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The time I became a father in the same week my tenure portfolio was due.

27 Aug

An eventful month.

My tenure and promotion portfolio was due to the Chair of my department on August 14, 2015. My first child was born earlier that week, and because we became parents through adoption, I had no idea going into this summer that I would be a father by now. How did I manage to complete my tenure portfolio AND become a ‘surprise’ parent all at the same time? By working ahead, of course. This post is about how avoiding procrastination and working with great effort and efficiency when I had the opportunity has helped me survive, and in this case, enjoy, a life-changing event.

My wife and I were notified in mid-summer that a birthmother was considering us as adoptive parents. She thought she was due in mid-September. In reality, the little baby boy was much further along and he made a mid-August arrival. I could not be happier to be a father and I could not be happier with the support my wife and I (both professors, but at different universities) have received with regards to a favorable parenting schedule amidst our course schedules. With that said, if I had not been on top of my game, the timing of these things could have created a nightmarish conundrum.

The road to now.

When I signed my first contract in 2010, I knew that August 2015 would be the deadline for my tenure and promotion portfolio. Despite having a five-year notice, there are components of the portfolio that can only be completed in the weeks leading up to the deadline. I made great progress in each of my five years with regards to collecting artifacts and evidence in support of my case, but reserved the writing of the most important part – the narrative – until summer 2015.   At the beginning of the summer, I focused solely on getting manuscripts from my lab out for review. Fellow blogger Matt Venesky and other peers on Twitter consistently Tweeted about their goal for a #SixManuscriptSummer. Sharing their goal, I was determined to reach six manuscript submissions by mid-July, then use the final two weeks of July to write the narrative for my tenure portfolio.

Reaching the manuscript goal on July 13, I entered August with a hefty amount of the work of my students and I out in the peer-review pipeline and had nothing left for the tenure portfolio but to add outside letters of support to the binder. On July 31, I printed the final version of my narrative, and successfully assembled my entire portfolio (minus the letters of support) into a single, four-inch binder. I turned my portfolio in a week early, took a weekend to celebrate that accomplishment, then just a few days later, I became a father for the first time.

I know my story is different from many others. I know there are individuals who will work until the very last minute because they like to work that way or because they are simply too busy to work ahead. I am here to say I am so glad that was not the case for me. Our university requires annual evaluations and ‘check ups’ with regards to progression toward tenure. I suspect some faculty members find this to be overkill and, perhaps, verging on busy work. Looking back on the relative ease with which I was able to complete my portfolio, I can say with confidence that those annual self-evaluations were essential to my success in preparing this binder.

At Millikin, faculty members are required to develop three-year growth plans. The first is written in the middle of the first year of employment. Within the growth plan, we must address how we will achieve competence or excellence in the following areas of evaluation for tenure and promotion: teaching (excellence required), scholarship (competence required), service to the university (competence required), service to the profession (optional, competence required), and professional service to the community (optional, competence required). At the end of each academic year, we must write a self-evaluation, which is then reviewed by the Chair and the Dean, that addresses how well we have met our goals set forth in the growth plan. At the end of year three, we write a new three-year growth plan, and importantly, have a pre-tenure review. For this review, the tenured members of our department and the Dean review a pre-tenure portfolio, which, for the most part, is an abbreviated tenure portfolio. Promotion and tenure portfolios must be a reflection on performance in these areas and I think that waiting five years to write a single document that summarizes those five years would be incredibly overwhelming, even for the most prepared individual.   With four years of self-evaluations, two growth plans, a pre-tenure review, and feedback from the Chair and Dean on each of them, I felt great about my ability to make my case for tenure and promotion

Final thoughts.

The department decision on my case will not be completed until September 15 and the case will not make it through all of the levels of evaluation until February 2016, so I cannot yet tell you if my approach was successful. What I can tell you is that the arrival of an unexpected baby just days before my portfolio was due would have been an extremely stressful occurrence if it were not for regular reflection and self-assessment of my performance in each of the previous years.

For those of you who are at a university that requires similar assessment on an annual basis, I hope my story will help you gain a new appreciation for how this prepares you to make your tenure case. For those of you who are at a university where there are no formal assessments or checkpoints until the real-deal tenure portfolio, I encourage you to consider writing your own self-evaluation each year in preparation for that final portfolio.

With six manuscripts in the pipeline in peer-reviewed journals, all of my research students doing great work, my courses going smoothly, and my tenure portfolio in review, I feel better than I could have imagined about investing a great deal of time in what is already one of the most rewarding activities in my life: parenting.

  • TW
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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

SICB Time Again!

18 Dec

The final two weeks of the semester are busy for everyone with stacks of grading, year-end meetings, and preparation for winter break plans, but this year it is even a bit busier for me. I am bringing five of my research students to the annual Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting January 3-7, 2015. I am excited for this conference because my students are presenting on a variety of topics that represent the breadth of my own research program and that of my collaborators here at Milllikin University. In addition, I will be presenting my first talk on raptor ecoimmunology and disease ecology since I started working with birds of prey just last year. As I wrap up manuscripts from the 3-year study of supplemental feeding in a community of songbirds that was my first major research project as a faculty member, I am pleased to have been able to get a new study to the point of presentation at a national meeting.

The dynamic of bringing undergraduates to a national meeting is always an interesting one – this time made more interesting by the diverse interests and motivation for these students to participate. Two of them are already entrenched in the path to graduate studies in physiological ecology, having already made connections with potential graduate advisors, written grant proposals, and submitted application materials. Those two know that this meeting offers a chance to connect with some of those potential advisors in person and get great experience and feedback that will facilitate their transition to graduate school. I suspect they will spend much of their time outside of their presentations taking in as many talks and posters related to their field of interest as possible. The other three are pursuing professional programs (Veterinary, Physical Therapy, etc) and for them, I am sure they will approach this meeting much differently: give their presentations and go explore West Palm Beach.

If they are like my last pre-professional students I brought to a national meeting, however, they will likely find themselves drawn to a few presentations here and there because they wouldn’t have made the commitment to this meeting if at some level they didn’t love biology. What I always look forward to is the conversations we have about what they learned during the day, either from their own presentations or from listening to others, and that I NEVER have to look at them and say “So, what did you learn today”. Those conversations spontaneously arise and seems as if they just can’t help but to want to talk science at these conferences.  The best part is that I really get to see them putting the knowledge they gained from their coursework to use.

 

– T. Wilcoxen

Strong connections with the past and an eye to the future

12 Sep

Motivation

One of the things I love to share with my students is how my own academic path has influenced how I teach and what research questions I pursue. I don’t do this because I am one of those people locked in the ‘glory days’; instead, I use it in hopes that I might inspire them to look around and appreciate the journey on which they are traveling. Sometimes implied, and sometimes explicitly stated, I also try to convey to my students that it is important to maintain strong connections with people, places, and things that were an important part of one’s past. When we put the grown-up pants on after completing graduate school, we all have to move forward and move into our realized niche given that large parts of our fundamental niche are excluded by occupation by the advisor who trained us, but if past experiences have been positive ones, it is a good idea to maintain a spirit of collaboration and cooperation with the individuals who facilitated those experiences

Background

I was privileged to work in an excellent study system (with Florida scrub-jays) while working on my dissertation. Although the benefits of working with such a well-established system are immense, I found that the value of my scrub-jay research has gone well beyond simply answering the questions I had within the field of physiological ecology. Not only was my study species an excellent one, my study site, Archbold Biological Station, was phenomenal as well. The P.I. in my lab encouraged collaboration with other graduate students within our lab as well as with other individuals at the university and at the field station. Although I think the collaborative spirit is important at all universities, I find it particularly important at PUI’s given the challenges we face with course loads and equipment availability. I still work to maintain professional relationships with individuals with whom I collaborated in graduate school while also welcoming new collaborations, but I can say with certainty that the quality of my own research, and my teaching, is greatly improved by keeping those strong connections that were developed many years ago.

 

My strategy

I published a couple of papers that were peripherally related to my dissertation which I finished after I started my faculty position, and thus, were essentially a direct extension of my graduate research activities and were coauthored by my advisor and lab mates. Though continuing research very much in line with dissertation work may have some appeal, in many cases, such as my own, this is really not feasible. First, most universities are looking to employ faculty who can come up with their own research program and not appear to simply be an extension of the program they recently left. Second, there was no way I could work at a small university in Illinois and travel to Florida for the entire Spring semester to study reproduction and physiology in scrub jays as my teaching duties certainly prohibit that. I have, however, found that as other individuals who were either in my lab at the same time as I, or those that have joined the lab after, me develop their own, new, projects, our common experiences, different interests and new areas of expertise have really made for interesting new research opportunities.   I will write a blog entry on a future date about strategies for developing in-house and external collaborations at a university like mine, but as blog co-author, Matt Venesky, has noted before, he and I have pursued collaborative opportunities, the senior grad student in our lab during my graduate studies and I have collaborated on many projects, and I have even had a student complete a research internship at Archbold Biological Station, where I completed the field component of all of my graduate research, bringing the connection of my current students with my own past experiences as a student full circle.

In addition to keeping those connections intact for research purposes, I can proudly say that my connection with Archbold Biological Station has also positively influenced my teaching. I have developed an Ecological Journeys: South Florida course (taught in Summer 2012 and Summer 2014), where I take students from Millikin University down to Archbold Biological Station for a two-week field ecology course. Just studying at a place like that for two weeks is an excellent opportunity for students, but my connection to Archbold makes it stronger, and they are given an opportunity for in-depth interaction with other scientists have been an important part of my experience with Archbold from 10 years ago to today.

 

Summary

Building a strong network is critical to success in this field, and I think even more important at a PUI. Maintaining collaborative relationships with individuals from the formative years of graduate school can greatly facilitate transitions into new positions and also initiate new ideas and research opportunities. However, it is also important to nurture new collaborations and a professional identity that sets you apart from your past role as a graduate student for each the purpose of showing your university of employment that you are entirely capable of creating a successful and productive lab and, more importantly, the self-fulfillment of taking what you learned from the past, and making something that is your own.

-TW

A division of our own.

17 Aug

I have been an active member of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) since my first year of graduate school in 2005. I have found that this scientific organization is incredibly well run, extremely student friendly, and very inclusive with regards to the diversity of research topics that can find a home at their annual meeting. For at least the past nine years, however, those of us working in ecoimmunology and/or disease ecology were regularly shuffled around and placed in (sometimes odd) sessions apart from one another. Placements varied pure ecology sessions, stress sessions, pure immunology sessions (often with a strong molecular theme), parasite sessions – and coblogger Matt Venesky was even placed in an Evo-Devo session for a talk about chytrid fungus simply because he was studying tadpoles. Overall, we had a strong presence at SICB, but that presence was largely diffuse. I am extremely glad that we now have our own division and I am even more excited to serve as a founding board member of this division.

The SICB Division of Ecoimmunology and Disease Ecology (DEDE) was officially approved as a division at the January 2014 SICB meeting in Austin, Texas. Elections were held in May 2014 for the officers of this new division. Lynn (Marty) Martin from the University of South Florida had largely spearheaded the efforts to make our division official, and he was elected as chair of the division. Someone who I have shared a session with for at least half of my SICB meetings, Sarah Durant of Oklahoma State University, was elected as Program Officer.  I was honored to be elected as Secretary of the Division. The three of us were excited to appoint Cynthia Downs, who is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Nevada-Reno, as our Graduate Student/Post Doc Representative, and thus, we have our officers.

As I look forward, I am excited that our field of study will have a more unified presence and, undoubtedly, this will improve collaborations and scientific advances in our field. I am also excited to be bringing five of my own research students to the first meeting where we will have our own DEDE program in January 2015 in West Palm Beach, Florida. Service as a division board member and having my lab so well represented are two goals I have had for my role as a SICB member for a very long time. If your research involves ecoimmunology or disease ecology and you are not a member of SICB, I encourage you to join.  I hope to see many of you in West Palm Beach!

– Travis Wilcoxen

The Spring 2014 student scientific meetings have come to an end.

6 May

Spring is always the busiest time of year for research/scholarship activities for me. Most of our bird fieldwork is done in the spring and nearly all amphibian work is done in the spring. Combined with the increase in research activities of my students and I, spring also brings an abundance of opportunities for my research students to share their findings in poster or oral presentations.

In late March, the Beta Beta Beta National Biology Honor Society North Central 1 District Meeting was held in Chicago. Four of my research advisees and one additional student for whom I have helped with statistical analysis all traveled with me to the meeting and each gave a poster presentation. Not one of these students is graduating this May and this was the first time any of them had presented their work in such a way. Four awards were given in their division (Organismal Biology), and among these five students, the second, third, and honorable mention awards were claimed.

In late April, there was bit of chaos. One meeting in which my crew always participates is the Annual Meeting of the Illinois State Academy of Science (ISAS) and this year it was the same weekend as our in-house Celebration of Scholarship, which is also effectively a conference at which there are oral presentations, posters, and awards for students at our university. Once I realized these events were the same weekend, and that the ISAS posters were to be exclusively presented on Friday, I told my students that they can either accomplish only half of what they are capable of that weekend and present one poster at either place, or go all-out and present a poster on Friday on campus and give an oral presentation on Saturday at ISAS.

The oral presentation is always scarier for undergrads (despite my warning them that having an overly aggressive or harsh critic at a poster can be far worse because they could linger). Again, these are all Juniors, with only the Beta Beta Beta meeting under their belt with regards to experience. All five of them stepped up, big time, and presented posters on Friday on campus, and gave oral presentations on Saturday at ISAS. Further, they accounted for two 3rd place awards, and two 2nd place awards at Friday’s on campus event, and a 1st place and two 2nd place awards at ISAS on Saturday. In amongst these students presenting in Friday’s on-campus event was also one of my Sophomore research students – she didn’t win an award, but she was there, presenting novel, interesting science as a 2nd-year college student, and that experience will make her that much better in the not-too-distant future.

We are gearing up for an early summer National Convention of the Beta Beta Beta National Honor Society in Erie, PA, and right now, three students are going to present their work at that meeting. Further, now that they’ve had local, state, regional, and national student-only experience, we are planning for the big stage of a big national meeting – Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, January 2015.

I am extremely pleased with the opportunities these students have to start with smaller meetings then eventually go to a national meeting before they graduate. This is only possible if they start their research programs early – preferably late in their Sophomore year, but early in their Junior year works well, too.

In the end, I feel like the coach of a sports team who finished a season among the leaders in their league, and who gets all of their best players back the following season while adding new, motivated players to the mix. I love watching my students accept challenges, encourage, teach, and learn from each other, and accomplish goals. It truly makes my investment of time (and Track Changes and red pens) into this process worthwhile.

-TW

Academia and Industry Collaboration at a PUI

21 Mar

Motivation

When I applied for this job I stated in my application that I would seek extramural funding from the standard public sources for academics in science (National Science Foundation and perhaps the National Institutes of Health). I also stated that I would pursue (and encourage students to pursue) small funding opportunities from other scientific organizations and local organizations, such as Audubon societies, with an interest in natural history.  At that time in my academic career I had no plans to seek funding or research opportunities affiliated with industry sources. I had little understanding about how such collaboration would work and knew that I never wanted to be seen as a ‘pay to play’ scientist.

My first big funding opportunity came from industry.

Just 2 months into my first faculty job, a colleague in my department (with a long history of research regarding the science of wild bird feeding) walked into my office and said, “If I understand your field of research correctly, if we were to manipulate resources available to wild birds, you could capture them and determine if the manipulation influenced their health.”  I agreed that his assessment was fairly accurate and from that, a new opportunity was born.  He had been approached from representatives from a bird seed company who wanted to know if a new seed product they were developing had an impact on the health of birds and he had told them that he was pretty sure our university had just hired the guy who could help make that happen (me). My colleague made it clear that in his experience with the birdseed folks, they were willing to contribute legitimate funding to scientifically test their product.

My first thought was, “What a cool opportunity, how lucky am I to have something lined up within two months of becoming an Assistant Professor.”  That thought quickly turned to, “I am a physiological ecologist, I just earned my Ph.D. and I am fully capable of coming up with my own ideas, the last thing I need is to be ‘hired’ by a bird seed company to tell them their product is awesome.”  I had a long conversation with my colleague, I expressed my concerns and I made it clear that I would only pursue this research if a certain set of stipulations were met.

I must say that this academia/industry collaboration ended up being extremely productive, rewarding, and overall successful and I am pleased that both sides were able to come to an agreement on expectations and responsibilities. Furthermore, the students working on this project learned valuable lessons in both ecological research and in the inner workings of the academia/industry collaboration.  I think this study can serve as an example for others considering similar collaborations.

 

My stipulations

At this school, scholarship is very broadly defined.  Scholarly success is not only based on grants received or publications – but it is all about demonstrating growth and development in your field of study, and most importantly getting undergraduates involved in the process.  Using this definition, a faculty member could very much be commissioned by an industry source to carry out some study, fully defined by the client, with no possibility for public dissemination of the findings from the university themselves, and still demonstrate scholarly achievement if students were involved in execution of the research. This model, however, was not for me then, and is not for me now.  I was clear from the start that if we were to do this study, they funding source must agree to the following:

1.  We (the researchers) will design the experiment and choose the physiological tests to perform.  The company may recommend changes following consultation with anyone affiliated with their research and development department, but ultimately, we will determine the best way to answer the questions they have proposed.

2.  We will have a grace period after which the study is complete where we have exclusive rights to publish results from the data.

3.     Our students and my colleague and I may present this research at scientific meetings.

4.     We have the rights to publish whatever we find – even if we find that their products appear to have a negative impact on the birds.

In exchange, they reserved the rights to make any product claims based on our scientific findings (i.e. if we found that the birds eating their seed were in better body condition, they could make statements such as ‘birds eating this seed were in better body condition than birds eating the other guys seed in scientific trials’, citing our published papers, of course).  They also reserved the right to read any manuscripts prior to submission for peer review to ensure no confidential/proprietary information regarding the manufacturing process or detailed ingredients of  product itself was included before they could reveal that information with little risk of people making and selling their product under a different name, but they could not prohibit publication of the work simply because negative impacts were observed. In addition, following the grace period after completion of the study, we agree to allow them to make the data publicly available and/or share them with other interested parties as they see fit.

 

Why this was successful

This was successful because we could comfortably say that we were scientifically testing a question of ecological relevance in an unbiased manner.  The company could say that their products were  tested in an unbiased manner and provide evidence that any claims they make about their product has data backing the claim and the data was not collected in-house by someone on their payroll. This was a huge project for a university of our size (both in terms of the funding involved and the number of people involved).  We were able to employ a full-time technician (who happened to be an alumnus), and 12 undergraduates were able to work on this project over three years – each ‘owning’ a specific (but substantial) piece of the project for their own senior thesis, and earning co-authorship on resultant presentations and publications.  I encourage those who are uncertain about the possibilities that exist for collaboration with industry to consider how such a relationship can meet the long-term and short-term goals of both parties involved.

 

– TW