5 Years of Learning

13 May

Motivation

First, I have to apologize for the LONG delay in getting a new post on here. If I were to follow stereotypes I would blame my hiatus from the blog on ‘teaching too many classes’ or ‘serving on too many committees’ or ‘holding too many hands’. None of those are true. Truthfully, I had a rough start to the semester due to personal life issues and have now gotten back into a normal routine as the semester comes to an end. During that time away, I was able to reflect a lot of what I have learned in my 5 years as an assistant professor here at Millikin and I am going to use this space to discuss some of the highlights.

 

Background

When I arrived here in 2010, nearly everything I planned to do (formally even, since we are required to write 3-year growth plans) was inspired by the things I loved about my professors at the small liberal arts school where I earned my Bachelor’s degree and all of the things I could not do at that small college. I wanted to provide my students with the best of what I did have and with everything I did not have. Fast forward to the end of my first year and I was mentoring 8 research students from the same cohort, at the same time, and working on a large-scale avian supplemental feeding study. Suffice it to say, I’ve come a long way since then and learned a lot about how to be successful in this field.

 

What I’ve learned

First, 8 undergraduate research students all with their own independent projects and in the same graduating class is too darn many to have in one lab. We accomplished a lot as a team and the manuscripts are nearly complete (it was a 3 year study), but I regret that I stretched myself so thin on advising so many students. I don’t think any of them would say any unkind words about their research experience – they loved the team atmosphere, they were friends, and at the end of the day, they all took the opportunity to present their work at conferences. More importantly, they are all now well into graduate studies or in the workforce and can be considered successful by any conventional standards. Those students taught me so much about where I can go in terms of the scope and magnitude of my research in physiological ecology (higher than I had initially hoped for a school this size, I might add), and more importantly, how much I could expect out of the undergraduate research students without whom I could never carry out a large, truly integrative study.

 

Following up on that, one of the most important things I’ve learned is to restrict the number of students I mentor to 3 students per cohort and hopefully get them on board by the end of their sophomore year. After that first big group graduated, I have taken this approach and it has been immensely rewarding. I feel that I am truly advising these students at a high level and that we have great individual conversations and scientific experiences, yet we maintain that team atmosphere. My students tend to wear their lab identity proudly, which is also very helpful.

 

Another important thing I’ve learned is to find ways in which my skills offer something new to those around me, and to embrace the opportunities that come with that.   I have become the departmental go-to for statistical work and help, from the experimental design process through the analysis and interpretation of data. At first when people came to me with data sets and a somewhat cloudy focus on what they hoped to get out of the analysis, I felt trapped – stuck analyzing something for someone else and taking away from my own work. I quickly realized that, too, was a product of trying to manage too many research students at one time. I have truly come to embrace how much I can learn about other systems and other questions (and advanced scientific inquiry in general) by collaborating with so many people on the analytical components of their work. Further, neither the broader scientific community nor my peers and administrators on campus see this type of contribution to research as a negative thing. It is often complex and important enough to warrant co-authorship on papers, which are more likely to be published with appropriate and rigorous statistical analyses. In addition, word gets around quickly that I can be a good team player (most of the time).

 

Finally, the third important thing I’ve learned in five years here is to be visible. I am sure to show the campus community, and administrators in particular, exactly how productive we can be with even moderate amounts of support. That support needs to come in the form of time to complete research activities as well as financial support for those activities. I have taken every opportunity to not only showcase my students work through campus and local media outlets, but also to provide colleagues and administrators with quick summaries of how much was accomplished with relatively little financial investment. I have no doubt that teaching one (or fewer) courses per year and operating a lab with a multi-million dollar NSF grant as a backbone makes for more convenient research, but that is FAR from being the only route to good, impactful research. My students and I have strung together a number of small grants and have reached a level of productivity that I could have only hoped for when I started here, and honestly, I know a big part of that is being able to communicate what we do, how well we do it, and most importantly, why anybody should care.

 

Summary

My tenure portfolio is due 3 months from Friday, and I think I feel about as good as anyone could about putting everything on the line in front of my peers in the tenure review process. I have learned so much from my experiences here and I have learned so much from my colleagues. I have probably learned the most from my students. I hope that many of them have learned from me and benefitted from my presence on this faculty as well.

– TW

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