How my student has explored career interests outside academia

Last week, Terry McGlynn wrote a post with a list of things he wishes other people would write posts about. I read this minutes before heading to the airport, and this was like catnip given my #airportblogging habit. So, I sat in the airport thinking about this topic Terry suggested:

How PhD students and postdocs are getting professional development to do things other than become a tenure-track faculty member

This is something I’ve been discussing a lot on seminar trips, with prospective grad students, and with colleagues, but I hadn’t thought about writing a post on it before. So, with thanks to Terry for the prompt, here’s the story of how one of my students has explored career interests outside academia.

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When writing, tell us your biological results!

Quick quiz! Let’s imagine you are reading the results section of a manuscript. Which of these is the most useful/interesting/compelling/informative?:

  1. Figure 2 shows the relationship between infection and lifespan.
  2. Our experiment on the relationship between infection and lifespan found unambiguous results (Figure 2).
  3. Including infection treatment as a predictor improved model fit for lifespan (stats, Figure 2).
  4. Infected hosts lived, on average, half as long as uninfected hosts (20 days vs. 40 days; stats, Figure 2).

I think we’d mostly agree that option 4 is the most informative and interesting by a long shot. It focuses on the biological results, which, as ecologists, are usually our primary interest – presumably you did the experiment because you wanted to know whether and how infection impacted reproduction, not because you just really like making figures or doing stats!

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Concerned about the US tax bill? Here’s what to do.

Last week, the United States Senate passed a tax bill that would have major implications for universities. This comes on the heels of a bill that passed the US House of Representatives, which contained provisions that would make it much more costly to be a student. To quote from a piece by the University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel and Michael V. Drake,

The House bill would repeal current tax incentives, including the Student Loan Interest Deduction (which in 2014 helped 12 million taxpayers), the tax-exempt status of tuition waivers for graduate students serving as teaching and research assistants (which helped close to 145,000 people in 2011-12), and the above-the-line deduction for qualified tuition and related expenses.


This means interest on student loans would be treated just like credit card interest — neither would be deductible, at a time when many are struggling to repay their student loans. Graduate students who work their way through school by serving as research or teaching assistants receive tuition waivers that would be taxed. And students and parents from families with moderate incomes will no longer be able to deduct up to $4,000 in qualified higher education expenses from their taxable income.

The House bill would also repeal or devalue key credits that help low- and middle-income students, including the Lifetime Learning Credit, the Hope Scholarship Credit and the American Opportunity Tax Credit. The lower-income students who use these credits are those who can least afford to pay more for their educations.

The main hope at this point comes from the House and Senate having passed very different bills. The House bill contains the provision that would mean tuition waivers are no longer tax-exempt. The Senate bill does not contain this provision.

We’ve now reached the stage where the House and Senate bills have be reconciled — that is, where legislators and their staffers need to work out the differences between the two bills (which, as I said above, are pretty different). Universities are working hard to make sure that the final legislation does not include the House version of the grad student tuition waiver (or lack thereof).

One piece of information that came to light yesterday about a mistake in how the Senate bill taxes corporations means that it is more likely that the reconciled bill will also get rid of the grad student tuition waiver, which is not good news for graduate students or universities. The reason for this is that legislators will want to fix that mistake to add back corporate tax deductions, which will increase the cost of the bill. They’re already at the $1.5 trillion max, so they need to do other things to increase revenue. Like tax grad students. In other words:

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the mistake also means the Senate is likely to have to vote again on the bill. But I think focus yesterday was on how ridiculous it is that Republicans passed legislation with such a major mistake in it (which is true), without also focusing on the implications of this for the grad student tax.

I asked people who know a lot about this what someone like me or the students I know who are concerned about this can do. There was universal agreement that it is really important for students and others who care about this to contact their Representatives and Senators to let them know how they feel. The National Humanities Alliance has a tool that will make this easier for you. You can use the standardized language they provide, or you can personalize things to your situation. I always get nervous when calling my policymakers (even though I usually end up just leaving a message rather than speaking to an actual person and, when I have spoken to a person, they’ve always been very polite). So, I write out what I want to say ahead of time.

One thing to consider for students: if you live somewhere like Ann Arbor where our representative (Debbie Dingell) already shares our concerns with the bills but are still registered to vote in another area (say, the place you grew up) and the person in that area does not share your concerns about the bill, it might be more effective to contact the person who does not currently share your concerns. And, if the debate continues through the holiday break, you can try to visit your Representative and Senators at their district offices!

Another question that comes up is whether to contact the local office number or the DC office. I’ve been told by some people that it’s better to call the DC office (and the tool I linked to above will help you figure out those numbers). But if you can’t get through there, you can try the local offices. If you are unsure of who your representative is, you can click here. (By the way, other folks say it doesn’t matter which office you call. Everyone agrees that the most important thing is that you call somewhere, with where you call being less important!)

So, I like Ethan White’s strategy:

You can change “review big chunk of PR” to “count one sample” or “write two paragraphs” or “make two slides” or whatever works for you. But, if you’re concerned about the potential changes to the tax code, make sure you carry out steps 2, 4, and 6!
December 8th Updates:
  1. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has more information on the proposed tax overhaul, suggestions for things you might want to highlight when talking to legislators, and information on how to take action.
  2. The National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) is organizing a #DontTaxEducation campaign. Their message “Don’t let Congress deliver a disproportionate and unprecedented hit on higher education. Ask lawmakers to accept the Senate position on these provisions.” Their page will help you contact your legislators.

What I learned from my visit to Capitol Hill about engaging with policy makers and mentoring students

As I discussed last week, the most eye-opening part of the AAAS Leshner Fellows training that I did recently was the part about engaging with policy makers. This is a new area of engagement for me, and I was really interested in learning more about this. I was surprised to realize how interested I was in it — when I first read Nancy Baron’s Escape from the Ivory Tower, the thought of engaging with policy makers was so anxiety-provoking to me that I felt ill. (It probably didn’t help that I was reading it on a plane going through turbulence.) Last week’s post covered some policy engagement fundamentals (make sure to read this great comment by Elliot Rosenthal on the importance of building community support before doing policy engagement). In this post, I will talk about what I learned on our visit to Capitol Hill. One of the most striking things to me was that, when meeting with two staffers from the House Energy & Commerce Committee, it took me a while to remember which one was the staffer working on the Republican side and which was on the Democratic side. Given all the talk of how divided things are in Washington, I hadn’t expected that! I also hadn’t expected the meeting would leave me not just with thoughts on how to engage with policy makers, but how to mentor students.

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How can scientists engage with policy makers? (Updated!)

Last week, I visited Washington DC for training as part of the AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement. I spent the week with the other 14 incoming Leshner Leadership Fellows, learning about writing and pitching opinion pieces, storytelling, evaluating outreach, and much more. But perhaps the thing that was the most eye-opening for me was our trip to Capitol Hill, where we met with two staffers from the House Energy & Commerce Committee as well as several staffers from the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions (HELP). Prior to going, we got a tutorial from some AAAS folks on policy engagement fundamentals. In this post, I’ll go over the policy engagement fundamentals that I learned at AAAS, supplementing with things I learned in this free online course related to public engagement, which included several expert opinions on engaging with policy makers. In a follow up post, I’ll talk about what I learned from my visit to The Hill.

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Mathematical constraints in ecology and evolution, part 4: dimensional analysis

This is the extremely-belated fourth post in my series on mathematical constraints in ecology and evolution.

By “mathematical constraints” I mean the mathematical rules that all our numerical data and other scientific numbers have to obey. In previous posts, I discussed

In this post, I’ll explain the mathematical constraints on dimensions (units of measurement). Any theoretical model or data analysis that violates these constraints literally makes no sense. But on the plus side, you can take advantage of dimensional constraints to make analysis of your model easier, through the magic of “nondimensionalization”.

Note: this is going to be an informal introduction. It’s intended as an entry point into the relevant literature, not a substitute.

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The Daphnia genus is really old. That’s really interesting for studying infectious diseases.

Preface: This post is a bit different than a typical post for me (or any of us here at DE!) It relates to an interesting bit of Daphnia biology that I find myself relating a lot when I talk to people more generally about my research. People seem to find it surprising and interesting, so I decided to write a post on it in the hopes that others find it interesting, too.


If I put a bunch of different Daphnia on a microscope in front of you, you’d probably think they all look pretty much the same.* As an example, when keying out the species I’ve done the most work on, Daphnia dentifera**, using the excellent online Haney et al. key, these are two of the first traits you need to focus on:



Those aren’t exactly traits that are overwhelmingly obvious, are they?

I think it is because of their morphological similarity that it is then very surprising to most people when they learn just how old the genus Daphnia is. It’s really old.

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A painless introduction to partitions in ecology and evolution

A partition is a mathematical division of some quantity into component parts. Partitions are incredibly useful in ecology and evolution. But partitions can be tricky to interpret, as illustrated by widespread misunderstanding of some of them. Further, the same interpretive issues crop up over and over with different partitions in different contexts. Hence this little “field guide” to partitions in ecology and evolution.

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What are the biggest understudied topics in ecology?

Like politics, science is the art of the possible. Ideally, we’d collectively focus a lot of research effort on the biggest, most important, most interesting topics.* But some topics are more difficult to address than others, for all sorts of reasons.** Hence my question: what are the biggest understudied topics in ecology? The topics that are studied the least, relative to how big, interesting, and important they are?

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Zombie ideas in statistics: R^2 (?!)

Statistician Cosma Shalizi is a really sharp guy, who writes wonderfully on everything from technical statistical topics to philosophy of statistics to books about the Soviet Union. The notes for his undergraduate stats courses are online, and they basically comprise a very readable textbook. As part of my prep for teaching intro biostats next term, I was skimming Cosma’s notes, and came across the chapter on linear regression, in which he asks whether R^2 “is a distraction or a nuisance”? Tell us what you really think, Cosma! 🙂

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