In my shoes: Managing the summer student influx in the laboratory #academia

As a post-doc, I don’t really have any of the administrative responsibilities that my mentors and colleagues that are PIs have. In general, my responsibilities include: 1) showing up for work; 2) completing project(s) sponsored by my PI’s grants (who, at least originally, was paying my stipend); and 3) publish, publish, publish. Occasionally, a post-doc is privileged with having their own funding and, potentially, more flexibility on what projects to pursue, but the end game is still: Get work done + Get it peer reviewed and published = successful.

This equation doesn’t always include the denominator of advising or mentoring other trainees. But, I’d be lying if I said that we can do it all by ourselves- or that we should even try. We need to ask ourselves: Why are we here? What is it we want from this profession? At it’s most basic level, our job as academics is to educate, whether that means educating students in the classroom, educating our peers on our research findings, or educating the public in outreach, policy, and open discourse. We are responsible for making improvements, especially intellectually. One of the ways post-docs can educate others is in the lab, with undergraduates or graduate students, with adequate training, time, research, and reinforcement of the scientific method. Think of it as a sort of “good for the realm” type approach (if you catch my Game of Thronesian reference there). What you put in, you hope to get out, and you want the next generation to be as good or better than you.

Plus, delegating responsibilities, and asking for help, can help kick-start new projects or just help knock down the mountains of work you have to do (so, it’s not a totally selfless thing after all). Assuming the help is reliable, you can certainly make great headway in your own independent approach to research- apart from your advisor- which makes getting a job after postdoctopia slightly more likely. Hello, senior author-dom!

So, the purpose of this post -which will be the first of many this summer- is to help guide young mentors (like myself) when the influx of eager and, likely, somewhat under-experienced help that has entered blazingly into the laboratory for the next few months.

Here’s a few tips that can help establish a training infrastructure for the albeit short and intense summer research session currently underway:

1. Set up regular training workshops.

When there’s one or two mentees fluttering about the laboratory, it’s usually feasible to provide one-on-one training/shadowing. That being said, there are a lot of things that newbie mentees don’t inherently know about work in the lab. And, if you have three or four trainees, you might want to gouge your eyes out after repeating that it is not ok to wear sandals in the wet lab for the seventh or eighth time. So, this summer, I started a bi-weekly training course for undergraduates and new graduate students to guide them, as a group, into what more senior academes might consider basic research know-hows. The training sessions include:

a) How to be a good lab-mate — in other words, how to keep a good notebook so that someone else can read what you spent your summer doing and repeat it, if necessary (and, it will probably be necessary). This session also includes basic lab safety stuff, like the aforementioned sandals rule and food/drink in lab, plus where you can get stuff if you need it (i.e., Where can I buy DMEM? Where can I park my bike?)

b) The literature review and managing citations — because writing for research is an entirely different animal than writing for rhetoric. This session includes a basic how-to-read-a-peer-reviewed-article, how to find said paper (i.e., picking the right key words for your research), and gives advice on how to manage references. Specifically, what are reference managers (like Mendeley and Endnote) and how can they make your life easier? This is also a brief intro to reading peer reviewed papers without stabbing your eyes out. Start with the title, abstract, and figures. If it warrants your attention, delve deeper. Know what criteria to set for triage of papers.

c) Academic writing and publishing — There comes a time when all the work you are doing is coming to an end, and you need to share what you’ve done with the general public. Or, at least, your mentor. Academic writing is a lot different than writing for, say, English composition. Write brief, concise, and clear. Make outlines first, and expand. Each word you use must have value; there’s not any room for “fluff” or filler.

d) Presenting your research to your peers — One of the most challenging things I still deal with as an academic is presenting in front of my peers. There’s just something so nerve-wrecking about it. You’d think that I train for running so that I don’t have a heart attack while presenting, because my heart-rate gets up to 170bpm before I stand behind the podium. I am not joking. Now, I’m not saying this to make all my mentees nervous; far from it. I think I would have been better served had I had more opportunities to present in front of people, had I been put on the stage, so to speak, repeatedly and often. This training workshop is probably the most beneficial of all the sessions, because whether or not your mentee(s) go on into academia, being able to present and discuss with others your aims and accomplishments is an incredibly important, and often under-trained, skill. In this session, students learn a few tips, but are also responsible for sharing, in five minutes or less, their summer research to an audience of their peers.

2. Make task lists and stay up-to-date with your mentee’s accomplishments.

It’s hard to make time, especially as a trainee yourself, for someone else’s training. But it’s crucial and it’s what we are here to do. By assigning my mentees’ to completing weekly “to-do” lists, as well as “accomplishments” lists, I am able to get feedback from them as well as give feedback to where they should be spending more or less of their time.

3. Be a reliable mentor.

Your mentee isn’t there to provide you with free labor. In return for good data, you need to provide good mentorship. That means being a reliable mentor.  Whether it’s simply showing up on time or being thorough in training your mentee a new technique, it is imperative that they are getting the most they can from your relationship. You are an educator, after all. Be accessible by email, by phone, by Google-Hangout. Don’t let them get lost in a pile of papers. Check in regularly with your mentees to make sure they’re questions are answered, and encourage them to ask questions. As a great mentor and friend of mine said at happy hour on Friday: “When you’re younger, the smart kids don’t ask questions. As you get older, the smart kids are the ones always asking questions.” 

Any other tips or tricks for dealing with facilitating productivity of summer students in the lab?

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Running away from my problems

I headed out yesterday for a wee little jog through Forest Park to scope out what everyone has been talking about. And, of course, to clear my head.

Dang, did I pick a good place to live. I am practically right across the street from the park, and although its a long-walkable-way from work, I’m really geeked to head through the park once I get a commuter bike.

Here are some (overexposed) shots during my run:

There were a lot of cool things I didn’t know were there, like a horse stable, a huge pond with lots of fountains by the art museum, and hills. Yes, hills. None of those Agate Street or Lahti Road hills, mind you, but the rolling terrain made me smile. I was supposed to keep my heart rate down, of course, so I think the smiling helped in that general area.

And the run was just what I needed. I have been on serious anxiety mode with the move and the new job, not because I am nervous or anxious, but because I am broke. Seriously, utterly, incredibly broke. The move cost a lot more than I expected, and with Missouri having nearly 10% sales tax, stocking up on things like garbage cans, brooms, and toilet paper really added up fast. Not to mention I had to fill my cupboards or risk starving to death, which I really probably could have lasted a week with all the post-season face-stuffing I’ve been doing, but let’s be honest, a girl’s gotta eat.

Luckily, I sold my mountain bike. Granted, I thought it was seriously unlucky at the time, and oooh how I did not want to part with that bike. I loved that bike. Steel, hardtail, race geometry. It was excellent in every measurable way. But I sold it and I am glad, because that money paid for the UHaul and gas. The sacrifices we make, yeah?

So anyway, back to the run; yesterday was a beautiful day- great temperatures, and instead of staying inside and moping about being broke and scrounging for money and throwing a pity party- I went for a run. Luckily, running is (for the purposes of this blog post) free. I don’t have to pay for a bus fare or drive my car anywhere- I can just put on my shoes and go. Plus, running is a great stress reliever, and by the time I got to an hour, my mind was more clear and I could prioritize my spending so I could use my money wisely.

I know the saying: It’s only money. But it’s only money when you have enough money to get you by. I was really, really worried that I wouldn’t have enough money to pay rent or to make a car payment. I’ve never really worried about these things before, mostly because I’ve lived in relatively cheap (ok, dirt cheap) places with incredibly low cost-of-living expenses. I mean, Montana didn’t even have sales tax!

I guess this is some more of that “growing up” stuff? I’m just glad that I get am starting to train more regularly this week.

What is in a title?

I did it.

Friday, at noon, I stood up in front of a room full of people. Students, professors, collaborators, mentors, big-wigs, and labmates. I told my story, I disseminated what I did and why I did it. And I did so in forty minutes. I pointed at plots and Ven diagrams, showed pretty pictures, and identified to my audience the importance of my work.

Afterward, I stood in front of my committee and discussed my data, the plots, and why I chose the approaches I did. I explained how I interpreted my statistics and why I thought what I did was correct. I argued defended the work I’ve done over the last three years, five months, three weeks, and four days- and was successful. Sure, there were struggles. My ego took a few blows, but my eyes didn’t well up with tears. I held strong and stood behind the data that I took, analyzed, and interpreted. I understood its shortcomings but also emphasized on how the design of the studies and my statistics were sound.

And in the end, I came out triumphant. I successfully defended my dissertation works. After years of struggles and triumphs, I am finally done**!

**Almost. I still have to submit my final version of my dissertation to the graduate school, and get two more signatures. But I am, for all intent and purpose, done with my PhD.

Final Countdown.

It’s the final countdown.

I have one whole work day before my defense.

Eeeek!

There have been good things about this week, including a happy advisor, a helpful boyfriend, and FTD’d flowers:

And there have been frustrating things, like doing TUNEL from 10am-8pm (why did I decide to do that this week?), having a terrible rehearsal with said happy advisor, and this:

I’ve had some nightmares (including the one where I leave to head to the bar after my defense, but I’m not actually supposed to ‘leave,’ I’m just supposed to sit in the hallway and wait for my committee to make a decision). I’ve had some stress-relieving runs. I’ve even had some ice cream (that isn’t entirely unbelievable, if you have ever met me):

So, the hay is in the barn, so to speak. At least, that’s how I’d approach this if it were an Ultraman.

Now, let’s just hope that Friday doesn’t end with me doing any of these activities:

This however, is totally acceptable:

Toeing the line again…

I’m doing it. I’m pulling the trigger.

It’s time for another race. I feel recovered from the FullRev at Cedar Point, and I want back in the game. Dare I say, that I had such great success on that day, I don’t want to fall off my (almost) winning streak.

So I’m getting back into the race mentality. I’ve got to plan out my nutrition, get a good night’s sleep, dial it in.

It’s not the typical race, though.  No, there will be no ribbon at the finish line. Putting in the time in training now will hopefully mean an easier, less effort day come race time. There are no bike pumps or wetsuits or aero helmets or disc wheels allowed here. If I flat, I’m on my own. My transitions need to be quick and well executed, that’s just free time. I’m not worried about what shoes to wear on the long run; I’m more concerned with how I’ll get to the home stretch. It’s no longer about the gear, it’s about what’s in my head.  I won’t be greeted by enthusiastic aid station volunteers at the 11th hour, when the pain cave  is closing in around me. But I know there’s going to be that light at the end of the tunnel…

One foot in front of the other, or in this case- one word after the next. The race is on, and my dissertation won’t write itself. I’m looking forward to this taper in particular…

Special shout-out to these fab folks for helping me get through this challenge: Baberaham (for cooking me real food among other incredibly helpful things), Mom’n’Dad (obviously), Peace Coffee (how else can I function?), Saucony and Lucy Activewear (because wearing athletic clothes to work is AOK in my book when it looks this good), Sharpie and my Trakkers gang (for not calling me crazy[to my face]), and the oh-so-convenient Halloween candy from ShopKo (nuff said).

My life is like whoa

It’s gonna be a busy week. I will get you some really juicy reads soon, but first, here’s my excuse(s)  for being the opposite of a good blogger.

On my agenda:

  • Get a manuscript to my advisor
  • Cryofreeze and slice tissue for the eight millionth time
  • Histo the shiz out of some more slides
  • Decalcify some bones
  • Drive 11 hours for a wedding
  • Be in my awesome friend’s wedding
  • Make sure that the shirts get here in time for the race I don’t need to worry about this at all, because Core Concepts is supa-awesome!
  • Race packet stuffing
  • Set up a race course that is 70 miles long
  • Make sure athletes get their race packets
  • Attend another wedding
  • Direct a half-iron distance triathlon on Sunday

Good thing its only a medium week for my training… although I’m not sure when I’ll have time for a 120 mile ride between hauling tables, food, and race gear 45miles north of here in about seven separate trips and putting on the inaugural Koop. I’m thinking that packet stuffing might include some sort of assembly trainer ride.

Things I’ve learned in grad school

Ohh, the places you’ll go. Or in my case, come back to. I got my bachelor’s degree from Michigan Tech in 2005, left for a few years to get my master’s in Montana, and then came back. Why? Because I love the UP. I am stoked about my advisor’s research. and I want to pursue a career in academia.

Getting your doctorate isn’t always just lab work and classes, at least not in engineering. It is a lot more than that. I’d like to think, at least for some, its really a coming of age tale. “When I was getting my PhD, I did all sorts of things that really made me grow as a person…”

Of course, I haven’t received my doctorate yet. But while all this is still fresh in my brain (somedays my brain is more fresh than others), I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned over the last X-number of years.

Unemployment vs. Graduate Stipends; 8/21/2009

Graduate school is a time in life where your earnings far outweigh the incredible things you do. Wait, scratch that! It’s the complete opposite. Unless you have some awesome fellowship like NSF GRFP or go to a university sponsored with IGERT funding (or have an endowed advisor that can give you lots-o-money), you can make enough … to scrape by. And even with a fellowship like that, $30,000 a year in some places isn’t a whole lot of money to get by (San Francisco has a cost of living 53% greater than Minneapolis [1]).

On the flip side, some schools have fairly high graduate student stipends (graduate students at Harvard make an average of $31,700/year and Princeton sits at $29,300 [2]). At Michigan Tech (my school), the minimum graduate student stipend for someone with their master’s degree (and after passing all qualifying exams and their proposal defense) is a little under $19,000 [3]. By any stretch of the imagination, <$20K a year is not really living in the comfort zone, which is why it always amazes me that some graduate students can juggle having a family, and having kids, and getting their PhD. My friend Matt, a fellow grad student with me, just had his first child this year. Kudos to him, and those of you out there that are so gifted to be able to balance life, work, and family. That being said, I supplement my income with student loans that help me have more breathing room (and help me enjoy some things away from school as well, including sports and healthy food).

Anyway, I digress: having no money– that is a definite downside to grad school. Why downgrade to making less than 20K a year when you know (at least as an engineer) you could get a job that pays $50,000 right out of the gate? I know as an undergrad, at least when I was a freshman/sophomore, I was looking forward to getting my degree and getting an engineering job. That’s what I was told: engineering degree = lots of money. Seems logical to choose such a profession. But I changed my mind. All of a sudden, it wasn’t all about the money anymore. When I told my dad (as a senior undergrad) that I wanted to go to grad school, he couldn’t figure out why. Spend more money on school, and for why exactly? Logical questions that needed answers.

OK, so you don’t make any money. In a similar train of thought: It’s interesting to analyze the type of people that come to grad school. Some are very ambitious, hoping to seek an advanced degree in order to advance their field of study, to teach others what they know, or to do better for their family. Some come to grad school because there just isn’t anything else to do. Take the following comic for example:

Piled Higher and Deeper: Enrollment vs Unemployment Rate, 10/1/08

Yes, I know. It’s a comic. But its based on actual data from the National Science Foundation and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The comic strip- Piled Higher and Deeper, is written by Jorge Cham, a mechanical engineer turned instructor who now travels and writes comics and helps others with low self esteem (ahem) grad students come to terms with the triumphs and tribulations of grad school. Interestingly enough, I am seeing more folks changing gears and going from industry back into academia, especially around the time of the economic fall out. It’s more difficult, because the graduate student pool is expanding, to secure graduate funding and support such as research and teaching assistantships. I suppose it comes down to ‘what else are we going to do’ but go back to school, when the job market is tough and employers are looking more and more for higher-ed employees. Anyway, it’s interesting. I’ll leave it at that.

Piled Higher and Deeper: Core Principles in Research 10/12/09

Graduate student life is not all that bad. Seriously. It’s one of only a few times in life where you can make-your-own-schedule, kind of. Some advisors require their students to stick to a 9-5 schedule, but for the most part it is generally accepted that, so long as you can get the work done, you can come and go when you please. Depending on culture, teaching responsibilities, and social life, I have seen other grad students come and go from my building at all hours of the day. Yes, there have been times when I have been there at practically all hours of the day (including the 8am-3am shift, or the 4am run to check on an experiment). As an undergrad, I had never pulled an ‘all nighter.’ But as a graduate student, things are different.  I mean, my life depends on these experiments. I literally have gone to bed at 9pm, set my alarm for 1am, and went back into work.

As a grad student, I’ve received tests back without grades on them. I’ve learned how to say “I don’t know” as eloquently as possible (I’m sure you’ve heard: “That’s an excellent question and its something we should consider for future investigations“- right?). I’ve learned how to bull..logna my way through a difficult question or two.

I am also learning new stuff every day, whether it pertains directly to my research or not. I’ve learned the ins and outs of all sorts of things, from optimizing quantitative PCR to getting a facility up and running. I’m learning that some situations are less fair than others, and that it’s not really worth arguing or getting upset over (and to just get the job done). Sometimes, all I want to say is: “That is not my job.” Sometimes, I do say that. Quietly and to myself (or my cat). Because even if it isn’t your job, it’s probably something that needs to get done in order to do your job, so it really could be your job, so just do it and shut up. I usually end up stepping back and saying; “That is my job. Being a grad student means anything could be your job.” Need something machined? Learn how to use a mill. Need to figure out your statistical power? Find a stats book. No one is going to hold your hand, at least- no one should have to. Because in reality, being a graduate student means being a sponge, soaking in all that you can for the limited amount of time you have. Being independent. Learning how to be a primary investigator, with the guidance and advising of your P.I., of course.

In the end, I am grateful for being given the opportunity to learn and follow and interact. I’ve taken some really cool courses. I have sat in on some really interesting talks. I have attended conferences where faculty from all over the world would stop and chat with me about my research. In a world so big, you learn in grad school just how tightly-knit any one area of science really is. I get excited when I find a journal paper that touches on my research hypotheses, and I am critical about the research I review. And I don’t care that I will have over $30K in loans to repay when I am done with school (the longer you’re in school, the longer the time period before you have to pay them back! OK, maybe don’t follow my lead on that one…)

Piled Higher and Deeper: Brain on a Stick, 1/26/09

Thanks to Piled Higher and Deeper for letting me share their comics in this post! For more hilarity (and some learning experiences), check out PhD Comics here.

1. Payscale.com Cost of Living calculator: http://www.payscale.com/cost-of-living-calculator
2. Glassdoor.com, See what employees are saying. Online search database for company salaries, reviews, and interviews.
3. Michigan Technological University, Minimum Stipend Levels

What you can learn from a graduate student blogger

Last semester, Dr Michelle Oyen came to visit Michigan Tech to host a seminar and have some collabo-time with our laboratory. I follow her on Twitter (@MichelleOyen), and although I follow a LOT of people on Twitter, I often find her tweet-feed to catch up on what she has to say.

You see, Michelle is pretty dang smart. She knows her stuff, and she’s the expert when it comes to what she does (nanoindentation). She’s also a young scientist, ex-Pat, and currently living (the dream?) teaching and doing research at Cambridge. Along with her comparative insight on British education versus American education, and her active contributions to iMechanica, she often shares some information (academia-related) with which I strongly relate.

Last month, she shared a blog post written by Drew Conway at Zero Intelligence Agents, entitled Ten Reasons Why Grad Students Should Blog. This post really hit home with me, and even though the majority of my blog entries have marginally anything to do with my actual graduate school work, it puts the blogosphere of a graduate student into a brighter light.

This post really got me thinking: what are we (you. me.) doing out here in blogger-land? I struggle with the concept of a blog’s role in self-promotion, but at the same time I feel a strong need to share what I am going through (as an athlete and a graduate student) in order to help others that might be experiencing similar things. Suffice to say, there are few people out there that run marathons and get their PhD in engineering (or are there?), but there are small stories of learning, struggling, and triumphs along the way. But who really cares? Who am I to tell you what I think is important, or what is cool, or what is totally necessary in order to be a successful person in life?

Well, sorry to burst your bubble, readers, but I am not that person. I am not going to tell you exactly what you need to know about life, its struggles and its heartbreaks, and give you play-by-play ways of getting through it. But I’ve learned from other bloggers, readers, friends, and family what I can share that might be helpful if only the tiniest bit.

Maybe you readers out there aren’t grad students. That’s ok. Maybe you could give a hoot about what I did at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers conference or where I published my last peer-reviewed paper. That’s ok, too. And, really- maybe you don’t want to hear about how my experiment with human recombinant collagen type I immunofluorescence went. I get it!

But maybe, just maybe, one of the readers out there stumbles onto this blog, a reader that is a graduate student, and is going through the same demoralizing, throne-throwing, bucked-off-the-high-horse-every-day tribulations that I am. Perhaps you could provide insight to help me get through my frustrations with circular referencing in Excel, or motivate to set the alarm clock for 1am just one-last-time.

Or maybe you are an undergraduate considering going to graduate school, and you want the MTV True Life story of “I Want to be a Graduate Student.” Hopefully by reading my blog, you’ll come to realize that grad-school life isn’t always work, work, work. That the life of a graduate student ebbs and flows; there are busy times and there are calm times. There are times when you want to scream F.M.L. from the top of the MEEM, and there are times when you are so bored because you have nothing to do that you (mistakingly) ask your advisor if he/she needs any help with anything. [Learn from my mistakes, kids; don’t pull that last one.]

Could it be that you used to be a graduate student? That you remember what its like to go to graduate school but you want to live vicariously throw me one more time? You wonder if things have changed much since you’ve been living the dream. You are curious if professors still require students to call them Doctor So-and-So and if coffee is still the beverage of choice. Are grad students still working ridiculously large hours with ridiculous small pay? [The answer is yes, at least for most of these questions most of the time].

Chances are good that some of you never were graduate students. And you’ve never wanted to be graduate students. You went to college (or maybe you didn’t), but you got a job instead of spending more time, money, and heartbreak on the turbulent sea of advanced education. Maybe you read my blog because I am a runner, not because I am a student. Maybe you wish I would just s.t.f.u. about grad school sometimes, because really, how hard can it be? Someone pays you (usually) to go to school? Seriously? Um, you’ve gotta be kidding. Why don’t you just get a real job and start contributing to society?

OK, hopefully you don’t think that. But if you do, who am I to change your mind? Well, here’s where the self-promotion and self-worth part of being a blogger come in (and collide, if indeed you are a graduate student like me). I want everyone to believe that I make all the right decisions all the time: that I am training perfectly for my upcoming FullRev in Cedar Point, that I am writing flawless manuscripts with excellent data and impeccable statistics, and that I am mentoring the incoming graduate students with the utmost patience and virtue that any advisor would be proud of. Truth is, I am not awesome all the time. I know this. You should know this. One of the biggest and most worthwhile attributes of a graduate student is their own self-loathing.

Hmm… maybe not that extreme. Maybe its more like: One of the most valuable assets of a good graduate student is their ability to admit they are wrong. To tackle the task at hand independently. To not be afraid to make a mistake. As any good graduate student (or any rational person?) will tell you, mistakes are where you learn what you need to know. If you try to do everything perfect every time, you end up failing in a big way. At least that is what I tell myself when I get a paper rejected or an experiment fails.

So what can you learn from this graduate student blogger?

I hope you can take away that I use my blog to reflect, to learn from what I’ve done, and to embrace what goes well. There are a lot of bloggers than only blog about things that go well. That’s awesome. I wish I wasn’t a Negative Nancy as much as I am. But I am what I like to call a “pessimistic optimist”. I sometimes think that things are going to go poorly but in the back of my head (of course) hope that they go well; that way, if it fails, then I don’t look like an idiot, but if it goes well, then I am extra excited. Most of the time, though, I like to shoot for goals that are tangible, rational, doable. But on the edge of what is possible. I like to set the bar higher than I can reach at that time, but make steps in the right direction in order to reach it.

Just like training for a marathon, graduate school requires a lot of diligence, perseverance, and self-realization. You aren’t going to get anywhere with the wrong attitude. Most likely, you’re going to have some pretty awesome highs and some really frustrating lows. But you got to just keep picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and strolling onward.

Michigan’s Graduate Education Day 2010

This week, I traveled to Michigan’s capitol to talk with legislators about my graduate education and research. Three other graduate students from Michigan Tech joined me on the long trek to Lansing (Michael Brodeur-Campbell of Lake Linden, Mich. – PhD in chemical engineering; Melanie Kueber, Munising, Mich.-  PhD in civil engineering; and Christopher Morgan of Jenison, Mich., PhD in mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics). We met up with the dean of Michigan Tech’s Graduate School, Dr Jacqueline Huntoon. Luckily, we had Jacque Smith with us to lead the charge and take care of all the very important details of the event for us.

Graduate Education Day, as proclaimed by Governor Jennifer Granholm, is an event which is part of Graduate Education Week. More than 70 graduate students from around the state join together and presented their research and graduate experiences to legislators, the public, and other graduate students.

“To attract and grow quality jobs, we must have the best trained, best educated work force,” Gov. Jennifer Granholm said during her Feb. 3 State of the State address. The event was presented by the Michigan Council of Graduate Deans, and was an incredible opportunity for us as graduate students to connect with other students from different fields of study from many other universities around the state. It was also a great chance for me to get to know other graduate students from my own school from other departments (by spending over 18hours in the van with them!), and hear about their graduate experiences and research.

I was given the opportunity to meet with my hometown representative, Kate Ebli, of 56th District (Monroe County), who received her MBA from Oakland University after working in industry for several years. She is an incredibly nice woman with great insight into the importance of graduate education. It was fun chatting with her about Monroe, and the future developments that they hope to see in Southeastern Michigan related to energy and sustainability.

What do we get out of Graduate Education Day? I think the biggest thing was the awareness that it creates regarding the importance of pursuing a graduate education and the necessity for maintaining and encouraging students to follow that path. Kate Ebli mentioned that it’s practically necessity to pursue a graduate degree nowadays. Opportunities in graduate education from other Michigan schools were presented, and discourses into how different fields can collaborate and advance both science and rhetoric were engaged.

For Michael Brodeur-Campbell, it was the first time he had visited the capitol. “I think that’s valuable,” he told me. ” I think being politically engaged is important.  I got to see some different research going on in Michigan, learned about a few colleges and programs that I didn’t know about.  (Graduate Education Day) did some good for increasing the visibility and value of graduate studies in the state.”

Why is graduate school important? For me, it offers the opportunity to learn, grow, and build on the ever-expanding knowledge base of the field I am so passionate about. I have realized that I am capable of contributing to science and research, and I continually desire to do so. All Miss-America quotes aside, I want to make the world a better place, and I have fortunately found a way of doing so through my research and studies. No matter how miniscule I feel that my contributions are at times (and it’s more times than not), I find confidence when my research is successful, when someone pats me on the back and tells me ‘good job’, or someone offers constructive criticism that makes my research stronger.

Brodeur-Campbell agrees. “Graduate research is important to me primarily because I want to make a career in research. Frankly I’m a chemistry geek and I love playing with solutions and beakers, and getting a Ph.D. is how I turn that into a job.  But more importantly, I do it because I enjoy it, I’m good at it, and I think that it’s how I can make my greatest contribution to society with my work.  And then I found out that I get all these unexpected opportunities to learn and experience things I never would have considered on my own, and that’s like the icing on the cake.”

Graduate education is a key to a prosperous future for Michigan. Many of our students are working on solutions to real-world problems. These solutions will have an immediate benefit to society and have the potential to positively impact our state’s economy as well.
–Jacqueline Huntoon, dean of the Graduate School at Michigan Tech

Is graduate education important to you?

Below are some of the posters that the Michigan Tech students, including myself, presented at Graduate Education Day.

Why so few?

AAUW, formerly known as the American Association of University Women, recently released a report titled: Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

AAUW was selected by the National Science Foundation to conduct the study outlined in the report, digging deep into the reasons and implications of the lack of women in the STEM fields. The report describes several ways in which schools (from grade school through university), communities, families, and the workplace can create a better environment to disrupt negative stereotypes associated with women in science and math.

One really cool thing (among a lot of other really cool things) was the entire chapter dedicated to spatial skills. The spatial-skills training research of Sheryl Sorby, a professor at Michigan Tech, was featured in the report. Sorby, who literally wrote the book on learning spatial visualization, identified methods for improving retention, particularly of female students, who learn these skills.  Many engineering students see spatial visualization as the walk-in-the-door, take-the-test-determinant of whether or not they’ll be a good engineer. They do not necessarily realize that spatial visualization is not innate, it is learned. Sorby says:

Most engineering faculty have highly developed 3-D spatial skills and may not understand that others can struggle with a topic they find so easy. Furthermore, they may not believe that spatial skills can be improved through practice, falsely believing that this particular skill is one that a person is either “born with” or not. They don’t understand that they probably developed these skills over many years.

The report goes on to describe a plethora of other important points related to female success and retention in STEM fields. It offers a thorough list of recommendations at the end of each chapter and at the end of the report as well.

Some cool highlights of the report:

  • Although women are the majority of college students, they are far less likely than their male peers to plan to major in a STEM field (page 5 of report)
  • Women’s representation among tenured faculty is lower than one would expect based on the supply of female science and engineering doctoral degree recipients in recent decades (Kulis et al, 2002, from page 17 of report)
  • Expose girls to successful female role models in math and science (recommendation, from page 42 of report)
  • Encourage students to have a more flexible or growth mindset about intelligence (figure below, from recommendation, from page 42 of report)
  • Teachers and professors can reduce reliance on stereotypes by making performance standards and expectations clear (recommendation, from page 50 of report)
  • Make a female-friendly department by sponsoring a women-in-science group (recommendation, from page 65 of report)
  • Conduct departmental reviews to assess the climate for female faculty (recommendation, from page 72 of report)
  • Spread the word about girls’ and womens’ achievements in math and science (recommendation, from page 90 of report)

    A growth mindset promotes persistence in STEM (from page 34 of report)

I encourage everyone to head over to AAUW’s website and download a copy of it.