Re: Impersonal Inter-personal Communication

Fwd:Fwd:Who Reads These Anyway?

So I’m a scientist, right?  Less test tubes and discovery and more reading and communication than you might think.  My biggest job is to communicate, with people, almost constantly.  Its not enough to make a pretty poster for a conference once a year, and maybe put together a 10 minute talk.  I have to sell myself really.  I know this because that was a past job.  I learned there that people will tell you what they want and the rest is a negotiation.  But how does that translate to science?  Well I have to advertise.  I need ways to get my science out there.  One way is getting grants.  It turns out that if you have and spend someone’s money, you frequently have their attention.  Its one thing to write a grant proposal, dot all of the “i”s and cross all of the “t”s, and there are a ton of those when you ask the Feds for money!  But what really gets the job done is email.  Unfortunately…

When we learn to talk and and ask for things as children, a form of selling, we find out that volume, tone and word choice can all impact how that works.  When we learn how to compose we learn similar aspects.  But when we email we are muted, silenced, and limited to a few characters.  How then is it the most common form of communication?  As much as 50% of my job hinges on email communication.  Not phone calls, written letters, or one-on-one communication.  With this large chunk of my efforts tied up in emails I find myself editing and reviewing them as much as my thesis chapters.  My largest challenge is communicating my tone and purpose in each email.  My second largest is figuring out the tone and purpose of every reply that I get.  The shorter is often the more difficult to understand.  It’s not like I get emails all the time in all caps like my Mom mistakenly did once.  Instead it is the reading between the lines that makes things difficult.  Replying to a question with more questions can really throw the whole thing off if there is no context of human interaction.  No wonder our university spends so much money on video conferencing equipment.  Can you imagine trying to coordinate a multinational research project through email alone?

I have strategies to combat this.  I reach for the niceties that you would commonly have in person to person contact.  “Hope the rain there helps.”  “Have a great weekend!”  and the like.  Maybe it’s cheesy or old fashioned but I do realize that my audience averages 15-20 years older than me.  I don’t know if anybody notices these throwbacks of mine but I’m still going to try and make the impersonal inter-personal communication that steals so much of my time more personal.  Maybe this will change as my position on the totem pole hopefully does.  Maybe I’ll be the old cranky guy who replies as ambiguously as possible to keep people guessing!  Either way I have a long way to go before people will put up with that mess.  I guess I’ll keep the niceties for now.  Thanks and have a great week!



Your over emailed collaborator

A Week Out Of Class

Last week I was not in class.  Not because I wanted to skip but because I was at a conference.  Our group went to a regional meeting in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  I  was there to give a ten minute presentation, compete in the intercollegiate quiz bowl competition, act as a symposium moderator, and go to some of the talks.  I have been going to meetings like this for a few years now and I noticed a few different things this time, maybe even because of this class.

There is usually an address by the President of the National society while there is a cash bar and heavy snacks.   The way they did it this year had people bustling, eating, looking for drinks and moving in and out of the room.  The president demanded that people eat but the crowd never calmed down.  They went from a reluctant audience to an entirely uncooperative audience.  By this time the President had already addressed several other regional branches so you would think he would have found a way to engage the audience, but no.  It was challenging to pay attention while the crowd was so unsettled.

Next up, my talk in the 10 minute PhD student oral presentation competition.  I had a lovely spot in the line up since my co-advisor organized the program, 16th of 18 talks in one afternoon.  Luckily by the time I got there, the ac had been figured out.  I went into the competition thinking about how I could make my agricultural project interesting to a general entomological audience.  I had nice pictures, a very brief outline of the talk, two short videos, and a great attitude.  Of course by the time I got up there dry mouth set in and I thought I boggled a whole bunch of words.  My lab mates told me they didn’t even notice.  I guess that my brain was processing way faster than my pace of speech.  I had practiced the talk before we left for the conference and got some great feedback.  Unfortunately I had to come up with a title months ago for the conference and everything started with a different focus insect.  I figured this out in the talk right before mine.  I started out telling them that this would not be like the other presentations and the research was in progress, more on that later.  It was a good set up, I ran with it and was able to maintain the logic of my research in an applied manner.  Tying back my data to the potentially more sustainable practices.  I gave them a natural enemy, with a fantastic picture, a video of them at work, survey information, and even some toxicity screening of my own.  In the end I tied all of it back to working with bees and my questions slide was a video of bees landing almost on the camera at the hive entrance.  My slides were colorful, coordinated, and clear, and I was able to do more than just read what I had written.  The audience looked attentive, interested and comfortable.  Then came “I would be more than happy to answer any questions that you may have.”  Clapping, then nothing, at all.  Not crushing, a little disappointed though.


I mentioned that my results and everything are a work in progress.  I had a stat here and there and I did a boatload of work.  Despite getting that clearly into the presentation and across to my audience, it was evidently not what the competition was looking for from a PhD student presentation.  Judging information and criteria are generally not available to the participants.  I found out later that the Judges were looking for the most boring IMRAD format of a presentation possible.  Not only that, but the projects and the participants were all but done with every aspect of their research.  Some had already defended.  I felt kind of naive and a little defeated.  I guess I will just have to beat everyone my way next year when I have more data!  Consequently the quiz bowl team that I captain swept the two rounds of competition later that night!


I hope this isn’t too boring.  The last part of the conference involved me acting as a moderator for a symposium of general submitted papers.  I have moderated a symposium before but it was one that I organized for the students, and was less formal.  This started out with introducing the student award winner, my girlfriend, and rolling into talk after talk 13 minutes at the time.  I bring this up because I had to capitalize on body language.  It turns out that when a 6’6″ guy in a dark gray suit stands up in the front of the room during your talk, you take notice.  Even if you have an impressive lab of your own back home.  This is one of those situations where people will make a hand motion to let the speaker know that they are running out of time.  This met with all kinds of reactions.  People were scanning the audience and looking back to their right to check their slides and would either flinch, nod, or look like something was horribly wrong.  Typically though by the time I stood up they had been pressured enough to wrap things up.  A point of pride during my presentation was how I handled my time warning with only a slight nod and kept rolling.  I guess practice kept me on pace there.  While I did miss class I was observing and reflecting the whole time.

Awkward Circles

Well that went better.  Last week we did an exercise that I had a preview of in Dean DePauw’s class.  Last time it was just a little too awkward for me.  In the exercise we form a circle and get taught some noise and motion, almost always some complex and silly thing.  It gets awkward fast, but this time it was a little easier for me.  I think it’s because we know each other in this class.  Looking at it from a teaching or training perspective is interesting.  Even the most silly series of gestures and noises requires interaction and training to get someone else to “master” it.  Some people are really in tune to their teacher and pick up the cues with enthusiasm.  Others are too weirded out or embarrassed to embrace things, a reluctant audience.  Persistence on the part of the teacher is required here.  Some will break their movement and noises into components of a sequence until the student can begin to pick up on it.  Others will simply repeat their sequence albeit slower than normal.

Maybe I could have done something like that with the undergraduates yesterday.  I had to give a talk about my research and how it ties in to some management techniques related to the class’ focus.  I think I was off of my game when I had to sit for an hour and a half before I just had to pop up and talk.  If I had been in on the planning I would liked to have introduced some of the techniques that my advisor did through the lecture.  Introducing them through my research would have been much more effective and entertaining than a vocabulary lesson.  Either way I got a chance to see where the talk stands before I tweak it for the upcoming competition.  I don’t know why, but when I recycle material things get stale for me.  Which is unfortunate since I will talk about this research for the next couple of years.


P.S. -The next week we did it again.  I still got the uncomfortable feelings but I did find myself smiling at the silliness and that helped to make me less reluctant.

Valued Here

We were asked to reflect on the things that we value.  I value integrity, love, and family.  To that end I seek to challenge myself and have fun doing so.

Integrity sounds cheesy.  I value integrity because it brings honor and value to the work that I do, the education I seek, and to the family that supports me.  Love nourishes.  When someone loves me as a person that seeks challenge because of curiosity, I know that they are in large part, identifying with me and my values.  This love is enduring, supporting, and is what I value.  I find this love in my family, and when I start my own, I will do everything that I can to bring and share that love with my new family.  I have to challenge myself to learn more, to discover, and to satisfy my curiosity.  This whole process can be fun.  When it is not fun, I have to engage myself in other ways to even things out.  I miss working with my hands like when I was a mechanic, so I occupy myself with crafting hobbies.  Desk and lab work can break me down physically so I look to sports to involve my body enough to allow my brain to focus on my other pursuits.  Although it has always been largely elusive, I value balance, and I strive to keep these other values in a healthy balance that helps me to be myself.

It’s All About Me (2/17/15)

Or so it seemed!  We had to do some more difficult exercises today.  We grouped up and spent three minutes talking only about ourselves, starting each sentence with “I am”.  Not like the cute middle school poems, but more like looking into the mirror with someone standing behind you as you vocalize what you see.  While it was difficult to think of me me me, it was harder to watch the others struggle.  I was listening  and I wanted to engage them about what they were saying but the exercise was supposed to be one sided.  One thing I was able to do was relate something about me to the similarities that I heard from my group members.  We talked about filters afterwards, not the kind that keep you from cussing out loud, but more filtering things out for simplicity sake.

We talked more about jargon in communication.  I brought in an abstract from the fellowship application that I just submitted.  The application directions stated that abstract should be approachable for scientifically literate lay people.  I tried to avoid jargon and if I had to use it, I explained it in the text.  My partner had some difficulty reading it but some of that may have been because english is not their native tongue.

Soapbox of Jargon:  I don’t know, I get a little annoyed when the burden of poorly executed science education is shifted to the scientists only.  I understand eliminating words that can be misguiding, complicating, or coarse, but at some point we have to write to an appropriate audience.  I don’t think that my dissertation should be on a level that everyone that is literate should get it (not that I would ever intend to hide any of it from anyone).  I do think that, given the occasion, I should be capable of discussing my dissertation research with anyone that is interested.  The difference is that the dissertation is a treatise from one scientist to another, written in an effort to allow sufficient testing of the phenomena observed within.  I think my disappointment in the accessibility argument stems from the blatant abuse and “Spin” that we see in public media and idiotically self-exposed, social media.  Its when the rigors of science that are worded to be adversarial in nature, and conservative in their claims, are used to the detriment of scientific literacy.  While this is likely not an issue for authors trying to eliminate jargon, it does seem like simplification for communication’s sake can oversimplify to the point that anyone can pass judgement on the result.  This rings all too true when political leaders try to impart their will on the methods of science in an effort to support their own opinion.  Instead of just complaining I will offer a glimpse of an alternative.  We, (educators, scientists, and members of society), can try to promote more critical consumption of media and science.  Identifying a news source with its underlying political bias is not enough.  We have to do something more.  If we start early, when we first teach children about news, history, and literature.  It’s just an idea, but looking at who runs this place, it seems like it is needed.

Hello Hal (2/10/15)

I’m starting this back up for my new “Communicating Science” class.  I had a preview of it last year in Dean DePauw’s class.    It’s not as scary as the Space Odyssey computer but it can get a little intimidating.  I know my science, and I can usually get a point across to a captive audience.  The challenge for me is doing so without having to double back.  Many of the talks I give are in small settings on farms.  I am not the main attraction so I usually get thrown in after all of the extension specialists give their talks.  I have cool stories about the work I do and how it can affect the work that they do, but it can be a real challenge to keep their attention.  I think that one of the goals I have here is to figure out how I can get the “VA___ Society” to pay attention long enough to think about what we are doing with my research.  Of course talking to them after a long-winded extension specialist, and having to give a pesticide update doesn’t really help me out at all.  They might be a little bit of a lost cause but maybe I can get them to read my bug blog as an alternative.

Today I got to get up and give a quick synopsis of what I do.  I went for brief, jargon light, and food specific to try and connect with my audience.  I thought I made decent eye contact but I couldn’t remember afterwards.  I never really dove into the real meat of the research I do, instead I tried to make very clear connections with my area of focus and how it impacts the audience members.  Given the chance again I’m not sure what I would change.  We’ll see when we watch it at the end of the semester.

Listening to others give their talks was interesting.  Every time I heard something familiar my brain cranked up like we were in a conversation.  There was one presenter who got so heavy into the jargon I could not actually place what they studied!  The class should be good if I can keep my energy up.  Next week.

Wait, Are WE the University of Phoenix?

Distance Ed, Massive Online Colleges, Night Class, are these the same model?  Maybe, but maybe not.  I think that the MOOC’s are probably closer to the night classes and for profit universities than distance ed and international online programs.  We have an online masters program now.  Who does that really serve?  I think it is one way that not for profit universities can stay current and collect tuition dollars, enrollment numbers and graduation rates.  Some of the loan shark like tuition schemes of the for profit schools are predatory.  But I think as more people work through their coursework at a pace with their own life it will become more of the norm.  It looks like the “College” experience is not for everyone.  It would be interesting to see how tuitions and the opportunity costs of attending college actually compare between traditional schools and MOOC’s.  Right now undergrad seems like a great way to go into debt without significantly increasing the potential for you to get hired afterwards.  Economically that does not make good sense.

I think the product offered in a “four year” degree has devalued but the experience factor is not taken into account.  Colleges could be more aggressive about non-traditional tracks that involve more on the job training and internships to overcome this devaluation.  The potential is still there, but now there is some extra competition from MOOC’s.  Flexibility is a great option for many and the four years would do well to keep up.

Changing Higher Education; A Question of Economy of Scale

We spoke in class yesterday about what we could or would want to change in higher education.  I said that I would like to add some accountability to University growth demands at a departmental and college level.  Universities have to operate like a business to keep the lights on and stay on the cutting edge.  Professors can write grants and acquire great equipment for inspiring research, but if the ceiling above their head is falling down the research will not succeed.  We are aware that Federal support in grants and loans to students has lead to increases in undergraduate enrollment, while science and technology are expanding at rates that demand cutting edge equipment and research.  Distribution of funds around the university atmosphere can create a demanding system of requirements and ultimatums.  I have seen such ultimatums and question the apparent disconnect between administrative goals and achievable standards.

Growth and change are very necessary, especially if universities hope to remain salient.  What happens if growth exceeds demand?  For example; departments are being mandated to nearly double the number of PhD students, while maintaining matriculation rates and research standards at the same time that members of the scientific community express concerns about the numbers of PhD’s compared to the jobs available for people of such qualifications.  Then, when these graduate students leave with their respective degrees, the opportunity cost has changed significantly from when they started.  The value of their degree has changed, especially if they cannot find jobs.  The hiring rates of university graduates is as much of a measure of success as graduation rates and national rankings.  Where then is this disconnect?

Economists are all too aware of the affect that accelerated growth can have on the economy as a whole.  Perhaps it is time to look at the university as an economy.  The divisions are all there.  Market sectors are colleges and growth could be measured by enrollment rates and grant funding.  Investment in colleges and departments could be viewed as just that, while maybe even providing for additional accountability for funding.  How are these metrics taken and used regardless of the model used to analyze them?  Being on the working end, where graduate students carry out research under managers called advisors, it looks like the upper management wants to run the machines faster without proper upkeep.  Mentioning this briefly in class did not provoke any discussion.  Fine I get that.  I do not get how administration is not viewed as a necessary part of academia by those who aspire to be successful members of the Academy.  I looked around the room and realized that 50% or more of my classmates would not return to academia after they graduate.  Then the majority of those that do, will work tirelessly to obtain tenure and become the stodgy professors that act alienated by colleagues that are “upwardly mobile.”  Who should carry the torch?  Business leaders are often highly successful members of their industry who were called “up and coming.”  Why then would there be a stigma associated with experts in the field going on to be advocates for their colleagues?  I am interested in becoming an advocate like that.  Right now, from behind the lab bench, it is difficult to see the path that would prepare me better to do so.  Maybe the disconnect starts here.


Integrity and Scholarship

I am writing about scholarly integrity as a scientist in training.  I have been training for about 8 years now, and to date have been successful in acquiring two degrees, a federal internship, multiple grants, and published part of my research just this year. I list these things not to brag, but to set a timeline.  The timeline I have in mind, is when I started to take coursework very seriously, as well as when I began to immerse myself in my interests.  The basis of my achievements to date and the achievements that I hope to gain, is in the integrity with which I undertake my studies, research, and publishing.  I do my own work.  I conduct my own research, and credit the scientists before me that worked to create the basic understandings upon which I build.  I do not falsify my credentials, qualifications, or ability.

To do so would begin a web of lies built to maintain a facsimile.  Taking shortcuts, plagiarizing, and falsifying data are unjust actions that produce falsehoods.  These require lies to promote, and for every lie, there must be a series of supporting lies to protect it.

If I were to use the work of scientists past to build the scientifically support assumptions of my research, I would rely on the integrity of their research.  I have.  My master’s research was in forensics, and while my focus area was not, much of this research can have life or death ramifications in a court of law.  If some of the seminal works that I based my research around were false, or inaccurate, the interpretations of the subsequent research could lead to wrongful conviction and perhaps death.  This would be an extreme case but my training has exposed me to cases where shortcuts have been made by expert witnesses in my field that have had drastic legal consequences.  All scholars must enforce integrity to sustain credibility and legitimacy in research and scholarship.  If we do not, then we allow our fields to deteriorate and impact society in the same way.

Open Sesame, All Access but Starting Where?

Recently I was able to attend Virginia Tech’s Open Access Week’s Keynote address by Brian Nosek.  Nosek had some interesting ideas.  First though, we should look at the current meaning of open access.  Open, to view, read, digest and have access to research results in their final, most polished form.  This research can be from the most independent historian to the leading genetic scientists.  Many journals are seen as targets for publishing research.  You can hear grad students lustfully mention their goals of getting published in ScienceNature, PLOS, and many others.  To have access to these journals and others in the past required individual membership in research organizations or very costly personal subscriptions.  At many research universities, libraries will pay millions of dollars to ensure that their students and faculty have access to articles in these journals.  The idea is that researchers can access what has been done, and use that information as a starting point for their own research.  This could be the basic understanding of some concept or a more controversial finding that an author may seek to reproduce.  Either way, access has historically been limited by money, and as such, knowledge, to an extent, has been limited by money. Now the game is changing.  Journals are beginning to open the doors of their libraries and archives for some level of open access.  Now, anyone can walk into a public library, go online and read much of the seminal work that has been published in Nature (  They could not download, print, or copy the article, but they could technically access it for free.  This is a big change.  Could this could make knowledge and information considerably more accessible to everyone. Other journals have adopted an open access format that allows for full access.  In the field of Entomology (the study of insects) the Journal of Integrated Pest Management began as open access.  No original research is to be published there.  Instead, authors take care in explaining and redocumenting the work of others to establish an understanding of what researchers may view as background understanding for their research.  With that, any reader can go to this journal and type in “Brown Marmorated Stink Bug”, which they might because this invasive species has been invading houses and their are some crazy stories about it origin.  After locating the profile article, the reader can tweet a link, download the article, print it off and take it home for free.  This means that instead of having to trust what has been accepted by wikipedia, anyone can see what is known about this organism that has recently thrust itself into their lives.  Rather than perpetuating rumors that some University brought them to the US to do some rediculous task, growers, extension agents, teachers, anyone can see what is really known.  This is but one of the ways to grant access to the public. Brian Nosek has a different idea.  One that starts on an entirely different end of the research process.  Many journals are dedicated to publishing original research in a context that will provide the maximum impact for those findings.  Nosek describes this peer reviewed process as presenting only the best, most exciting, results in their polished form to be reviewed and then published.  Nosek and his colleagues propose to involve the review of peers in the initial stages of this process.  Authors can sign up to have an article fast tracked when it is only a question with well developed methods and materials.  Then, a group of peers that can provide useful insight can review and comment on the methodology in hopes that it will benefit the scientific process. The article will then proceed as the research does and because of the open access end of it, the data will become public as well.  This access goes well beyond knowledge as polished and synthesized by experts in a field who have spent decades being trained to think and research one specific way.  With access to raw data, in the context of the research methodology with which it was published, anyone can analyze it.  This could be the opening of pandora’s box, or it could be the way that impromptu collaborations begin in the information age.  Access is changing, and maybe because of that, the way we do science can too.