Science Ambassador Scholarship

I once wrote a blog about Cards Against Humanity’s scholarship to promote women in STEM fields.  Yes, I mean the card game.  Scholarship applications are now open for high school and college women planning to major in a STEM field.

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My dream job, part 2

As of August, I am an Assistant Professor of Biology at Reed College.  In this series of blog posts, I will explain why I chose this environment as my academic landing pad (or launching pad).

Part 2: The teaching opportunities are tremendous.

I have always wanted to teach.  Ironically, very few Ph.D. programs incentivize learning how to teach.*  In 2013, Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, wrote a great commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how technology necessitates a change in preparing Ph.D. graduates to teach.

In graduate school, I explicitly sought out a teaching experience.  I helped students develop computational tools to solve questions relevant to their own majors (English, History, Political Science, Gender Studies) and interests (NASCAR, music, food).  Forget about me inspiring the students – I was inspired by them!

I have joined a college that encourages faculty to teach what they believe are the most important and relevant aspects of their field.  The classes I will teach at Reed, which focus on learning computer programming to solve biological problems, are completely new additions to the existing courses in the Biology Department.  Some may scoff at the “course load release” I and other assistant faculty have obtained in the first year, but the point is to teach at these types of schools.  Engaging with students, educating them, and inspiring them is one of my major career goals.

I will end with hefty dose of reality, one that everyone in education is well-aware of.  Teaching is hard.  Teaching well is harder.  Add to that teaching on my own for the first time and creating course content from scratch, and this year will be a daunting rollercoaster ride.  But I am more excited about the teaching opportunities three weeks into a hectic first semester than I was when I first took the job.

*I personally don’t know of any computer science Ph.D. programs that incentivize learning how to teach.  Perhaps in other fields it is more commonplace.

My dream job, part 1

As of August, I am an Assistant Professor of Biology at Reed College.  In this series of blog posts, I will explain why I chose this environment as my academic landing pad (or launching pad).

Part 1: I went to a liberal arts college, and it completely changed my career path.

This comment is not about Reed in particular, but about small liberal arts colleges.  I went to one of these colleges as an undergrad, determined to be an English major.  I took English classes, studied abroad in London with the English Department, and was well on my way to completing the required courses.

But something happened.  I was encouraged to try out new disciplines.  Like many other schools,* my alma mater offers an option to take a limited number classes pass/fail (“scrunch” them) and not have them count towards the students’ GPA.   So I took introductory courses in religion (didn’t like it), psychology (fun, but didn’t want to take more of it), and, finally, computer science.

I don’t know why I chose CS. Despite the small class size and the fantastic professor, I was intimidated.  After the first day I figured I would fail the class.  After a few weeks, I was hooked.  By that summer I was doing undergraduate research.  And now I have a Ph.D. in Computer Science.

Without the encouragement to use scrunch classes in a small class setting, I would not be a computer scientist.  I am surprised by my certainty about that statement.  I knew that I liked solving puzzles and finding creative solutions, but I didn’t connect that to computer science.  I hadn’t even connected that to science.

I am not necessarily on a mission to turn students towards computer science or computational fields.  Instead, I hope to show students a new field of study that they hadn’t considered before.  Students will be armed with new information to help them discover their academic interests.  I think this is will be easier to accomplish in a liberal arts environment.  Maybe this is unfair, since I didn’t attend a large school for undergrad, but it seems so easy to get “lost” at a large university if a student tries to venture out beyond their comfort zone.


*Some large public schools probably encourage this pass/fail option for select classes as well.  It would be interesting to know how many students use it as a mechanism to try out different career paths.

Tenure

A couple articles came across my news feed in the past week a few months ago related to tenure.  While they are not directly related to each other, I thought I’d mention them in the same post.

First, how many faculty in the United States are actually tenured?  I was surprised to find that, according to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), over 50% of faculty hold adjunct (non tenure-track) positions.  AAUP calls these positions “contingent faculty” because, regardless of their full-time or part-time status, their school makes little to no long-term commitment in terms of job security.  The increasing reliance of institutions on adjunct faculty has an impact not only on the faculty but also on the students and the research at the institution.  An article from The Atlantic summarizes many of these points:

The Cost of an Adjunct | The Atlantic

Now, tenure itself may be a controversial topic – some say that the system encourages faculty to slack off after getting tenure, or to keep teaching outdated material long after they should have retired.  The tenure process is incredibly stressful, sometimes unclear, and notoriously unfair – and this is just scratching the surface.  But once tenure is obtained, faculty may end up doing more out-of-the-box, high-risk research and teaching that they wouldn’t have attempted otherwise.

Trying to Kill Tenure | Inside Higher Ed

Funding models for Ph.D. programs

UC-Irvine is adopting a new funding model for Ph.D. programs in some departments.  The idea is to provide increased funding for five years, and then offer a two year postdoc teaching position.

This article, from Slate, is written about Ph.D. programs in the humanities, where it is generally much harder to secure a job than in the computational sciences.  Still, an interesting perspective.

UC–Irvine’s 5+2 program: A good idea, but the worst job title in academia..

If you go to UCLA, you can be a Big Bang Theory scholar

Jim Parsons and Mayim Bialik are two of the `The Big Bang Theory’ people funding the scholarship. Image from http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/the-big-bang-theory-creates-scholarship-fund-for-stem-students-at-ucla

STEM funding for undergraduates is cropping up from many unusual places, including Cards Against Humanity.  People from the show `The Big Bang Theory’ have done it for UCLA, raising over $4 million to endow a scholarship for students in STEM majors.

`The Big Bang Theory’ creates scholarship fund for STEM students at UCLA

How many authors is too many?

Nature recently published a quick blurb about a paper on fruit fly genetics that has sent social media abuzz.  Why?  Because the paper, published in G3: Genes Genomes Genetics, lists over 1,000 authors.  Further, more than 900 of these authors are undergraduates and members of the Genomics Education Partnership, an organization that has posted a record of the commentary on the author number. The author list, which spans the first three pages of the PDF, is shown below.

    fly2     fly3

The paper has sparked a larger debate about the role of training and education in research, particularly when it comes to undergraduate involvement.  Alongside the paper, the authors also released a blog post about undergraduate-empowered research in the Genetics Society of America’s Genes to Genomes blog.  This is the first paper I’ve seen that lists a blog post as supporting information.

I can see arguments on both sides. On one hand, crowd-sourcing allows us accomplish tasks impossible for a single person to execute. The computer scientist in me loves this aspect of the story.  Here, “the crowd” is the sea of undergraduates that edited and annotated a DNA sequence (the Muller F element, or the “dot” chromosome) in fruit flies by analyzing and integrating different types of data.  Unlike papers that use Mechanical Turk to collect data, where the crowd is typically non-experts, this particular crowd has learned a set of specialized skills that facilitated the research.  Undergrads dirtied their hands with real data and learned valuable insights about how to conduct research.  The educator in me finds the endeavor incredibly impactful for the scientists-in-training.  On the other hand, being buried in the author list makes one’s contributions look meaningless.  What does it mean to be a co-author on such a paper?  If the Genomics Education Partnership consisted of only a few dozen undergraduates, would it be better?  Some of these questions are discussed in the Neuro DoJo blog post.  The academic “I-want-to-get-tenure” in me cringes at the thought that good research may be down-weighted because the author contributions were unclear if I were in the middle of the author list.

I think that the undergraduates from the Genomics Education Partnership did conduct research that contributed to the paper, and they should be credited in some way.  It seems that in the age of crowdsourcing, perhaps there needs to be an intermediate between authorship and acknowledgement that indicates a collective contribution from a group of people (e.g. students in a class or members of a consortium).