies. I knew she checked the safety equipment, changed the Millipore filters and reminded us when we were due for online training. I knew she updated our web page. But somehow I felt I had not fully understood the essence of her contribution. Now I do a bit more.

She was our lab aya. If you look up aya, you will find a definition like governess. But it has the sound of a word a very young child would use for someone who cares for them. What I mean when I say Alicia was our lab aya is that she is the one who cared for the whole lab, not just her projects or specific role. She is the one who walked through the whole lab at the beginning and end of the day and looked to see if anything was amiss. She looked at the freezers to see if they maintained their temperature. She looked at the benches to see if someone had become sloppy. She looked at the balances and the gel-pouring area. She noticed things. She unlocked and locked doors. She helped everyone be their best.

These simple tasks may not seem like a lot. They probably took less than an hour a day on most days. Often she would see nothing out of place on her trips through the lab. But when she did, it was quickly remedied.

Debbie Brock, master lab aya

How are we going to replace her? For now, I think we will rotate ayas, having everyone take a month long turn at the daily walk throughs and other tasks. This will help make everyone care more about the whole. And we are lucky for we also have a master aya, Debbie Brock, who will make sure this as everything else, goes freely.

Do you have an aya? Maybe its time you embraced this idea to keep your lab running well.

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Have you uploaded research images to Wikimedia yet?

Social stages of Dictyostelium discoideum, the social amoeba. Photo by Tyler Larsen, CC BY SA 4.0

How often to you get asked for images on your research? Did you have a photograph you took get copyrighted by a journal so you can no longer use it? Is there an easy fix to make your life easier and to get your publicity for your work?

Devilishly handsome Tyler Larsen, CC BY SA 4.0

Yes! Upload your images to Wikimedia! Then whenever anyone asks, you can point them to your images. It is really easy.

First, you go to Then you click “create account” in the upper right corner. Or you might already have an account to log into. Then you click “upload file” in the left hand menu. And you upload the file, making sure to mark “this is my own work” at the place it is an option. Give your file an appropriate title that helps make it easy to find. Make it easier to find by putting it in a good category. Put a link to the page on your own home page.

That’s it! Tyler did this for photos he took here. So if you need a photo of Tyler, or any of his excellent Dictyostelium photos, you have them, right along with permission to use them!

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