We truly live at an amazing time in biology.  I was just cutting my teeth as a sophomore animal science major when the human genome was released, which when compared to genomes of distantly related fruitflies and nematode worms revealed an astounding conservation of a core genetic toolkit across animals.  I’ve spent my graduate and postgraduate career unraveling these molecular controls and how their conserved and novel use pattern a diversity of different body plans, from marine worms, sea anemones, lancelets, and now to frog and mammalian cells systems.  As a senior postdoc at Stony Brook University, I now use frog embryos and mammalian cell culture to better understand core signaling pathways which normally control development, and whose misregulation lead to diseases such as cancer.   I am also a fellow of a new NIH initiative, the IRACDA program, which is geared to train the next generation of researchers and teachers, and whose teaching component has me commuting to Brooklyn College to teach general biology.  When not in the lab or classroom, I’m usually out exploring and fishing the long island sound on my kayak, running our local trails, brewing (or drinking) beer, taking a hike and watching the birds, or hitting the slopes.

Old friends they shine like diamonds...

Old friends they shine like diamonds...

One of the biggest differences i've noticed between being a postdoc versus my graduate student experience is that it's a lot harder to make new friends.  In grad school, I had a cohort of fellow students, bright and often like-minded individuals..  As a postdoc, you usually more or less on your own. 

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Dr. Strangefonts, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Presentations.

Dr. Strangefonts, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Presentations.

I've lost count of the number of seminars, group meetings, and journal clubs where I have had to fight off sleep or frustration due to a bad presentation.  And I remember that sense of dread I had before and during some of my earlier talks, my stomach dropping as I saw puzzled looks, eyes glaze over and heads nod.  Thanks to a number of great mentors, I've learned a few easy changes to how I approach designing presentations, and now enjoy giving my presentations to any audience.  

Three takeaway points.  To fight going into too much depth, try to think of the three main takeaway points you would like your audience to take from your talk.   It doesn't have to be three, depending on your time/purpose, but the fewer the better.    

Think about it from your audiences perspective, and how you would like them to answer 'what was the talk about' in just a few sentences.  By focusing on a few broad themes, you can get these points across more easily difficult.   

Keep it simple.  This sounds obvious, but is some of the hardest part of communicating our work.  We are experts in our field, or at least on our way to being experts, and also are used to being precise; this leads to our natural inclination to try to explain everything in extreme detail.  You can simplify things to only include just enough detail to support this message.  Furthermore, make just one point per slide; if you have one graphic that has several points (e.g. a piece of data which you can draw several conclusions from) give each conclusion on an additional slide.  

When trying to communicate, we don't need to be as careful as we are in our writing. There may be experts in your audience who will want you to go into more depth on the details, but you can always keep a few slides in your pocket (e.g. at the end of your presentation) if these come up as questions after your talk.   

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The science of teaching..

The science of teaching..

So as I mentioned before, I have been taking part in bi-weekly pedagogical training as part of my IRACDA postdoctoral fellowship.  This week we've been working on the science of teaching, that is, applying data from scientific research on the education process to improve the learning process.  The first speaker was Dr. Russ Nehm, who has both a doctorate in Biology from UC Berkley as well as a Ed.M from columbia, who introduced us to some of the latest in theories on scientific teaching. 

So most of us are familiar with the traditional lecture model of teaching, in which an wizened expert delivers the material to his students.  Dr. Nehmo used the analogy of a students mind as a room; in this case the pontificating professor assumes the room is empty and waiting to be filled.  In reality, the student mind, or room, is already partially filled, and we should be thinking about how to remodel this room, either by removing, replacing, or refinishing this furniture.  We start to build models of the world from a very young age, and it is much easier to modify pre-existing models or conceptions then to try to remove and replace.  An example of this is a classic misconception of what underlies the seasons.  This misconception is so common, in fact, that after having various early studies conducted at less-elustrious universities, they decided to survey graduating harvard undergraduates for this very question, who as you can see in the following video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0wk4qG2mIg, had similar poor performance... with only 2 out of 23 students picked at random able to give the correct response regarding the earth's tilt (Schneps 1998). 

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So, what went wrong?  At some point during almost all of our formal education, we have been taught that the earth's tilt relative to the sun impacts both the direction and length that the light rays throughout the year.  However, through both formal and informal learning (e.g. our observations), most of us have gained various conceptions about the world around us; that the sun heats the earth, the earth revolves around the sun, and perhaps even some more detailed points such as planets having elliptical orbits.   These nuggets of info lead to a very common, and unfortunatly incorrect, preconception that the reason the change in seasons is due to the sun being closer in the summer and further in the winter.  So in going back to thinking about the students mind 'room', before we can add new furniture (e.g. the scientifically correct conception), we need to first deal with the furniture that is in there.  In the traditional model where we just present the correct model without dealing with the old conception.  However, this often results in a non-lasting redecoration, with the added model quickly thrown away or still superseded by our intuitive misconception.  In order to be more effective, many education researchers are now pointing out that we need to first address the old furniture, and modify, as opposed to just add.  First, they suggest addressing these partial truths, e.g. point out that yes, planetary orbits are eliptical, but in reality the earth's orbit is only very slightly so and not enough to result in the change.  By addressing what is mistaken about these preconceptions, and then having learners weigh their old ideas against the new, results in an arguably longer lasting redecoration of the students minds.

Okay, so this is one example, but we are going to be faced with a wide number of previous misconceptions depending on the subject we are teaching.  However, the NSF and HHMI, and other groups have been funding research into helping with this task, and for many aspects of core curriculum, have developed resources that can help, such as a concept inventory.  These concept inventories are built via studies looking at what conceptions students are bringing to the material being taught, and then creating multiple choice tests containing both the correct and misconceptions.  One way that these are suggested as being useful is to give these tests prior to teaching the subject (usually as participatory points but not for formative assessment), and then to confront what the commonly head misconceptions are head on in the class.   Many of these have already been developed for various courses in biology, to read more see Klymkowsky and Garvin-Doxas 2008, or Smith et. al. 2008, or i've found similar concept inventories in quick web searches for other subject such as math, physics, and engineering.   Or maybe consider building your own for your class and conducting your own study; there is funding available for this work, and can result in peer reviewed publications.  

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Distilling your science - How to effectively communicate your science to non-scientists

Distilling your science - How to effectively communicate your science to non-scientists

As part of the training provided by my IRACDA fellowship, we have been taking a number of workshops to make us better teachers and professionals.  So far, we've had workshops on how to write a teaching statement, course design and assessment, and even an improv workshop, but we just finished a fascinating discussion on how to effectively communicate our science from Elizabeth Bath in the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Education.  

As researchers we do amazing things, and usually can effectively communicate to our peers using our precise language.  However, many of us find it extremelly difficult in explaining our work to a lay audience. If your anything like me, you've been in the situation where a friend or family member asks about your work, and just failled to get your point across.  Just this past weekend after I showed my grandmother around my lab, showing her my animals, microinjection station, and equipment, and talking a bit about my work.  As she was leaving, she thought it was great that I was 'poking all those frog eggs'.   

We scientists have an increasing need to be able to effectively communicate our science to non-experts. For instance, most grants now require some sort of statement understandable by a general lay audience about the broader impact of our work, such as the NIH Project Narrative, or a Broader Impact statement in an NSF proposal.   These may seem trivial compared to the more detailed aspects of our aims and experimental overview, but probably just as important in the broader sense.  In a federal grants, these statements are mandated by congress and used to help congress better understand what they are funding and why, and in this age of sequestration and other cuts to the NIH and NSF budgets, you don't want your grant to draw the ire of some congressperson trying to cut 'waste'.  Fortunately, the public is still widely positive about science; a pew report in 2009 found that 84% of the public has a positive view of scientists.  However, in many metrics we are slipping; with only 27% of 2009 respondents finding science/medicine/technology have been our nations greatest achievements, compared to 47% a decade before, and only 60% of the public sees governmental funding of public research as essential.  Science  

So how do we become better ambassadors of the amazing things that we do (and trust me, you are doing important work).  Here are a few tips I learned from the course...

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Publication-focused research.

Publication-focused research.

Probably the best thing my Bruce, my graduate school advisor, taught me was to always ask myself; how is this going to contribute to a paper.  It's the major product of us academics, and probably the most important way we communicate our results.  Of course, not every experiment we do is going to end up in a publication, but before you do them, stop and ask yourself a few questions.  Is this adequately controlled, or have we done enough repeats to be significant?  Often we get wrapped up in wanting to see the result we expect that we can forget to test for negative or alternative results.  Try to think of your experiment from the eyes of someone reviewing you paper; you can even write out potential final results for each scenrio, and discuss them with your advisor or coworkers to make sure you have it it mind.

 I've personally found that sometimes my first results are the best I see (e.g. the prettiest bands, the nicest looking photos) and have kicked myself once or twice after the fact for saying "this is only a quick trial".  

Now to steal from glengarry glen-ross, always be writing!  Start writing the paper immediately; put that first result in a figure, write up the methods in all it's gory detail, and start sketching out how you interpret this result with previous results.  I found this out the hard way while writing my first paper, when I waited until I thought I had all the results.  As I started putting together these results, it became clear to me that there would have been a number of other experiments I would have made a priority if I had only thought about it in context.  

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