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.

An incomplete list of things that blow the minds of Intro Bio students

Early in the semester during an Intro Bio class, a student asked about whether it’s ever possible for individuals of two different species to breed. That led to discussion of zebroids and, at some point in the back and forth, I mentioned that Homo sapiens had successfully interbred with Neanderthals. At least a quarter of the students (maybe even half) were visibly surprised—and I didn’t even explain that the evidence is this happened repeatedly! (Don’t worry, we covered that in a later lecture.) That night, I was making lunch for my kids and thinking about that moment in class, and I thought “Just wait until I tell them how much of their genome is viral!”

There are parts of teaching Intro Bio that are hard or annoying or both. But there are some parts that I absolutely love, and one of those is routinely getting to introduce students to things that are literally jaw-dropping. It makes me think of this xkcd:

It is always a highlight of my day (week!) when we have one of those moments in class.

So, in that spirit, I present an incomplete list of things that blow the minds of Intro Bio students (many thanks to my colleague Cindee Giffen for helping me with this list!):

  1. (Almost) all of your cells contain all of your genes
  2. Humans interbred with Neanderthals (repeatedly)
  3. About 8% of the human genome is viral in origin
  4. Plants get infected by viruses. (This comes up because I show a thermal image of a plant leaf that has been infected by a virus when talking about respiration. Speaking of which…)
  5. Plants respire
  6. There are photosynthetic organisms that are not plants
  7. Male anglerfish fuse to the female
  8. Damselfly penises
  9. Gerboas
  10. Taxonomy, including humans are fish, whales are mammals not the things we generally mean by “fish”, and birds are dinosaurs. Or, to quote a former student, “So, sharks are fish, dolphins are mammals, whales are mammals too, and penguins are birds, and birds are dinosaurs, so penguins are dinosaurs?!?”
  11. Fecal transplants
  12. Judas goats

I sometimes think that, if we filmed students while introducing those things, we would get really, really good reaction gifs.

The above list are mostly factoid sorts of things, but there are some bigger conceptual things that are definitely mind-bending for some students. Three that immediately spring to mind are:

  1. The same thing can be an ancestral or derived trait, depending on your frame of reference
  2. The way you can zoom in through taxonomy, sort of like you’re zooming through Google Earth (for example, humans are eukaryotes and animals and deuterostomes and vertebrates and mammals and primates and apes and hominins)
  3. Food webs — that something happening way over here in a food web can influence something way over there, and also the differences between how energy flows and matter cycles

Another thing that definitely blows their minds is that ecology involves math. I address this head on now at the start of the population ecology class, and my sense is that helps, but it still really surprises many of them when equations start appearing.

I initially started compiling this list because I thought it might be interesting to others. But I’ve found it has helped me during a very busy, challenging semester — it’s ended up being a really nice way of noting the little things that are fun that I might otherwise just blow right by in a frenzy of trying to get things done. (It’s also led to me adding notes to the front of my lecture notes that say things like “damselfly sex”, in an attempt to remember to add that to the list.)

So, I’m curious:

  1. What things have you found blow your students’ minds (in a good way!) And
  2. Do you have any routines or other things that help you note the little, fun things that occur while teaching?

 

On getting a sense of perspective…or not

This summer, I unexpectedly spent 8 days in New York because my father was in the hospital. At first, things seemed pretty bad. I went to see him in the hospital, which was really emotional and hard. After sitting with him through dinner, I left the hospital and drove back to my parents’ house, feeling sad. When I got home, I checked my email and saw that a manuscript that I’ve been really excited about had been rejected.

I felt even worse. There was a part of my brain saying, “Come on! Dad is in the hospital! A rejected manuscript is not a big deal! You should be saying ‘Well, this gives perspective on what really matters!’” But, instead, I was feeling like I’d been kicked while I was down.

But, with other things or at other times, I do have that sense of perspective. Did I explain the Law of Segregation perfectly when a student asked about it in office hours this semester? Nope. Was it recorded? Yep. Was it a matter of life and death? Nope. I could make sure I explained it better in the next class and move on to other stuff.

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On overdetermining success, embracing messiness, getting ducks in a row, and changing course

I am chairing a task force for Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School that is focused on graduate student mental health. This is something that I care about a lot and that I really wanted to lead. But, at the same time, it was a very different sort of leadership role than I’d had before. So, as I prepared for this work, I read a variety of books about organizational change and leadership.* Some argued for overdetermining success, while others argued for embracing vulnerability and tough, messy work. I found both sets of arguments convincing.

On the day of the first meeting of the full task, I felt like it was my first day of school, with all the nervousness and excitement that comes along with that. Right before the meeting began, I was talking with Heather Fuchs, the wonderful person from the Rackham Dean’s Office who works with the task force. She asked if I felt ready for the meeting and my reply was something along the lines of, “I don’t know! Half the stuff I read said I need to overdetermine success and the other half said I need to embrace vulnerability and messiness! I’m not sure what I should do!” (Heather joked that maybe I should write a book in the future on meeting in the middle.)

I was joking with Heather, but I really had been feeling unsure of how much to try to come up with a clear, specific plan for the work of the task force versus how much to let things evolve organically. So often, when people set up a choice between A and B, my reaction is: “Why not both?”** But in this case, the suggestions—overdetermine success! embrace messiness!—felt pretty opposite. I definitely didn’t want a hybrid that overdetermined messiness! Still, I decided to try to do both, but had no idea how that was going to work out.

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Guest post: How to be an ally

Intro from Meghan: This is a guest post by Gina Baucom. It’s a great take on a topic that I’ve written about in the past.

Here’s Gina’s post:

He’s just a clueless dude.

A friend and colleague told me recently about how one of her advisors had written a grant on the topic she developed in his lab — he was awarded the grant, but she was not included as a co-PI, even though that was a feasible option. Understandably, she was upset to not be included in some form or another. She discussed it with a different male faculty, and his response was that her advisor was simply a clueless dude.

The definition of clueless, according to Merriam-Webster, is:

  1. having or providing no clue
  2. completely or hopelessly bewildered, unaware, ignorant, or foolish.

Although this definition includes ignorance, when we use the term clueless to describe situations like the one above, it doesn’t seem to me that we’re calling anyone an ignoramous. My sense of the use of clueless here is a soft landing. A whoopsie. A ‘he’s a good guy that made a regrettable decision.’

But let me re-frame the above scenario for what it was: a decision that slowed the progression of a woman’s career. Whatever the reasoning behind the decision not to include my colleague, the end result was that she was left out of money, positions, and publications. In addition to the career consequences, being left out of something that you have worked very hard to create can be psychologically damaging. ‘What’s wrong with me that I wouldn’t be included? Am I a terrible scientist and no one is being honest about it?’

Although I’m certain I have applied ‘clueless’ to similar scenarios, I no longer believe this is the right way to think about them. Willful ignorance is more appropriate. There are approximately a gazillion resources (summarized here) detailing why women’s careers lag behind men’s. A conscientious academic who cares about how this happens can (at the very least) pick up a few resources, get himself educated, and learn to think carefully about how his actions may impact the careers of the people around him. Specifically, how his actions may contribute to the slowed career progression of women scientists — and not just the careers of his trainees, but the careers of women who are across the table from him, behind him, and in front of him.

Because there are men who have a clue, I know that willful ignorance is a choice. And since it’s a choice, I thought that perhaps a list of characteristics of people who choose to be allies could be helpful on two fronts. First, it might help clarify when particular situations and people have been less than ideal, or even damaging. Second, it may help people grapple with the toxicity of their past actions (or that of their colleagues), or, it may help solidify the types of behaviors that can add up in the positive over time. So, here is what I have noticed about effective allies in science:

1. They are kind, considerate, and do their best to communicate well. Communication can be really difficult, but transparent, thoughtful communication is a necessity, and shows respect. Talking about hard topics and being willing to compromise is the essence of maturity. And, fyi: there are a shit-ton of books on how to develop communication skills, so no excuses for being a crappy communicator.

2. They are brave. Allies are willing to step up and explain, point out, or if needed, call out others who are behaving badly. Doing so may lead to a loss of status, but allies know that life is short, and when the opportunity to right a wrong arises, one should do so.

3. They create opportunities and give people space. Allies recognize that a strong field is one in which a variety of people are given the opportunity to be awesome. Allies use their power and status to create opportunities for a diverse group of scientists, not simply white men (or white women) who are already at the top. Allies don’t jump in front of junior scientists in the literature; they seek them out, collaborate, or coordinate publication.

4. They give credit where credit is due. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Allies recognize and credit people for their work.

5. They do not use people. Allies do not, for example, ask a woman academic for advice/background for an opportunity under the guise of collaboration, and then turn around and exclude her from said opportunity after getting useful information. And then turn around and fault her for being upset about it.

6. They do not constantly self-promote. Allies recognize they do not need to be the center of attention at all times.

7. They take care in how they center the narrative. If someone points out when a person’s actions have been harmful, they do not first and foremost feel sorry for the person who garnered him/herself some unflattering attention. Instead, allies center the conversation on how the actions might have harmed, and think about it from a historical and/or broader perspective.

8. They listen when being told they have done something problematic or hurtful. Effective allies recognize they will totally screw up at times, and are willing and capable of listening when it is time to listen.

9. They think deliberately about who they collaborate with. As a result, their publications do not look like a manel line-up.

10. They understand the importance of a real apology. Refusing to make an apology to someone who feels wronged by your actions is a clear indicator that you do not see that person as a person. If you have caused someone offense, apologize, even if you do not yet have the tools to understand the offense. Then do the work to develop your empathy.

Some of you reading this may be thinking, ‘Hold up. This blog post is very geared toward men behaving badly and there are definitely women who are jerks,’ and that is a super fair point. Further, although it is clear that sexism and misogyny are responsible for negative career outcomes for women, it is important to recognize that there are other groups–persons of color, LGBTQIA, disabled scientists–that also experience shitty behavior, and that these identities can intersect with gender, leading to even worse treatment and outcomes. I hope that the above characteristics of allies–or just super cool thoughtful humans–can work as guideposts as we think through how our actions can create both positive and negative experiences for others.

The above characteristics are non-exhaustive, and mostly stem from my observations of both supportive and shitty behaviors. I’m certain I am leaving important characteristics out, and if there is something that strikes you as particularly relevant, or something you’d like people to place a higher emphasis on, drop it in the comments.

Creating environments where it’s okay to make mistakes and ask questions

When I first started at Georgia Tech, I had the tremendously good fortune to hire a really, really, really good technician. (One of my first blog posts was on hiring a tech vs. a postdoc when starting a new lab.) Jessie was an amazing technician for a whole bunch of reasons, including that she was really good at working with undergrads in the lab.

At one point, I was in the lab while she was training a new student in the lab and I heard her say something like, “I’m not sure if I did a good job of explaining that. Can you tell me what you heard so I can try again if I didn’t explain it well?” I loved that approach. It made it so that, if the student got something wrong when they explained it back or tried it the first time, it wasn’t their fault – it was that it hadn’t been explained well enough.

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Changes I made the last time I taught that I think were useful

The last time I taught Intro Bio (in Fall 2017), I felt like things went really well in terms of interacting with students. And, while they’re a flawed metric, my teaching evaluations were notably higher than they’d been in the past. I mentioned that to a friend, who knew I had set goals before the semester about what I was going to do differently, and asked if I could write them out. So I did. And then I forgot I had done that.

In May, I wrote a post on a small change I made to try to make it clearer to students that I really care a lot about their learning. The short version is: before answering a question a student asked in class, I tried to do more to signal that I appreciated them asking the question. In the comments section, someone asked if it improved my teaching evaluations. My answer was “My student evaluations were unusually high after I did this, but I changed a few things so it’s hard to know how much of an effect this had. I wrote out all the changes for a colleague who was curious, and it might be worth turning that into a blog post.”

So, here is a modified version of what I sent my frolleague (friend + colleague = frolleague!):

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How I think the start of the semester will go vs. how it actually goes

I’m not at ESA this week, and in some ways that’s good, because I’m currently being swamped by the beginning of semester deluge. Last week reminded me that I always misjudge what the start of the semester will be like, as I illustrated will some silly drawings:

Cartoon labeled

 

Cartoon entitled

And that last one doesn’t even include all the other stuff that always pops up (e.g., an uptick in requests for letters of recommendation, finding new undergrads to work in lab and getting them set up in the lab, etc.)

Related: at an event I went to this summer, they asked us to draw pie charts showing how we spend our time. After we attempted to draw them, we had some discussions about how the traditional teaching vs. research vs. service/admin split that we tend to talk about leaves out a lot of things that take up a lot of time. And, yes, this PhD Comics chart was discussed!

 

Good luck to all of us trying to fit 200% as much stuff into the same amount of work time!

(For a previous installment in the “Meg draws things poorly” series, see this post on imposter syndrome)

Job Announcement: Intro Bio Lab teaching position at the University of Michigan!

Not our typical sort of post, but I wanted to share this widely: my department (Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan) is searching for a lecturer (officially, a LEO Lecturer III, where LEO is the lecturers’ union). The search is for someone with a PhD in biology, preferably with a focus on EEB. The person will be expected to teach/coordinate Bio 173, our Intro Bio Lab (which has over 1600 students a year!) and to develop new project-based labs for the course (including authentic research experience labs). Bio 173 has a lot of graduate student instructors, so I’m guessing the position would also involve working with lots of graduate students.

The job posting lists July 19th as the closing date, so apply soon! More info on how to apply is available in the job posting.

Why teaching Intro Bio makes me think we need to radically change qualifying exams

When I first arrived at Michigan and began teaching Intro Bio, the course had four exams. In that first semester, I added in clicker questions. Since then, we have added in frequent quizzing, so the students now have four exams, plus two quizzes a week (completed before coming to class), plus clicker questions in class. We have all of that because we know that frequent testing improves student learning. (Here’s one review, here’s another, and here’s a summary of the changes we made in Intro Bio and their impacts on student performance.) As a side bonus, when the testing is low stakes (as with the quizzes and clicker questions), students get those learning benefits without paying a cost in terms of increased anxiety. Given all that, I would never consider changing the format to one where we have just a single, pass/fail, high stakes assessment at the end of the semester.

Now, let’s consider graduate prelim/qualifying exams.

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Cohort-based mentoring for graduate students: a “bright spot” worth emulating?

I recently learned about an approach to mentoring that I think has a lot of potential. My initial conversations with others suggests they think it has promise, too. The goal of this post is both to share the idea and to (hopefully!) hear from people with experience with this approach.

Here’s the general idea: some larger graduate programs at Michigan use an approach where each cohort is assigned a mentor. So, there is one mentor for all of the first year students, a different one for all of the second year students, etc. That person is an additional resource for those students – someone who they can turn to for advice. They also host regular events (I think maybe ~monthly) for the cohort, which helps them develop skills, explore different topics, and crucially, helps build community.*

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