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How Do You Recruit New Students Into Your Lab?

25 Feb

One of the challenges that PIs of research labs at liberal arts colleges face is the “revolving door” problem — students graduate and their vacancies need to be filled with new students. In principle, this isn’t much different than when PIs at research universities graduate their MS and PhD students; however, we face at least 3 unique circumstances in the liberal arts setting. First, our new students often lack the basic research skills that many incoming graduate students have (“You mean I was supposed to write that down?” “Randomize what?”). Second, in liberal arts research labs, PIs frequently do the majority of the scientific training of incoming students whereas it is common for undergraduates to work primarily with senior level graduate students when receiving their training (or, in some cases, take part of in multilevel training). Lastly, undergraduate students sometimes want to do research with multiple faculty members while completing their degree and thus it is fairly common to train a student for a semester and lose her/him from your research group. Because of this, we can have less overlap between our senior-level and incoming research students.

I’m not blindsided by these challenges and this post shouldn’t be taken as my hidden wish that I was conducting research in a different setting. However, as I finish up my 2nd year as a PI, I’m now starting to cycle through students and I’m trying to think through the logistics of how I can have some institutional lab knowledge passed from cohort to cohort so that students have the opportunity to train their peers and so that I can maintain my sanity.

One approach that I’ve found particularly effective is to embrace teaching in the introductory sequence in your department/program. At Allegheny, we have 3 courses in our Intro Sequence; I’ve taught our 2nd intro course the first 3 of my 4 semesters at Allegheny and I also taught our 3rd course all but my 1st semester. I’ve previously blogged about our 3rd course (FSBio 201) and if you have a course like this at your institution, this is an easy way to recruit students interested in your research. However, our 2nd course (Bio 221, Genetics, Development, and Evolution) is a traditional lecture course and faculty generally view teaching these courses more “departmental service” than anything else. However, I’ve built amphibian/chytrid case studies into this course in a number of different areas, which has made the material more exciting to me and also to the students. I’ve also recruited 3 of my current, and 1 of my incoming, students from this course. Recruiting sophomores into your research lab has the potential for tremendous payoffs in terms of research productivity. In my case, this core group of 3 students should each graduate from Allegheny with 3-4 publications each (including a 1st authored publication for each of them).

I also advertise and accept independent research students into my lab every semester. During my first 2 years at Allegheny, I’ve averaged 4 students each semester. These students are frequently sophomores with high energy and eager to ask questions (but lack general research skills and a knowledge of the literature). When taking students, I expect them to start and finish a research project and thus I fully commit to this process myself. The idea is that through time, my involvement in the training will be less and less of a time commitment because these independent research students contain a mix of prospective, incoming, and senior-level students on the same project. I’ve been lucky to retain many of the students that have worked with me and I think that my approach of continually taking on new research students will pay dividends down the road as I’m able to let students train each other more frequently.

Lastly, because I work with charismatic critters, I have an opportunity to get students interested in research simply because amphibians are pretty awesome. I frequently ask my research students to invite some of their friends who are interested in research out with us on collecting trips, evening salamander migrations, or amphibian call surveys. This is my hook for students that might not know the benefits of getting involved in faculty research. This is the fun and glamorous part of the research: little work and seeing amphibians in the field [sometimes for the 1st time for students!].



Assessing Your Research Program

2 Sep

If you are at a research institution, the assessment of your research program is probably pretty straightforward and my guess is that you primarily use some combination of grant dollars, publications, and the # of students that you finish as the primary metrics in your assessment. Biological research in the liberal arts setting often moves slower than in a R1 setting because the bulk of our research activity comes during the summer and we squeeze scientific writing into chunks of time that we carve out from teaching. Thus, we frequently publish at a slower rate and apply for fewer grants than our colleagues in the research setting (there are certainly other reasons for this difference also). In addition, my guess is that few faculty at PUIs do not get training on how to scale their research down from their graduate/postdoc training to match the skill sets that our undergraduate students bring to the table, the resources that we now have, and the amount of time that we can spend on research. How do we formally assess our research program? How often do we do it? What metrics should we use to guide whether our research program is thriving in the liberal arts environment?

Here are a couple of ideas that I’ve been thinking of as I enter the 2nd year of a faculty position at a liberal arts college. This list is not exhaustive nor is a “one size fits all”, but hopefully it will spark some conversation on the topic.

1. Where are your graduates now? Tracking whether your students make it to tenure-track positions might not be too informative in the liberal arts setting because those data will not be available to you for another 7-10 years. However, we can still track the career paths of our graduates… and I’d argue that we can usually do this easier in the liberal arts setting than faculty at large schools. The atmosphere in smaller colleges and universities is generally more intimate than large institutions and my guess is that we probably keep in touch with a higher % of our graduates than faculty at larger universities do. Keep track of what your students do next. At PUIs, you’ll likely have a students with a more diverse set of career paths than if you were dealing primarily with graduate students. Embrace that difference and think of ways in which their research experience in your lab helped them land the job that they currently have. Be blunt and ask their honest opinion as to whether they felt that the research experience in your lab was important in setting them apart from other candidates for the job that they currently have. If they go on to graduate school, keep tabs on whether their productivity as an undergraduate correlates with their productivity as a graduate student.

2. How many students get authorship on your papers? Many liberal arts colleges have explicit guidelines as to what they expect in terms of student involvement in your research. As an institution, they are probably more interested in the number of papers that students co-author as opposed to how many papers you author. What proportion of your papers include undergraduate students from your current institution? Is this on par with your goal (do you even have a goal???)?

3. Where is the bulk of your research being conducted? Related to #2, does the bulk of your scientific productivity come as a collaborator or principle investigator? Does this line up with your vision of your research program? Do you need to start initiating more research projects in which you are lead author? Are you actively seeking out and building research collaborations with faculty at other (potentially larger) universities? Will doing that help or hinder your research program?

4. Are your publications in journals that researchers in your field regularly publish in? No matter what type of institution you are in, the journals that you publish your research in matters. Although faculty in the liberal arts setting might not publish as regularly as faculty at research institutions, I do not see any reason why we still can’t publish our research in the same journals as our colleagues at larger schools. As many of you know, I am a disease ecologist and I use amphibians and the pathogenic chytrid fungus as my model system. One of the ways in which I am assessing my own research program is by looking at the proportion of manuscripts (and even projects that I aim to start next summer) that will have a home in a herpetological journal or a non-taxon specific journal (zoology or ecology journal). While I have nothing against the herpetology journals, the aim of my research program is to understand host-parasite ecology and I wouldn’t be meeting all of my research goals if the majority of my work was geared towards herpetology journals.

5. Ask a colleague for a quick assessment. I have yet to do this, but it is something that I am considering somewhere around Year 3. Chances are good that you’ll be preparing documents for your pre-tenure review at about this time anyways. Whereas the pre-tenure review will give you an idea of what your current institution thinks of your research productivity, you may want to get some external feedback from some of your colleagues within your field. Be frank with them and tell them what you are looking to gain from their assessment. What do they view as your most important contributions to the scientific literature since you’ve been at your current institution? Is their assessment similar to your own? If your view of the quality of your own research is consistently higher than their view of your work, you might consider ways in which you can improve the quality of your research productivity.

Getting your Undergraduate TAs a Publication

28 Apr

The idea of “inquiry based learning” is not novel and is by no means only practiced in PUIs. However, I’d argue that a disproportionately larger number of faculty at PUIs build courses (and/or labs) around this idea for at least two reasons: we spend a larger proportion of our time teaching and these types of courses provide us opportunities to build our labs with undergraduate researchers (we do not have the luxury of advertising and recruiting a graduate student or postdoc for a particular project). Because of this, it is my view that we should excel at incorporating these techniques into our curricula.

I recently completed a course called Investigative Approaches in Biology (FSBio 201) in which 3rd/4th semester students learn how to design, conduct, and present results from independent group projects. This course is part of our curriculum at Allegheny and reflects our departments vision of how inquiry based learning can work. I’ve blogged about my specific module previously and I’ll likely share more of my experiences with this course as I continue to teach it because it is my favorite course at Allegheny. In addition, I know that other liberal arts colleges have a similar type of course which [I think] separates ourselves from Biology programs at larger schools… so I feel that this topic is of interest to the readership of our blog.

In each module, faculty select a canned laboratory experiment that students complete so that they can familiarize themselves with the research topic and use it as a foundation for their independent group project. I selected a topic that was directly related to my research, something that could be completed within a 2-week time period, and something for which the answer was not yet known. This is a bit risky, especially if students are required to write up their results as part of some lab report (we all know that writing up negative results is a tough sell, especially for undergraduates). However, I think this is a necessary step and a teaching moment: our students learn as early as their 3rd semester that science moves because we test hypotheses and sometimes we do not have enough evidence to reject our null hypothesis. In my particular module, the experiment worked and my students’ data clearly supported our predictions.

All is good… and this story might actually be common in your course(s) at your institution. However, I’m curious as to how frequently faculty at PUIs pursue this project and attempt to directly contribute to the scientific community by writing up their results and submitting their manuscript for publication? I am giving this a shot in my course. I re-analyzed some of the qPCR data for quality control and was able to confirm that the data that the students collected were in line with what I collected independent of their work. I asked my TAs if they would be interested in writing up the results as a manuscript and, not surprisingly, all 4 were interested. We have discussed the results as a group during our TA meetings and have spent some time via email going back and forth on their interpretations of the data. One of the TAs is planning on taking lead on the paper and I am going to work with her to come up with a detailed outline for the manuscript. Two of the remaining TAs are going to take a stab at writing the methods section and I am going to work with them all on the results. Hopefully the product will be an accepted manuscript in a peer reviewed scientific journal.

Here is where I would like some of your input. How often do we, as faculty, provide our students (or TAs) with opportunities to do things like this? How do we balance the risks with building a laboratory project that gives students opportunities to explore their own scientific ideas with “failing” at an experiment? When is this not an appropriate activity (i.e., allowing freshman to do this would be a disaster)? Do inquiry based learning laboratory projects work as successful in courses that are not designed to teach students the fundamentals of experimental design/execution (i.e., would this experiment have worked equally well if I did it as part of a Herpetology course instead of our FSBio course)?

Inspiring Undergraduates to Get Interested

9 Apr

Now that I have a full semester under my belt, I’ve spent some time in self evaluation… and I’ve spent the past couple weeks, perhaps months, mulling over what I consider a huge problem with the “modern sophomore student” (or, at least the type at Allegheny). Simply stated, these students have very strong intellectual talents but express little or no interest in actually engaging scientific material.

I’ve tried to organize this blog post in a couple of different ways and I’m not really satisfied with any. So, here goes. My apologies if my thoughts are scattered… and I’m hoping for some dialogue from the larger community.

My Background

Undergraduate research is mandatory for Biology majors at Allegheny College — to graduate, each student must fulfill a two-semester Senior Comprehensive Research project (which they develop during their Junior Seminar and/or during their 1st semester of their Senior Comp). During the Spring Semester prior to their senior year, upcoming seniors select (and rank) 3 faculty members with whom they wish to do their Senior Comp project with; we meet as a faculty and see how things would look if we paired up every student with their 1st choice and make modifications as needed. Generally, students get to do their Senior Comp project with their 1st or 2nd choice and thus pursue a research project they are interested in. Many of our seniors are interested and they end up turning out very nice theses. However, the majority of our sophomores are often disinterested and not engaged in scientific inquiry. This has me wondering whether it is them, us (as faculty), or a combination of the two. How do we balance teaching large classes of sophomores the foundations of biology while promoting their critical thinking? How can we spark their enthusiasm to ask questions and to think beyond their next exam?

Is it Them?

Have modern undergraduate students changed since I was in college? Do they relay on txt message communication so much that they’ve lost any level of comfort in speaking out loud in front of a group? Are risks rewarded in high school or are they discouraged because they detract from the flow of class? I spend quite a bit of time thinking about these types of topics because many of my students are sophomores. Of the 4 class sections that I’ve taught in my first year at Allegheny, 3 of those sections are sophomore-level courses. As a new faculty, I don’t yet have a solid reputation within our department, so I actively recruit students to work with me; most of these students come from the classes that I teach. Part of my interest in these topics is personal because some of these students will end up working with me during their senior year… and I want to work with students that are excited about doing science. Identifying students early in their career that I think would be a good fit in my lab certainly has its benefits. Like most faculty, I am more interested in recruiting students that are interested in asking questions and who aren’t afraid of taking risks than recruiting students with a 4.0 GPA but have little interest in anything that isn’t on their next exam. I spend quite a bit of time conversing with students to “feel them out”, because their personality in a large classroom setting might be fundamentally different than a small group setting.

Is it Us?

Although our curriculum is set up so that students have to develop an independent research project, I’m afraid that we don’t successfully develop these skills until our students are juniors or seniors. As such, I’ve also spent considerably more time than I ever thought I would thinking about how we teach our intro courses at Allegheny. Are all the topics that we teach absolutely necessary? For example, would we service our students better by cutting Hardy Weinberg Equilibrium out of our intro “Genetics, Development, Evolution” course and spend more time discussing case studies related to topics such as evolutionary development that promote active learning? How do we set a culture for this in the classroom? How can we change student customs from being lectured at to engaging with the material and actually thinking and processing it?


I have a feeling that this isn’t a unique problem with Allegheny… and I have a feeling that many of us faculty are frustrated about what we can do. I am confident in the liberal arts model of education and recognize the benefits of their curricula. I also recognize that we might be losing some of our best upcoming scientists because we are not capitalizing on developing their potential research strengths earlier on in their academic careers.

Taking Undergrads to a National Scientific Meeting

28 Feb

Recently, Travis blogged about his experiences while attending a scientific meeting through the eyes of a “professor from a small, undergraduate-only university.” I thought it would be informative to expand upon one of the topics that he wrote about in his post: taking undergraduate students to [national] scientific meetings.

My Experience as an Undergraduate

I first went to a regional scientific meeting that was sponsored by BBB, an undergraduate biological honors society, during my senior year at Gannon University. I presented some independent research I did w/ my faculty advisor on fish reproductive behavior [which eventually was my first publication]. It was my first public research talk and it went well; I got invited to their national conference. Last year at World Congress of Herpetology, I actually recently reunited w/ an undergraduate that I first met at that national BBB meeting some 10 years after we met. We’re both still in academia and at the time were both postdocs. The meeting had an obvious positive influence on my academic trajectory and prepared me [I think] for some early success at national scientific meetings that I attended early in my graduate career, all of which were sponsored by larger organizations.

The regional, and national, BBB meeting were satisfying at the time and certainly have their benefits [in fact, I plan on taking my undergrads to an upcoming regional BBB meeting in Erie this summer]. They, however, do not represent the typical scientific meeting in any way. The research at larger national meetings (e.g., ESA, JMIH, SICB) feature the research of prominent researchers of all career stages and are not geared for undergraduates. They are large, intense, and are socially vibrant… most of which target graduate students, postdocs, and professors. With that said, undergraduate institutions often fall short of providing their students with opportunities to experience the academic culture, which includes attending large national scientific meetings.

My Experience as a Professor

I have none. But I want to take my students to a scientific meeting. We have some great early data from our first lab project and I’m lucky enough to have ample funds to travel w/ my students to a meeting this summer. What are some of your experiences with your undergrads? How did you go about prepping them for a different world? How did you, as a [untenured] professor, interact with your colleagues? Many questions here and I’m hoping to have some type of conversation on this topic.

Our First Lab Project

25 Jan

Finding the right mix of students is challenging and I am fortunate to get such a great group of students [that were willing to join a new lab] during my first semester. They are an interested and hard working group — and they get along with each other great. They are also young (3 sophomores and 1 junior) and anxious to start a research project. How do you know when your team is ready for a project? This can be a challenging question, especially as a new faculty member. For me, I was most concerned with: 1) the student culture on research (spare time activity or priority), 2) I’ve only spent a single semester training them on various techniques (when working with infectious diseases, this is kind of a big deal), 3) research can be expensive.

They did their reading. I was immediately impressed at my labs genuine interest in our study system. From the get-go, they actively asked thoughtful questions about amphibians and disease ecology. I encouraged them to think of research areas that were most interesting to each of them and to propose research questions they might be interested in testing. Their questions were ambitious and many were beyond what we could pull off for our first project, but I loved their enthusiasm.

They pushed me to start the project. I’ve fielded more “When are we going to start…” questions this semester from them than I’ve seen students for office hours. This signals to me that they are taking ownership of the prospectus of actually doing a project. They obviously thought about it over break and probably told their friends and families.

They learned quick and mastered the basic lab techniques. In fact, two of them have actually helped me run my first two qPCR plates. My only concern under the “experience” category is that given the winter, I have yet to train them as much as I would have liked to on animal care when working with infectious agents. I don’t have enough animals to spare and I’ll just end up spending more time helping them w/ husbandry for the first part of the experiment.

As with everything my 1st semester, I’m going into this to some degree blind. I’m curious how other faculty have prepped for their 1st group lab project. How did they turn out? What did you do to turn shortcomings into teachable moments?

1st Semester as a VAP

18 Dec

For those of you who might be new to our blog, Fall 2013 was my 1st semester as a faculty member (a Visiting Assistant Professor; “VAP”) in the Department of Biology at Allegheny College. I’ve been trying to blog about my experiences as not only a new professor, but a VAP at a liberal arts college committed to teaching excellence and research productivity. I blog primarily about how I conduct research in this setting.

I have about 80 students in front of me taking their final exam (my 1st final) and once they are graded, I’m officially finished. Here are some comments and pieces of advice, followed by my story, primarily targeted at those of you who are new faculty and/or VAPs.

Departmental Rapport

New faculty members are at the mercy of junior- and senior-faculty for everything, including institutional knowledge, advice, help purchasing equipment, thoughts on where to go to conduct field research, inspiration, criticism, and everything in between. I think that I’m generally perceived as a nice person, but I made it a point early on to purposefully visit faculty members to do things other than ask them questions. A quick office visit with a 1/2 cup of coffee can go a long way in building a relationship. I’ve found that this has actually lead to more meaningful conversations about research and has helped direct my research path.

Follow Through with Your Research Plan

Remember that research statement that you wrote to get your job? Stick to it! By all means, make modifications as necessary, but that document should serve as your template for what your research program should look like. It was reviewed by the group of people that hired you and they obviously think that it is doable at your university. Given all the other time sponges that you’ll encounter your 1st semester, this document is gold. Start early and write out the specific steps that you need to accomplish to actually carry out your research plan at your university.

Hitting the Ground Running

Although you have a million other things on your plate as a new faculty member, I’m already seeing the benefits of starting my research program my 1st semester here. Taking a new project w/ undergraduate researchers from start to finish at a new university can be a lengthy process. Purchasing equipment, completing scientific collection permits, your IACUC review, scaling the project to fit the resources at your university, and finding interested undergraduates all need to be completed before you can even start the project, not to mention the time it will take to conduct the research, analyze the data, and write up the manuscript. For those of you who do any sort of research with a field component in parts of the world where there is snow, your research season is already cut in half and further limits what you can do. Make it a priority to start your research program and start it early. Your 1st publication at your new institution is often critical during your pre-tenure review (when/if that happens at your university). If you are a VAP with hopes of being converted to a TT line, this is even more important. Demonstrating that you can excel at multitasking all these things and produce publication quality research will go a long way.

At the same time, if you are a faculty in a liberal arts setting, you need to carefully balance this with teaching expectations. I’ve heard a couple of cautionary tales from friends who were told that they were focusing too much on research and not enough on teaching.

My Experience at Allegheny

I did a good job preparing an institution-specific research statement as well as detailed lists of equipment needs (including product #s from my postdoc lab) and I found that this lightened up my to-do list. I was thus able to immediately target a small group of undergraduate researchers and start recruiting students into my lab. I obviously wanted to find students with interests in ecology, but I targeted students in my class that I thought were good critical thinkers and I recruited 2 sophomore biology majors to join my lab. In addition, through casual conversations with a departmental colleague, I was able to recruit a junior global health/biology major who will do his senior comp project with me. I found that this mix of sophomores and juniors was important because there is a degree of peer knowledge that Allejandro can pass along to Alex and Joe. I am in the process of writing my first NSF pre-proposal with Travis Wilcoxen (blogger here at LiberalArtsEcologists) which is essentially an expanded version of my research statement for Allegheny. Although I wasn’t able to start a research project that was part of my specific planned research program, I developed a project with a collaborator that fit in the broader picture of host-parasite interactions. This was key because I was able to register my 3 undergrads for some independent research, which not only looks good from an administrative perspective, it provides me with an opportunity to get some undergrads trained on research techniques and hopefully get my first senior authored paper.

Overall, I’m happy with my 1st semester and I think I made good progress in establishing my research program. There are things that I wanted to do better (e.g., have more regular lab meetings with my students, spend more time with them on the primary literature, and found more ways to collaborate with my departmental colleagues) and I would encourage our readers to consider those things along with the many other things they need to multitask their 1st year.

Here’s to a great winter break for all of you. Happy Holidays.