About Meghan Duffy

I am an ecologist at the University of Michigan. My research focuses on the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases, particularly in lake Daphnia populations.

Apply for NextProf Science 2017 at UMich!

Applicants are currently being sought for NextProf Science, a workshop aimed at future faculty (advanced doctoral students or postdoctoral fellows) who are interested in an academic career in science and who have demonstrated a commitment to diversity. The workshop is May 2-5, 2017 in Ann Arbor, MI.

At NextProf Science, participants learn:

  • how the faculty search process works
  • how to build successful research programs
  • how to form a teaching and mentoring philosophy
  • why a network is important

The NextProf Science 2017 workshop is free to participants, who must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Underrepresented minorities and women are especially encouraged to apply. Travel, lodging, and meals will be covered by the program.

Applicants may nominate themselves or be nominated by a faculty mentor. Find additional information about the workshop and application materials on the NextProf Science website at: sites.lsa.umich.edu/nextprof-science/

The deadline to receive all applications and supporting materials is: February 15, 2017.

What factors influence whether “Professors on Parade” courses are useful?

Last week, I did a poll asking about readers’ experiences with courses where faculty (and/or grad students and/or folks outside academia) meet with students in a format that is often called “professors on parade” (because lots of faculty rotate through the course during the semester). I was curious to know whether people find these courses useful, and whether they like certain styles of them more than others.

tl;dr: Most people seem to find these courses useful, but a substantial minority do not. People seem to find these courses especially useful if they include presenters who come from outside academia, discussion of classic or important papers, and/or discussion of papers by department faculty. They seem to find them less useful if they include basic research skills (such as how to extract DNA), though that comes with the caveat that only 5 respondents were involved in that sort of course. (There were 100 respondents total, though 2 didn’t answer the last question about whether they found the course useful.)

More results below the break.

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My proposed twist on a “Professors on Parade”-style course: scicomm training for students and faculty

As I wrote yesterday, my department has been thinking about creating a course for first year grad students that would have as a key goal introducing them to a variety of faculty in the department (as well as having them get to know each other better), and that might have as a secondary goal training them in skills that will be useful for careers in science. In this post, I will lay out my proposed twist on the course. Right now, I’m not that optimistic that it would actually work, but I’m hoping readers might have suggestions for ways to tweak it to make it work!

My idea is to create a course focused on training faculty and students in how to communicate their science to broad audiences. The general plan would be to start out with training students and faculty in science communication, and then would have faculty practice their talks by giving them to the grad students who would critique them, giving feedback that the faculty could use to improve their talks aimed at general audiences. This would meet the goals of introducing new students to faculty and the research they do (though would be focused at a different level than if they were giving general research presentations), and would also provide training and practice in science communication (thus meeting our students’ desire to get more skills training, while also hopefully benefitting faculty).

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Poll: Have you been involved in a “professors on parade” course? Was it useful?

Recently, my department has been discussing whether to (re)create a course for first year grad students that would be a “professors on parade” sort of course – that is, a course where a different faculty member leads the course each week. This proposal is in response to new grad students saying they’d like more opportunities to get to know faculty early in their grad careers. Depending on the format of the course, it could also help with another request from students: more training in basic academic skills (e.g., how to give a talk, how to make a poster, etc.)

One thing this discussion has left me wondering is how other departments do this, and how well it works in those departments.* So, today, I’m doing a survey related to how this works other places. I will follow up tomorrow with a post for my idea for a different twist on this sort of course – which I think is exciting but also perhaps doomed to fail. (edit: here’s the link to the follow up post)

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One way to make academia less anxiety-inducing: Be specific in your emails!

A few years ago, I asked a senior colleague for feedback on something I’d written. He agreed, and a couple of days later, sent an email saying “Is there a good time to discuss this?” I immediately thought it must mean he’d really hated what I’d written. I replied, suggesting a few times in the next couple of days. In his reply, he choose the latest of those times, saying he needed more time to mull it over. That confirmed my worst fears – it was so bad he needed extra time to figure out how to tell me how bad it was! After spending some time getting no other work done because I was so distracted, I decided to write to say that, based on his emails, I was worried that there was a major problem with what I’d written. He replied immediately saying not to worry, that it read very well, and that he just had a few ideas that he thought would be easier to discuss in person.

I was thinking of this situation again recently when I was emailing a student in my lab. She’d emailed about a proposal she’s working on, laying out two different options for a fellowship proposal she’s working on. My thinking, when reading the ideas, was that both of them could work, but that there might also be other options, and that it would probably be best to discuss all the options in person. Looking at my schedule and comparing with hers, I could see that we wouldn’t be able to meet until the end of the week. So, I initially wrote a reply that said, “Can we meet Friday at 11 to chat about this?” In the brief pause before hitting send, I realized that, if I were in her shoes, I would spend the rest of the week trying to interpret what that email had meant, most likely assuming it meant something bad. I then realized that could be easily addressed by instead saying something like, “Both of these ideas look good to me, but there might be other options worth considering, too. Are you free to meet Friday at 11 to discuss the options more?”

After writing about being a scientist who deals with anxiety, one question I’ve been asked repeatedly is what faculty can do to make their labs friendlier to students with mental health issues. I’m generally unsure of how to respond to this – so much depends on each particular situation. But avoiding unnecessary vagueness in emails is one pretty straightforward, simple thing that people can do to make academia friendlier to everyone, but perhaps especially to those with underlying anxiety issues.

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Work at the times that work for you

A couple of nights ago, I checked the weather forecast for the next day, in part to see how cold it would be for my morning run. I was surprised to see that the forecast was for 3-6 inches of snow overnight. (I hadn’t realized a storm was coming!) I had no interest in trying to slog through a run in 3-6 inches of wet, unshoveled snow in the dark, so decided I would work when I first got up in the morning (in that wonderfully quiet time when I’m the only one in the house who is awake) and go to the gym at the end of my work day. And that’s what I did. I got up, made myself some tea, sat down to check twitter, and then started working, which included replying to some emails that had been hanging around in my inbox.

That was when I remembered a conversation I’d recently had about whether it’s okay to send work emails outside of “typical” work hours. This is a topic that comes up on twitter sometimes, too, as well as on facebook. The concern is that, if you’re sending emails early in the day or in the evening or on weekends: 1) you have an unhealthy work/life balance and/or 2) you are sending a message to others that they should be working at those times, too. I fully, completely support having interests outside of work, and think that working long hours is unhealthy and unproductive. But I don’t think the way to achieve healthy work habits is to be proscriptive about when people work, or to shame others for working outside the hours that we deem acceptable.

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Mentoring plans: a really useful tool for PIs and their lab members

Over the years, I’ve heard people talk about mentoring plans and individual development plans (IDPs), and always thought they sounded like they could be worth trying some time. But I never made it a high priority, and so never actually got to doing them with my lab. I got as far as starting to do an IDP for myself to test it out, but never got further than that. Then, last year, I had to do a mentoring plan with one of my students, as a requirement of her graduate program. As soon as I did that one with her, I realized I needed to be doing these with everyone in my lab, including grad students, postdocs, technicians, and undergrads. Here, I’ll describe what we include in our mentoring plans, talk about some of the ways they’ve been helpful, and will ask for ideas on some things I’d like to add or change.

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Nominate yourself for UMich’s Early Career Scientists Symposium on phenotypic plasticity!

Every year, my department hosts an Early Career Scientists Symposium with a different theme. This year’s theme is the ecology and evolutionary biology of phenotypic plasticity. Here’s the call for nominations:

The Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan invites nominations of outstanding scientists early in their careers to participate in an exciting international symposium about the ecology and evolutionary biology of phenotypic plasticity. The symposium events will take place from 10-12th of March 2017, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Eight early career scientists, alongside a keynote speaker, will be selected to present their work and to participate in panel discussions. We welcome nominations of early career scientists who are studying topics in ecology and evolution related to phenotypic plasticity. This symposium will highlight the work of up-and-coming scientists whose research foci span a breadth of subfields and levels of organization. We champion diversity and encourage the nomination of members of groups underrepresented in science.   

Early career scientists are considered senior graduate students (who stand to receive their Ph.D. within one year), postdoctoral researchers, and first- or second-year faculty. A colleague or advisor must provide the nomination.

The nomination consists of a brief letter of recommendation addressing the nominee’s scientific promise and ability to give a compelling talk, the nominee’s curriculum vitae, and a brief abstract of the proposed presentation (< 200 words, written by the nominee). Nominations may be sent electronically (in one file, please) to:
eeb-ecss-nomination@umich.edu using the nominee’s name as the subject line (last name first). Information about Early Career Scientist Symposia held in past years can be found at http://sites.lsa.umich.edu/ecss/.

Review of nominations will begin on December 31, 2016.

Selected participants will be contacted in mid January and will have all expenses covered (registration, travel and accommodation). An official announcement of the slate of speakers will be issued soon thereafter.

For more information, contact Carol Solomon at carollyn@umich.edu.

The 2017 Early Career Scientists Symposium scientific committee includes:

Wei-Chin Ho
Andrea Hodgins Davis (chair)
Jill Myers
Annette Ostling
Mary Rogalski
Sonal Singhal
Carol Solomon
Earl Werner

 

What are the key ecology concepts all Intro Bio students should learn?

When I started at Georgia Tech, the “large” (80-90 student) course I was involved in was General Ecology. My first year there, I co-taught the course with my colleague Lin Jiang. I did what is probably fairly typical: I asked him for the materials he used when he last taught the course and then modified those. So, it was pretty eye-opening to me when, after that first semester, we (“we” being the people involved in teaching General Ecology and related courses) decided that we should try to assess what our students were learning. We couldn’t find a good ecology concept assessment*, so we decided to try to create our own. That involved deciding what the key concepts were that we wanted all students who had completed ecology to know. Coming up with that list was incredibly useful and changed the way I taught the next time.

I’ve been thinking about this again as I spend more time thinking about how to teach ecology to introductory biology students here at Michigan. I’ve thought about this before – we recently overhauled the course, and that involved a lot of thought about what to teach. But I feel like I want to think more about the core concepts again. I want to revisit the core ecology concepts that my GaTech colleagues and I came up with for a sophomore-level (that is, 2nd year) ecology course and figure out how to modify those for a freshman-level (that is, 1st year) course. With this post, I’m hoping to think more carefully about what the core concepts are, and to get feedback from others about the list I came up with.

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On finding errors in one’s published analyses

Dan Bolnick just had a really important – and, yes, brave – post on finding an error in a published study of his that has led him to retract that study. (The retraction isn’t official yet.) In his post, he does a great job of explaining how the mistake happened (a coding error in R), how he found it (someone tried to recreate his analysis and was unsuccessful), what it means for the analysis (what he thought was a weak trend is actually a nonexistent trend), and what he learned from it (among others, that it’s important to own up to one’s failures, and there are risks in using custom code to analyze data).

This is a topic I’ve thought about a lot, largely because I had to correct a paper. It was the most stressful episode of my academic career. During that period, my anxiety was as high as it has ever been. A few people have suggested I should write a blog post about it in the past, but it still felt too raw – just thinking about it was enough to cause an anxiety surge. So, I was a little surprised when my first reaction to reading Dan’s post was that maybe now is the time to write about my similar experience. When Brian wrote a post last year on corrections and retractions in ecology (noting that mistakes will inevitably happen because science is done by humans and humans make mistakes), I still felt like I couldn’t write about it. But now I think I can. Dan and Brian are correct that it’s important to own up to our failures, even though it’s hard. Even though correcting the record is exactly how science is supposed to work (and I did corrected the paper as soon as I discovered the error), it still is something that is very hard for me to talk about.

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