My Dream Job, Part 4

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 4:  Being in a Biology Department changes my perspective.

With one semester under my belt, I took some time this break to reflect on my position at Reed.*  As I begin teaching another round of Introduction to Computational Biology, I will try to articulate why I find my position so exciting.

The students who are taking my classes have had a mixture of backgrounds, but most of them major in the natural sciences.  Up to this point, I have been surrounded by people with strong backgrounds in math and computer science.  As a result, students ask questions that have a completely different underlying motivation than the questions I’ve received in talks and research meetings.  I walk a fine line between oversimplifying the biology in order to describe a problem in computational terms and oversimplifying an algorithm in order to describe how it is applied to a biological concept.  In some ways, this makes teaching class hard.  Talk about inviting the imposter syndrome to step in when you have to answer “I don’t know” in class more than once.  Yet it also makes class engaging, unexpected, and fun.  Add to that an occasional power pose, and teaching is very satisfying.

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Screenshot from Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk (provided from a blog post by Amy Neuzil)

I am currently one of two tenure-track computer scientists at Reed.  We are at the cusp of establishing a computer science program: students are excited, funds have been acquired, and an active search is underway. I feel like much of the incredibly hard work has been done, and I get to show up for the fun part.**  This momentum has trickled over to the Biology Department through the students I advise and teach.

The other computer scientists at Reed are affiliated with the Math Department.  One might think that being in a different department from the faculty who are “most like me” may make my research life isolating.  Instead, I may just have the best of both worlds.  I get to sit in the same department as my biological collaborators, while networking with faculty in the Math Department to establish computational research collaborations.  Put simply, I love being interdisciplinary.  I deeply appreciate the flexibility that Reed offers in designing my courses to be hybrids of two fields.

My professional identity is quickly becoming steeped in teaching interdisciplinary courses and conducting research across departments.  Over the next few years, my research will undoubtedly become more applications-focused as I co-advise more student projects with Biology faculty. Yet there is enough interest at Reed, from both faculty and students, for me to continue algorithmic research.

*It’s been a while since I posted. Consider it a Spring semester resolution to start posting more.

**This might be naive, but hey, I’m an optimist.

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My dream job, part 3

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 3: Reed is designed for conducting research in a liberal arts environment.

A friend and Reed alumnus once described her experience at Reed as “mini grad school.”  One of the main reasons for this is the long-standing tradition of the senior thesis.  The thesis, which must be approved by a committee of readers, is part of the requirements for graduation.  It is also engrained in the student culture — the end of thesis writing is celebrated by ritualistically burning of a copy of the document. All theses are placed in the Library’s “thesis tower” for perusal by the public, becoming a permanent item in the Reed community.

Thesis Parade [photo posted by Reed College on Facebook]

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Library thesis tower, 1992. Image from the Reed College Hauser Library Special Collections and Archives, Reed College Library.

As Reed faculty, we advise students on this year-long thesis writing endeavor.  Part of our responsibility, as educators, is to think about new problems in our field that become thesis topics.  In some departments, providing students with research experiences and opportunities goes hand-in-hand with academic scholarship.  For example, in the Biology Department, student theses may fit into the professor’s larger vision of their research.  I think this is echoed in the success of faculty all over campus at securing external funding – over $2.2 million in 2014/2015, a ten year historical record.

Conducting high-quality research is not an anomaly at liberal arts schools.  Granted, it may take more time than at larger institutions, since training and teaching undergraduates is a much larger piece of the work.  But the quality does not have to diminish.  Recently, Biology professor Todd Schlenke published a paper in Science with Shelly Skolfield (class of 2014) and others.  The work was a continuation of the senior thesis Shelly did with Todd in 2014.

I intend to continue my research projects with the help of Reed students – in fact, it is one of the reasons why I took the job.  Advising senior theses will be a great way to kick off my research program.

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.

My dream job

In a few short weeks, I will start my second post-Ph.D. adventure as an Assistant Professor at Reed College, a small liberal arts school in Portland, Oregon.  My time as a postdoctoral researcher in the Computer Science Department at Virginia Tech gave me invaluable experience with writing papers and grant proposals, mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, and learning how to lead a research group.  My Ph.D. and post-doctoral background set me up to pursue a faculty position at a research university (an “R1”).  I love doing research, and I am excited to continue my projects from my Ph.D. and postdoc.  So why is Reed College — a school with only about 1,400 total undergraduates, no graduate programs, and no Computer Science Department — my dream job?  Before I become too disillusioned, I will attempt to answer this question, one reason at a time.  Stay tuned.

Eliot Hall. Photo courtesy of Reed College/Stuart Mullenberg