This is a guest post by Jonathan Barros, Briana Martin-Villa, Lexi Golden, Jonathan Hernandez, & Callie Chappell.
During this challenging time of COVID-19, our lives have been turned upside down. Jobs have been lost or radically altered, loved ones have fallen ill, and our daily routines have been upended. In light of these challenges, our research (especially if it is not COVID-related) may not seem that important. In this blog post, we would like to highlight why right now, undergraduate research experiences are especially important, and how good mentorship practices can help students through this challenging time. This post was written collaboratively by a team of undergraduate researchers at Stanford University and their mentor, a Ph.D. student. Based on our experiences working together over the summer, we would like to share some suggestions and best practices for mentors collaborating with undergraduate researchers working remotely.
Post authors: Dana Turjeman, Sondra Turjeman, and Meghan Duffy
This began as a subsection of the post from last week on going back to a new normal as academia begins to reopen, but it became so lengthy that we made it its own post. Students who are parents are often an overlooked group, and advisers who are parents might keep their personal and work lives pretty separate. Certainly, we know from conversations with other academic parents with school-aged (or younger!) children that many of us are trying to figure out how to juggle this new and ever-changing situation. There can be a sense of being alone in trying to figure this out, and sometimes there is little acknowledgment from our institutions or colleagues about the additional challenges for parents with children. We hope that sharing resources, strategies, and concerns will be useful to parents, and will also give people who are not currently home with children a little more insight into some of the things their colleagues are juggling — a little empathy can go a long way.
Post authors: Dana Turjeman, Sondra Turjeman, and Meghan Duffy
This blog is directly connected to a post two of us (Dana and Meghan) published on March 15, right as things in the US were beginning to shut down due to COVID-19. In many places, discussions on re-opening the economy are at full speed (even though many places are still seeing significant, and even rising, levels of infection). We’re now moving into a phase where more people are going back to work (including in labs and doing fieldwork), and where people are increasingly moving about.
While there are important benefits to a slow, thoughtful re-opening, this doesn’t mean everything is back to normal. The virus is here to stay at least until a vaccine or a cure, or both, become widely available. As things reopen, members of the scientific and academic communities will likely face challenges that will surface for the first time (even as we recognize how fortunate we are that we still have paying work). Here we raise some of the potential challenges that are likely to arise in the coming months. This time, we’re excited to add a third author, Sondra Turjeman, a PhD student in EEB at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Today’s post is a guest post by Sue Baker, a Research Fellow at the University of Tasmania. Here’s the post:
In this post I will share my experience of being an ecologist while also being chronically ill. I was inspired by Meghan’s posts sharing her experiences of battling anxiety. I think chronic illness (CI) can be a bit like mental health problems in that people rarely talk about it and may feel rather isolated, but I’m guessing there are a bunch of us out there. I’m hoping that people can use the comments to share their own experiences and suggestions to others (note this can be anonymous). It would be great if ‘healthy’ people could also read and contribute, as having supportive colleagues and employers might make the difference between people continuing to work or not. I’ll start by explaining my health issues and how I adjusted my work and other aspects of my life. In my case it is (hopefully!) a good news story in that two years ago I got a diagnosis and am, very slowly, improving with treatment.
In the past, if we used the word “remote” when talking about field-based courses, we would have been referring to going to a far-off location. Now, during the pandemic, talking about teaching field-based courses remotely means teaching them with the instructor in one place and the students dispersed in many different places.
I know a few folks who are trying to figure out how to teach their summer field-based courses (e.g., field ecology courses) online. They definitely have some good ideas, such as taking advantage of Zooniverse, having students upload observations to iNaturalist, linking with Project Feederwatch or eBird, and using other publicly available data, such as data from NEON. There could even be some advantages to the students being spread out, including by asking students to compare and contrast what the class is finding in different regions or habitat types (as long as those activities are optional, to take into account different access to resources & different social/physical distancing realities).
It seemed like it could be helpful to have an open discussion thread where folks share what they’re thinking of doing, where they ask for suggestions for things they are trying to figure out, and where they share resources and ideas for how to teach this type of course as inclusively as possible. This will hopefully be similar to the open thread on the science of the coronavirus pandemic, with the goal of providing a place where the ecology community can have a discussion, in this case about how to teach field-based courses during the pandemic.
What are you planning doing in your field-based courses? What are you worried about? What would you like to find out more about? What do you hope people teaching this sort of course will think about?
As I’ve done work related to Michigan’s Grad Student Mental Health task force, and done my own “regular” work this semester, I’ve realized that discussions related to self-care and work/life balance often focus on things like making sure you get enough sleep or leaving time to go for a run or do yoga or things like that, but they leave out something important: if you want to do all those things (and I think they’re extremely important) and still submit manuscripts and proposals with deadlines, get feedback to lab folks in a timely manner, etc., you need to plan ahead.
I’d been thinking about this for a while, but then had a really great conversation with a colleague about this that led to me coming up with this framework:
Recently, a friend who was working on a grant proposal asked if I have the specific experiments in mind first and then come up with the framing from there, or if I have the big picture framing in mind and develop the specific experiments from there. I was a little stumped at first, then realized that was because I don’t really use either of those approaches. Instead, my initial motivation is usually preliminary data that I’m excited about and where it’s clear more work needs to be done to figure out what is really going on.
Here’s an example: As a graduate student, I carried out a study on a population where I tracked a parasite outbreak and host population dynamics and, at the same time, assayed the susceptibility of the population to that parasite at three time points. The results of the susceptibility assays were not at all what I expected at the start of the experiment:
As a postdoc, I read Robert Boice’s Advice for New Faculty Members. I think it helped me a lot as I started my first faculty position: I blocked off time for writing, learned how to use short chunks of time productively, and tried to make sure I still got research done even while I was teaching new courses. Until fairly recently, I would have considered myself strongly on Team Boice. I have recommended his book and his approach to people over the years, including one of the ideas he’s best known for: That we should aim to write every day. Now, I’m less sure how strongly to recommend his books, and my advice on how to be a productive writer has changed.
So what changed?
First, I was on a panel with a colleague of mine who is very productive. The panel was for early career folks and there was a question about how to balance all the different demands on your time as an early career faculty member, including how to still maintain research productivity while doing all the other things new faculty need to do. I preached the Boice gospel: You have to learn how to work in small chunks of time, you have to block off time for writing regularly, you can’t wait until you have a full day to write, etc. My colleague was like “yeah, that doesn’t work for me. If I have a free half hour or even hour, I will waste it. I can’t write in that time.” Instead, he structures his weeks so that there’s at least one big chunk of time where he can write.
I was shocked – this was the wrong advice to be giving! He was leading them astray! This is not the way to get off to a strong start as an assistant professor!
Or maybe not? At that time, I would have said that I followed Boice’s advice, but, looking back, I realize I was only following parts of it. Most notably, I actually wasn’t really writing every day, and I’m not sure if I ever did that as a faculty member. I block off at least one morning a week for writing. Unlike my colleague, I do try to get some writing done in smaller blocks of time, too, though I am more likely these days to save up email for those small blocks of time and try to tackle as much of it then as I can. Overall, I do a lot of writing and editing by blocking off 2-4 hour blocks of time in my calendar.
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.
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.