The Emotional Scientist

The most interesting part of Palmer’s piece to me was his section advocating for care of students’ emotions and emotional intelligence. As a scientist, and particularly as a female, we are told to ignore our emotions and do our work. Any showcase of emotions is seen as weak. We are told that science has no room for emotions. This mindset is particularly prevalent in graduate school, where we’re told to just push through without feeling anything. When a graduate student talks about not sleeping, not eating, being stressed beyond belief, etc. we’re all told this is a normal part of the process. We’re not given advice on how to cope, we’re not given advice to make our situation better, we’re simply told that everyone also feels this way and to be strong is to simply push through. We aren’t encourage to be open and honest about our struggles. We aren’t asked to take a look at the institution that pressures its students to work beyond their capacity.

Inclusion and Isolation

Inclusion and Isolation

I attended the University of Scranton for undergraduate, a university that is, according to Forbes, 79.4% white. And I felt it. While I only dealt with one incident with an aggressive form of racism, I spent my entire four years dealing with racist comments and microaggressions. These incidents made me feel so lonely because I couldn’t even talk to anyone. Especially with microaggressions, people think you’re just being oversensitive. I had an incident where a professor I didn’t know told me I spoke English well for someone who grew up in a house of immigrants. This hurt. A lot. It wasn’t the first time I had heard this but it was the first time a university professor had said something of this nature to me. But when I tried sharing my story with other people, they thought it was funny and laughed. But I didn’t think it was funny. It made me insecure. It made me feel lonely. Was my English that different from an “American” or native speaker (I am essentially a native speaker) that people always had to comment on it? I’ve always had a fear of public speaking because of these comments. I’m afraid, will people think my English is bad? What if I mis-pronounce a word, will people judge me more harshly?

I am an IMSD (Initiative for Maximizing Student Development) fellow, which is a training grant from the NIH meant to “increase the number of students from underrepresented groups in biomedical research who complete Ph.D. degrees in these fields.” I’m grateful for this opportunity because it gave me a community, a community of other underrepresented individuals who could understand the difficulties we can face as minorities. Something I didn’t have at Scranton. However, not all programs are like this. Committees will have an iniative to increase diversity, hire a minority, and leave them to fend for themselves. They’re given no support and face the spurn of their colleagues that believe they only got the position due to their minority status. They internalize the idea that they’re only successful due to being a minority as well. There’s no help to integrate people together. And any failures they face? It becomes representative of whatever group they are a part of.

I want to be involved in making academia more inclusive and increasing diversity. But how do we do it? As mentioned in Phillips’ piece, there’s been multiple studies that show diversity has helped businesses be more successful. But we can’t simply increase diversity, we need to work on keeping them in the system and improving retention rates. We need to work on building a community that promotes the idea that they belong because they were good enough, not just because of the company wanted some more color in their staff.

I don’t know, I’m rambly and bitter. I want change but don’t know how to go about it and it is frustrating.

A Voice Without Experience

I have not taught a class and I have not been taught how to teach. I am fortunate enough that as a graduate student, I have been funded through GRA positions through several different programs. However, I do want to go into academia and the longer I put off teaching, the more daunting it feels. I’m afraid of being out of touch and not remembering what it is like as a student leanring a subject. I’m afraid of teaching just to pay the bills and not out of passion, as I was taught. As a graduate student, I’m told that teaching is secondary to research and should not be the main focus of my efforts. But if I do not put in the time and effort to become a good teacher, how do I improve? Do I have to wait until I become a professor to have the time to become a better teacher? But even then, if I want to continue doing research, how I will get tenure is through my research, not my teaching. Unlike the small, liberal arts, teaching-focused university I attended as an undergraduate, research universities put their focus on the products of research, again leaving no time to better my teaching skills. Will I then have to wait until I get tenure? Or will I have to put research aside to focus on the teaching? Can I find this balance?

How do I develop a teaching voice? I can’t develop one through trial and error, there are students’ education on the line. When I tell people I study mathematics, they almost always tell me they dislike it and can trace it back to a teacher they had in middle school or a professor in college. I don’t want to leave such a neative impact on students. I can’t learn through theory. Students are individuals and will not fit into a theoretical mold. How do I have a teaching voice without having experience teaching and how do I take the time to appreciate teaching when time is stretched so thin?

On Teaching Katie

Confession: I haven’t taught a course yet. In class, when everyone else telling stories about the ways they teach and how they’ve helped their students, I can only stay quiet because I don’t have this experience. However, during the last class, we spoke about a student’s PI who no longer teaches courses but instead teaches through mentoring his students. It made me think about how I may not have experience as a teaching assistant, but I do have experience mentoring undergraduates in my lab. I thought about one person in particular, Katie, who joined our lab last year and how I got the chance to mentor her in working in our lab.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t particularly enthused to be mentoring undergraduates in Spring 2017. I was taking three classes, doing my own research, dealing with my own personal life, and was now responsible of teaching two people how to work in a lab when I felt I was still learning myself. It was hard because I also didn’t know their level of interest and I just didn’t know how to teach in general. I started off with teaching basics and things I had wished I was taught when I first started working. I tried to make sure I wasn’t talking down to them and treated them with respect, because I knew that when working in a lab, confidence in yourself was key. I wanted to instill this into them. However, I wasn’t a trained teacher. While teaching, I would just spout off random, but imporantant, things they need to know and consider while working in a lab. Not very elegantly and I probably spoke very quickly when talking as well, as I usually do. I was just talking to talk, to be honest. However, I thought it was in one ear, out the other, that no one really cared to listen to what I was saying. However, I soon realized that some one was actually listening to me.

Watching Katie work, I realized she was mindful and actively thinking while working. Mistakes were acknowledged and corrected with input from myself. Little things I had mentioned, such as using water to clean up media spills in the biosafety cabinet, actually got through to her. However, there is one incident that I think about when I think about how far she much she has grown and how much she has learned.

I would watch Katie when I could and would still continue spouting off random things about cell culture. I mentioned once before that there were two different types of flasks: non-treated and treated for adhesive cells. It was a minor comment, one I said pretty casually, thinking she wouldn’t have caught it or paid much attention to it. While this is important to take into consideration when doing cell culture, I just wasn’t sure anyone else cared.

On this particular day, Katie was working by herself. She had gotten to a point where she no longer needed me hovering over her, watching her every move. However, I always made myself available via messaging for any questions. To my surprise, I received a message asking about which flask to use, because she looked on the package of the shelf that we keep our flasks on and realized that the flasks were for adhesive cells. We didn’t work with adhesive cells so she double checked with me to ask where she could get the correct flasks. It was this incident that I realized that she was actively listening to what I was teaching her and was not only working on autopilot, but present in her learning and her work.

While reading Langer’s piece on mindful learning, I realized that is exactly what Katie was doing while I was teaching her. Working with Katie never ceases to amaze me and this piece made me appreciate her all the more. So while I don’t have experience teaching a class, I have experience teaching Katie, who practices mindful learning techniques. I can only hope all of my students will be like Katie.

Evolving the Lecture

One common concern I hear among those in the field of biology is how to teach students. Since there’s so many things to know in this field, professors typically only lecture the material at the students and the students memorize the information, take the exam, and forget about it the next day. I had a professor once call her exams “brain dumps” because you were just spitting back out her notes on her exams. I learned nothing from that class. I always hear complaints about how students are not actually learning the material but rarely do I see anyone trying to make a change about this issue because it’s what we know and it’s easy. There are complaints but nothing is even done to change anything.

I think it’s a slow transition out of the typical lecture format we are used to; people are resistant to change. I appreciated Talbert’s piece on how lectures are beneficial. There are times when you cannot get away from giving lectures but it does not mean we have to continue doing them as they have been done. I belive we can continue using lectures but alter things to “actively” enage the students in learning. This way, it is a less radical change that will make it easier for both students and professors to adapt to.

Some places are already starting to make this change. A paper was published on a technique called “Learning before Lecture” where students were given pre-class assignments and time during the lecture was spent on those assignments. The paper found a significant increase in performance after this method was used. A professor gives lectures where his slides are questions that forces the students to participate in the class. Methods like these are still similar to what we are used to but encourages both the students and professors to be active in the learning process. With methods like this, I hope we can move past the concept of “brain dump” exams and actually work on getting students interested and helping them understand their class material.

Networked Learning – Academics and Twitter

In August, Virginia Tech hosted the 2017 International Conference on Systems Biology. A few of my friends and I attended the conference and the idea of live-tweeting the conference came up. I had never done it before but thought I may as well try. While tweeting, I noticed someone had asked what the official hashtag for the conference was. Since I was volunteering at the time, I decided to ask one of the conference organizers about the conference and twitter. That’s when he decided that I would be in charge of the official twitter account for the conference.

Running the twitter was a lot more fun than I expected. Since I was maintaining the official twitter, I had to track everything everyone was tweeting about the conference. It was really exciting to see scientists, old and young, engaging in the conference in their own way, summarizing presentations and talks in less than 140 characters. Tweeting on my own personal twitter allowed me the chance to be noticed by other scientists in my field (and I even got called out by some). I got to see our community being built over twitter.

I’ll be honest in that before this experience, I didn’t think a small/unknown person such as myself would make any kind of impact online. But one of my tweets got four retweets and six likes! A tweet I posted on the official twitter had 12 retweets 14 likes!

Networked learning, to me, is about connecting others in academia. In tweeting throughout this conference, I was able to learn about talks I didn’t attend, or got a small, condensed version of a talk. I can go back and reference the twitter account and all of the interactions to remind myself of what I learned. I found other scientists to follow on twitter and can stay up to date with their current works after the conference. I now feel a part of this field of systems biology and academia as a whole. I was contributing to this field, not through published papers, as is the traditional method, but through my own experiences that I was sharing through twitter. It made me feel connected.