Tips on Collaborating Better

As a student in an interdisciplinary program, learning to collaborate effectively is one of the most useful skills I can have. Although it may not be as important for other disciplines, it is still a very useful skill and can help in more ways than research. Collaboration relies heavily on communication (as you will see), but here are a few tips I’ve learned that are extremely important to collaborating effectively:

  1. Know your audience.
    Knowing your audience is one of the simplest things you can do when collaborating with someone. When you know your collaborator’s familiarity with a topic, it is a lot easier to adjust the level of complexity in your explanations and questions. By doing so, you can avoid jargon speech or miscommunications. The best way to get to know your audience, is to simply ask. For instance, you can ask if your collaborator is familiar with a term you use frequently to gauge their knowledge of a core subject. Based on the response, you can continue your question or explanation in a way you would with a colleague or pose your explanations or questions in a manner you would to new students entirely unfamiliar with a concept… Just be careful not to be condescending in your simplifications!
  2. Know yourself.
    Before you can begin to collaborate with others, you need to know exactly what you need from others. Make sure you know exactly what skills you are lacking, so you can be sure you are collaborating with someone who is proficient in those skills. This will also help you guide your questions and expectations for your collaborator. Even if the first person you contact for collaboration does not have the skills you are looking for, by having a concise explanation of what you need, this person could potentially put you in contact with someone that does have the skills you need.
  3. Keep an open dialogue.
    This is more of a communication tip that should be utilized with all individuals you work with. You should make sure that you keep an open dialogue of expectations and desired outcomes. You should make sure that issues such as authorship and deadlines be hashed out and agreed upon early on in a collaboration. More importantly, keeping in touch with current progress and goals can help make sure everyone is on board and achieve overall goals.

What are some tips you’ve learned in your own experiences with collaborations? Comment more tips below!


Math pun: Why is 1/5 always so stressed out? Because he’s two tenths (too tense)!
(Today’s Math Pun brought to you by algebra)

The Importance of Critical Reading in the Sciences

In the humanities, most students are taught (or even forced) to read critically. That is, being able to actively read a source and interpret more than is at face value. While this is extremely important to scholars in the humanities, this skill is often neglected in the STEM field. Most work in the STEM areas are fairly objective and don’t need a lot of thought. For most instances, like class work and most practical-based research, there’s no need to read critically. However, this can become quite the issue when one conducts literature searches to develop research questions or investigate research methods. It’s at this point where one needs to be able to evaluate particular publications and determine its true purpose for and worth to a given research goal. Thankfully, I have been through courses that have taught me these skills, but I know that it is not a common occurrence. I think that professors in the STEM areas need to deeply consider this and incorporate different opportunities to teach critical reading in their courses.


Math Pun: Why did the Lumberjack have nametags on all of his axes? Because you should always label your axes!
(Today’s Math Pun brought you by graphing)

Diversity and Inclusion: The Future of the University

Although some may view it as simply Affirmative Action or attempts to keep up with political correctness, diversity and inclusion are extremely important concepts to keep in the future of higher education. As an underrepresented minority female scientist familiar with deep Southwest Virginia, the concept of being the only person of a particular identity or background is not foreign to me. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to grow up in an area dense with cultural diversity and pretty open to inclusion. However, after living in areas that are nearly polar opposites to my home, I can fully understand how damaging places that don’t value diversity and inclusion can be.

For universities to truly provide service everyone in their communities, they must continue to value diverse and inclusive environments. Not only to welcome more diverse and included students, but to encourage and teach others how to work and contribute to our increasingly diverse and inclusive world. Although many people are learning how to coexist with our different backgrounds and identities, I would like to highlight and reiterate how environments devoid of diversity and inclusion can feel. The two most prominent feelings I will discuss are isolation and exclusion.

Isolation

Next time you are in a room full of people, take a look around. How many people have the same skin color? How many people have the same gender? How many people share your same identities? Although these things may seem superficial, they can hold a powerful bearing over an individual’s comfort level and feeling of belonging. For some, these differences don’t mean much, but for others it can lead to an immense feeling of isolation; a feeling that there is no one in the room/department/campus you can relate to. This feeling is usually silent and easy to dismiss from an external perspective, but it is so important to preventing the next feeling: exclusion.

Exclusion

Feeling like you don’t belong can often lead to the feeling that you don’t deserve to belong. Many people (usually graduate students) experience impostor’s syndrome at least once in their higher educational career. This syndrome can be amplified by this feeling of exclusion especially for students from underrepresented identities and backgrounds. The feeling that a particular place is not for you because no one else like you has thrived there (to your knowledge). Exclusion can make underrepresented individuals feel like continuing in a particular environment is a daunting task. Instead of focusing on bettering themselves and improving one’s education, the feeling of exclusion can hinder progress and lead to quitting continued education altogether.

These feelings can be so discouraging to students in higher education and I feel that it is extremely important that institutions value diversity and inclusion. For higher education institutes to truly educate all masses, they must foster environments that feel welcoming and open to everyone.


Math pun: Why was the function so bent out of shape? Its regression model was too tight a fit.

(Today’s Math pun brought to you by statistics and modeling)

How Technology Can Fill Gaps in Higher Education

Living through the turn of the 21st century has been an amazing experience mainly because of the technological revolution. We got to watch our world go from (relatively) limited technological usage and capability to  a near societal dependence on it. Despite some of the negative outcomes from this revolution, such as issues with privacy and a new front for crime to take place (e.g. the dark web, new methods for identity theft, etc.), there are many ways that technology has filled gaps that were previously much more difficult to fill.

Take for instance, higher education, and education in general. Many institutions, mostly in rural areas, struggle to receive and maintain the resources to keep up with the advances in educational tools available to more affluent and populated institutions. Fortunately, the technological revolution has made more and better educational tools widely available. The biggest contributor to filling this gap is the Internet and free applications. While, of course, getting access to Internet and affording the technology to use new educational tools can still be a challenge, it is certainly isn’t as tasking of a challenge as it used to be. Once institutions have access to Internet (and the devices required to access it), the educational tools that are available become nearly endless.

Now, this is not to say that Internet and technology solves all problems present in lowly resourced institutions. There are still the costs of device acquisition, Internet services, increased electricity usage, and maintenance. However, costs can be easily cut by buying refurbished or less cutting-edge and/or used devices that still have Internet capabilities as well as limiting available maintenance for said devices. Lowly resourced institutions that are capable of managing that are able to effectively provide educational tools and resources that weren’t possible before the technological revolution at nearly the same quality as more highly resourced institutions.

The Struggle Between Prestige and Better Science: Open vs. Closed Access

As a scientist, finding the right journals for publication is essential for a successful career. As such, there are a select few journals that have become synonymous with prestige in which many researchers strive for publication. These sorts of journals typically have quite high impact factors which is important for future citations (and, of course, bragging rights). However, most of these journals, such as Cell, Nature, and Science Magazine, are often closed access which means that only people that have paid for particular licenses have the ability to read the publications.

The thought of closed access scientific journals has always astounded me because it seems counterproductive to scientific progress. I always thought that most scientists wanted to share their findings with as many people as possible, especially their most groundbreaking or exciting results. Instead, in their fight for prestige (coupled with the pressure to publish and publish well for some) many scientists opt for these closed access journals. There seems to be a very clear prejudice against open access journals in the scientific community. Unfortunately, there is no real basis for such prejudice. In fact, there are many open access journals with high impact factors and even more opportunity for future citations.

This is not to say that I think closed access journals are to be avoided at all costs. Instead, I simply believe that open access journals should be given the same sort of attention and perceived prestige as closed access journals. After all, open access journals allow other scientists and researchers from less affluent institutions the opportunity to read and cite important and groundbreaking findings instead of only sharing knowledge with other wealthy institutions.

What do you think of closed access journals? Do you think they stifle the dissemination of knowledge or are there other important purposes of closed access journals that I’m missing? Tell me what you think in the comments!

 


Math Pun:  An opinion without 3.14159 is just an onion.
(Today’s math pun brought to you by the number Pi π)

 

RCR, Ethics, and the Pressure to Publish

(Bit of a long one this time. I’ll try to make this post bearable though!)

When one begins his journey in academia or thinks of successful scientists, neither responsible conduct in research (RCR) nor ethics typically come to mind. Despite this, both RCR and ethics in general play a vastly essential role in being able to sustain a lasting career in academia and the sciences. RCR and ethics are instrumental in shaping research methods and purposes:

  • RCR allows researchers to show accountability in their work and encourage replicable results and methods.
  • Ethics show responsibility in experimental design and determines the humane and benevolent nature of potential research outcomes.

With these purposes in mind, it is much clearer to see the kind of fundamental service they provide to the world of academia and the sciences. Thankfully, most institutions have RCR and ethics policies enforced by internal and external administrations to ensure research integrity. Though, despite this, there are (and continue to be) cases in which researchers are found to be in violation of these policies.

I often find it odd when these cases surface, because these violations are typically met with loss of funding, restrictions, or license revocations. Although these punishments do not seem as harsh as, say, prison time, they are devastating to the future of one’s research career. It’s almost equivalent to being marked with a scarlet letter in the research community; it is very difficult to bounce back from.

With this much at stake, why is it that researchers even risk their career for poor RCR and ethical practices? Personally, I believe it is the pressure on some researchers to frequently publish impactful work. Especially in institutions highly focused on research outcomes and publications (usually R1 universities) the pressure to publish can be quite intense; typically one’s standing at work or employment status can be in danger.

Take for instance  the case of Dr. H. M. Krishna Murthy: Murthy, a former associate research professor at the University of Alabama (UAB), was found guilty of fabricating research results in multiple publications which were then referenced in multiple NIH grants. Murthy’s case is a very clear example of how research intensive environments can occasionally push researchers to put their careers at risk. As a professor I’m sure Murthy had lot of pressure to publish, particularly in high impact journals. When reviewing his case, the falsified publications were retracted from very prestigious and high impact journals in the science community: Cell, Nature, Biochem, etc. Publications in these journals are often viewed as very high achievements in science, thus these publications would have relieved any intense pressure to publish for Murthy and allowed him easier access to further grants.

Although Murthy’s actions were very clear violations of RCR and ethics policies, his case illuminates bigger issues in publication processes and academic environments. In the publication process there is a phenomenon called the file drawer issue in which publications with less exciting or groundbreaking findings are published less often than publications capable of more interesting headlines*. As a result, if the research you have dedicated your time and grant money to does not have incredibly interesting results, your work is less likely to be published thus increasing the internal intensity of the pressure to publish. Furthermore, I find the current academic environment in research focused universities to be very stifling to progress in general. Although a little pressure is healthy for productivity, too much pressure can lead to job dissatisfaction, higher levels of perceivable stress, and deter future scientists from making larger contributions to their field; I love my research, but I would never choose to be a research professor for an R1 institution, despite the prestige and funding, for the sake of my sanity and free time.

I find it interesting to think of what factors encourage researchers to to violate RCR and ethics policies. What do you all think? Do you agree? Are there other factors I’m neglecting? Let me know what you all think in the comments!

 

*See the podcast Planet Money episode 677: The Experiment Experiment

Math Pun: Don’t be mean. Be something less sensitive like median or mode.
(Today’s math pun brought to you by descriptive statistics)

Mission Statement

Hello all!

As this is my first post, I think it is only fitting to discuss university mission statements (as these mission statements essentially describe my mission towards academia). I have picked out two university mission statements that really stand out to me in a way that I can deeply connect with.

Washington & Lee University

“Washington and Lee University provides a liberal arts education that develops students’ capacity to think freely, critically, and humanely and to conduct themselves with honor, integrity, and civility. Graduates will be prepared for life-long learning, personal achievement, responsible leadership, service to others, and engaged citizenship in a global and diverse society.”

Washington & Lee University is a private liberal arts university in Virginia, USA. The part of this mission statement that stood out to me the most was developing “students’ capacity to think freely, critically, and humanely”. I believe critical thinking is one of the most important skills a student, scientist, professional, etc. can have. The added bonus of thinking freely and humanely makes this mission all the better!

 

Cornell University

“Cornell is a private, Ivy League university and the land-grant university for New York state. Cornell’s mission is to discover, preserve and disseminate knowledge, to educate the next generation of global citizens, and to promote a culture of broad inquiry throughout and beyond the Cornell community. Cornell also aims, through public service, to enhance the lives and livelihoods of students, the people of New York and others around the world.”

Cornell University is a private research university located in New York, USA. This mission stands out to me mainly because of its focus on knowledge and the good research and knowledge can bring to the world. This is important to me as an educator because it really emphasizes the importance of the pursuit of knowledge.

 

Math Pun: What is purple and commutes? An Abelian Grape!
(Look into Abelian Groups in Abstract Algebra for an explanation of this post’s math pun)