Monday, September 28, 2009

Careers in Teaching

Today I went to a career seminar sponsored by the GDBBS on Careers in Teaching. The Division does a lot of these seminars, and I try to take advantage of them to help combat my natural tendency toward "career planning," which at this stage consists mainly of sticking my fingers in my ears and chanting, "I'm not listening, la la la!" Okay, maybe not that bad, but it is hard to think about where I'll be after getting my PhD, since I've only just started my dissertation research.

Anyway, the seminar featured several terrific speakers. I guess it's not surprising that people who've made a career out of their passion for educating others are engaging and energetic ambassadors for their jobs. It was a pleasure to hear them share their experiences and their enthusiasm.

The first speaker, Dr. Leah Anderson Roesch, is the director of Emory's SIRE program, which is focused on helping Emory undergraduates participate in research. This is something that I feel strongly about, since my own undergraduate research experience made a huge impact on my own decision to become a scientist. I'm really excited whenever the undergrads in my TA course come to me with questions about research opportunities and graduate school. This may partly come from the fact that their interest validates my own life choices, but I think there's more to it than that. Undergraduate research builds confidence, independence, and curiosity. Students who see what it's like to actually work in their chosen field (not just science -- SIRE encompasses every department at Emory, from social sciences to arts and humanities to public health) are more engaged with what they're learning in classes. I truly believe that participation in programs like SIRE can be crucial to a student's educational and personal development. So, basically, I'm a big SIRE cheerleader. (I also hope to apply for one of their Graduate Fellow positions later in my graduate career. So awesome!)

But, I had already known about SIRE before I came to today's seminar. The Fellowships in Research and Science Teaching (FIRST) program, however, was new to me. FIRST is Emory's version of the NIH/NIGMS's Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards (IRACDA) program. Two FIRST fellows, Dr. Brandi Brandon Knight and Dr. LaTonia Taliaferro-Smith, spoke about their experiences with the program. FIRST offers three-year postdoctoral fellowships (so, my own participation would have to wait until the distant postdoctoral future...) that combine traditional research with intensive pedagogical training, mentored teaching, and independent teaching at minority-serving institutions. FIRST's mission is focused on course development using current educational techniques (especially those incorporating new technologies) in an attempt to better engage undergraduates in their classes. The fact that these exceptional teachers go on to work with traditionally under-represented populations of students is especially inspiring. And, of course, FIRST graduates (and graduates from the other 12 IRACDA postdoctoral programs around the country) are well-prepared for teaching-intensive faculty positions at small liberal arts colleges. Plus they still participate in traditional postdoctoral research -- and publish papers -- under the supervision of a PI at their primary institution. Frankly, the whole thing sounds pretty cool, although I'm sure the workload is sizable.

It was great to walk out of an hour-long seminar feeling excited about all the possibilities that lie before me. I may change my mind about undergraduate education later (perhaps after I have to grade my first exams this week...), but in general I think it's great to have these moments of reflection. I'm getting a PhD in neuroscience because I think neuroscience is fascinating, but I also have this dream about making a difference, which sounds great but can be hard to actually spell out in a five-year plan. One way to make a difference is to discover some amazing new scientific truth, of course, and it thrills me each time I uncover a new result that no one has ever seen before. But we can also make a difference through our interactions with other people. Someday my dissertation will be moldering in the stacks of the university library, quaintly out-of-date in the wake of the ever-expanding scientific frontier. But, as the bumper-sticker says (echoed by the many teachers in my family), "to teach is to touch lives forever." A warm and fuzzy sentiment to save up for those lonely nights in the lab.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Third Culture Journal Club

Yesterday was the inaugural meeting of the Third Culture Journal Club, an organization for graduate students interested in interdisciplinary research. I felt like a bit of an impostor as I sat with a bunch of truly interdisciplinary students from Emory's Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts, but they assured me that they want to reach out to science students as well.

I enjoyed hearing what others had to say on this topic, and participating in the discussion. It was quite different from the sorts of journal clubs that I attend in the sciences -- we barely referred to the reading! Most science journal clubs engage in a figure-by-figure breakdown of the article, a lengthy critique of the methods, and an interpretation of the results in a broader context. Third Culture's discussion used the assigned articles mainly as a jumping-off point. Still, I found the reading helpful to put me in the right frame of mind. I'm not used to working with these nebulous terms, so the attempts at defining academic disciplines and inter/multidisciplinarity research were helpful to me. It was also refreshing to read a couple of non-science articles for 'school' -- imagine, spending less than an hour going over a five page document!

The group talked a bit about interdisciplinary initiatives at Emory. One student at the meeting helped form the Scholars Program in Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Research (so new it doesn't seem to have a website yet!). She talked about how different ideas of interdisciplinarity came up during the planning stages of the program, and how people had vastly different opinions on the matter: some feel the neurosciences are already interdisciplinary enough, while others feel that we should collaborate more with the social sciences and humanities. We decided that "interdisciplinarity" cannot be all things to all people, and that perhaps we should attempt to more specifically define our goals for a particular research initiative. We concluded that while certain questions are best addressed through interdisciplinary collaboration, one should not fall into the trap of slapping an "interdisciplinary" label on a project merely to generate buzz or funding, as not all work can be conducted this way. We also came up with the term "problem-based research" as an alternative to "interdisciplinary research." The distinction between the two will be a focus of next month's meeting.

One article from the assigned reading (Golde et al., 1999) used the Emory Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences as an example of a successful interdisciplinary initiative. By putting all the life sciences under one "umbrella," Emory has freed graduate students from individual departments and thus allowed for more interdisciplinary research, or so the argument goes. In the ten years since the publication of this article, many other programs have followed in Emory's footsteps. In fact, all four of the graduate programs for which I interviewed had life science "umbrella" programs (in addition to the GDBBS at Emory, I visited the BBSP at UNC Chapel Hill, the IDP at UF, and the integrated PhD program at Albert Einstein College of Medicine).

As an insider in one such program, I'm not certain that they've achieved true interdisciplinary enlightenment. Each sub-program (there are eight of them in GDBBS) maintains its independence, setting its own standards for coursework, qualifying exams, and dissertation committees. Each has a Director of Graduate Studies, a Program Director, and other governing bodies. Outside of a first-year biochemistry course, students in different programs rarely interact. While we don't work for a specific "department," in many ways we might as well be separated along those lines, as the individual program boundaries have a similar effect. This was also true of most of the other "umbrella" programs I visited -- some of them had wildly different requirements for the different sub-programs, with variations in stipends, teaching responsibilities, and scholarship opportunities, among other things. Einstein was a notable objection, as their PhD program does not break itself down into smaller programs at all (though students become affiliated with a department once they join a lab).

There are some true benefits to the GDBBS, however. I do appreciate the fact that I work with students from the BCDB and GMB programs in my lab, even though it took me about a year to even learn what all the different program acronyms stand for (some of which seem a little redundant -- "Microbiology and Molecular Genetics" vs. "Genetics and Molecular Biology"?). My lab is in the Department of Human Genetics, and it wouldn't have occurred to me to apply to a genetics PhD program back when I was researching schools. Because I essentially have two 'departments' (Human Genetics and the Neuroscience Program), I'm exposed to a larger scientific network than I may have been with only one affiliation. The nature of GDBBS/Neuroscience at Emory meant that I could rotate in labs associated with many different departments (I also dabbled in Pharmacology and Neurology) before making up my mind about what I wanted to do. Still, if Emory had a Department of Neuroscience instead of a Neuroscience Program, I'm not sure that my rotation experience would have been noticeably different. So, while programs like GDBBS are a good start, there is more room for improvement.

In general, I support any effort to encourage graduate students to branch out from their tiny subfields into the broader academic world. I specifically chose a liberal arts university for my undergraduate training because I appreciated the opportunity to study things like Latin lyric and elegiac poetry alongside my neuroscience classes. While my own research isn't especially conducive to interdisciplinary exploration (not a lot of textual analysis can be done on the subject of neural tube development...), I'm glad that groups like Third Culture exist to help broaden my perspective. These conversations are worth having even if they don't fit into my dissertation.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

PhD Diary, Year Two: September, 2009

I've been struggling to come up with blog-worthy material lately. My rotation diaries were fun and easy to write, but now that I'm not rotating anymore, I need some new impetus to keep writing. I figured more diary-style entries would be easier to generate than other content, and will hopefully help me stay in the habit of blogging. I really enjoy reading other blogs, and I love getting comments from you all, so I really ought to put in the effort to keep this going.

With the semester in full swing, I've found myself struggling to manage my time. I'm not even taking any 'real' classes (I'm required to attend a weekly department seminar and a weekly journal club style discussion with my classmates), yet each week seems packed to the brim.

My first TA assignment has proved both time-consuming and rewarding. I attend regular lectures on Tuesdays and Thursdays, where I help keep track of attendance (a non-trivial task in a class of 99 students). The four other TAs and I have a weekly meeting with the course instructor to make sure we're all on the same page. I also hold a weekly review session, which thus far has been attended by about a dozen students each week. Finally, I had the opportunity to give one lecture from the syllabus during regular class time, which was my first real experience with that kind of thing. I talked for an hour about nervous system development, axon guidance, and synapse formation. Unfortunately, the class is an hour and fifteen minutes long... but students rarely complain about finishing early. I wanted to leave ample time for mishaps and questions, but I should have had some back-up "optional" material to throw in if I didn't use all the allotted time. Live and learn! Other than that, I think things went well. I've had enough practice giving talks at lab meetings and in classes that I'm over my stage fright and fairly competent at public speaking; I just wanted to do a really good job for these students. I've found the undergraduates in this course to be excellent students overall, always prepared for review sessions with thoughtful questions, so I don't think they'll suffer much from having a newbie lecturer for a day.

I'm also working in the lab, of course. After I spent most of the summer struggling with a project, my adviser and I consulted with an expert in the department. He considered my findings and the relevant published data relating to the project and concluded that I was chasing a nonexistent gene product. D'oh. It does make me feel better about all those failed experiments, at least. Since then I've had some time to regroup and I'm working on a couple of things in parallel.

One project involves growing cells in culture for many days, and the cells need attention even on the weekends. I don't mind Saturday morning jaunts to the lab, but because the bus I take to campus doesn't run on weekends, and my partner and I share a single car, I have run into some logistical issues. This weekend my partner will take the car to visit his parents in Florida, and thus I am unable to start a new experiment until next week. A labmate did volunteer to help me out, but I told her not to bother with my experiment unless she has other reasons to come in on Saturday and/or Sunday. In the meantime, I have other stuff I can work on.

Finally, I've become fairly involved with some student groups on campus, and the fall semester has brought lots of meetings and other events. The Third Culture interdisciplinary journal club has its first meeting next week (complete with complimentary coffee and bagels!). We'll be discussing interdisciplinarity in research and reviewing some articles on the subject. Subsequent meetings will focus on more specific topics that have interdisciplinary appeal. I've been thinking about history of science and similar subjects, but could use some ideas if you've got 'em.

I'm also really excited about the work I'm doing with Graduate Advocates for Work-Life Balance. The senior students who founded the group have already done a lot to explore issues of work-life balance for graduate students at Emory, but they've allowed me to share my opinions with them. Our eventual goal is to implement more progressive policies for parental leave, child care, elder care, and similar issues that affect the graduate student body. Some administrators have expressed interest in our projects, and we'll be speaking at the next meeting of the Graduate Student Council, so we're pretty psyched. We have a long way to go, but we're making some promising first steps, and meeting with the other students in the group is a continuing source of inspiration for me.

So, that's what I'm up to. I really want to get a new Research Blogging post out in the near future -- I'm presenting a critique of a Journal of Neuroscience paper for my journal club / seminar, so I have some material ready. It's just a matter of finding the time to type it up... always a challenge.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


I have updated my Blogger profile to say "second-year neuroscience PhD student," for two reasons. First, the semester has officially begun and the new first-year students are on campus. Second, and perhaps more important, I passed my written qualifying exam! (I will also have an oral exam at the beginning of my third year, which I must pass to achieve candidacy.)