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posted Dec 6, 2013, 11:51 AM by Cynthia Harley   [ updated Dec 6, 2013, 1:06 PM ]

Scientific outreach is one of the most important (and fun) things that we do. It is important for us to go into the community and teach kids and adults about science. Many people have not been exposed to scientists and do not understand what we do muchless why we do it (click this link to look at what kids think a scientist looks like). By speaking to the public we can teach them about our specific work and bring awareness to certain issues. As a woman in science, I try to do as much outreach work as I can because it is important for people (especially young girls) to see that women can be scientists too. 

Where does this come from? Well, I spent yesterday and this morning at a preschool teaching kids about spiders. We did some arts and crafts but a lot of what we did is dispelling spider myths. We taught the kids that spiders eat other insects and are thus helpful and that there are no local poisonous spiders. We helped a number of the students get over their spider fears and even managed to teach them that spiders can be beautiful. It was a fun and rewarding experience which I hope will leave some of the students with a little more interest in science than they had at the start of the day. 


Soapbox Intro

posted Sep 27, 2013, 8:14 AM by Cynthia Harley

I decided to move my little tangents to this section. The tangents, while sometimes they may seem odd or non professional are things that need to get out. So, if you like reading them.... great. If you dont then you dont have to look at this feed. 

Publications-- yet another soapbox

posted Sep 17, 2013, 9:08 AM by Cynthia Harley   [ updated Sep 27, 2013, 8:16 AM ]

In science we have to get our work published. Without being published the work exists, but no one else can see it (something along the lines of 'if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it.....'). So we go through this process of publishing our work. We pick journals which are respected and reach the readers that we would like. However, what happens when you step out of your science box? I recently wrote a paper which is pretty far outside of my 'normal' vein of work. It has been rejected time and time again from different journals not because of the scientific merit, but rather because it simply does not fit within the context of those journals. However, all of the journals that we picked to submit said article to are ones which said that they were interested in such studies. My point in writing this (rather than simply to air my frustration at the journal system) is to say something that I was not told as a young scientist-- sometimes articles get rejected and sometimes this happens for no good reason. So what you need to do is be tenacious. Find another journal, keep improving the article, keep submitting, and keep hoping that someone will see its merit. If they don't.....well..... there is always DeNovo, the journal known for publishing work on bigfoot with a lack of peer review (just kidding dont go there). 

Application season 2013-- another soapbox

posted Sep 9, 2013, 8:21 AM by Cynthia Harley   [ updated Sep 27, 2013, 8:17 AM ]

Recently I became the postdoctoral representative for the society of neuroethology. I am working on understanding what issues affect all postdocs (not to say, I don't have issues, I just want to know which ones are universal and which are my own personal agendas). One of the common issues that comes up when I chat with other postdocs is when to apply for jobs. However, to understand this issue (which is highly field specific), one must understand the process. So here goes: for those of you who don't know, academic jobs applications are a seasonal thing-- you apply anytime between September and January 1st, get rejected or get phone interviews in Feb or March (sometimes faster if the committee is quick), and then you hope to move on to the in person interview. My experience on some of these search committees is that there are about 300 applicants (this is quite institution specific). Of those 10 individuals get phone interviews. Of those, 5 get an onsite interview. 

So what makes people get (or not get) the job? That comes down to what the search committee wants, a factor often referred to as match. Are you a match for their department? The job posting has certain criteria which are predetermined (ex. a neuroscientist using a systems level approach). However, some of this is determined during search committee meetings about potential candidates. They may want someone who will offer a new technique to their department, someone who has high collaboration potential, or someone to take that pesky undergraduate course that no one else wants to teach. Sadly, you can't know what happens behind those doors (although sometimes you can get inside information from a friend). 

How do you bias your odds? First, read the posting and tailor your application to match the desired qualifications. If you send in a generic application you won't look like a match. So, take the time and make yourself look like the perfect candidate (no fabrication here, you cant make the job fit you can just highlight elements of yourself which will fit). Next, in chatting with search committee folks the most important thing about job applications is the following: follow the directions. If they want a one page statement of research intent-- you do not send them 5. If there is no limit do make sure that you consider that folks reviewing your application are on a search committee in addition to their research and teaching-- they are busy and tired. Keep your application, short, simple, and punchy. Other than that papers, grants, etc. will add to your attractiveness as a candidate. 

While I am on that topic-- Grants. While grants will make you more attractive as a candidate (they show that you can get money), they are not the end all and be all. A lot of institutions do not allow postdocs to apply for grants. This is particularly hard for international students. So, if you dont have a grant dont think 'I will never get a job'. I have done this. It isnt pretty. On the other hand, I know people with few publications who had grants and got hired. Basically think of it like a balance between the two and Just highlight what it is that makes you awesome. 

How do I know that I am ready? 
You don't. While some folks will tell you 'I was a postdoc for 9 years' or 'i did 3 postdocs' you just do not know what will work for you. Instead you just go for it. If you see a job posting and it looks like something you would want to do-- apply. The worst you will hear back is 'no' and even in that case you have your application stuff together for the next season. Furthermore, your match might come up earlier than you think. Sometimes if an institution finds the perfect candidate for them, they will hire the person even if they are a little green. I have had more than a few friends apply for jobs this year just as a 'test' and get the job because they were such a good fit. Some of these folks were postdocs for less than a year. I have also seen the opposite-- folks who get desperate with applications because funding is running out. This sadly does happen but it can land you in a position that is not what you want (and might be one that someone else does). 

Bad advice.
Some folks say 'you can just go to place x and then apply elsewhere in a few years'-- I think that is crap! Why settle for something that does not work for you?! It seems like setting yourself up for failure or, at the very least, unhappiness. Now, while a lot of folks end up in places they never dreamed that they would be and have become happy, I would be willing to bet that they were open to becoming happy in a new place. If you plan to move you are closed off and will not enjoy where you are. As my husband's uncle says, 'think of moving as an adventure, if you do not, it WILL drive you crazy'. 

How do I figure out how to do this and for that matter, Cindy, how do you know? 
The truth is, I dont know. I have not yet managed to get a job, but, I have been enlisting colleagues to help me with my application packet. You probably know people on search committees or who have been on committees previously, these folks will help you fine tune your application. The first place to start is your boss. They should be supporting that you are applying. This brings me to another point-- people agonize about telling their PI that they want to apply. Your PI wants you to succeed (or they should and if they don't you should re-evaluate where you are). Let your PI help you. Also, do not underestimate the importance of having beer (or soda) with colleagues. You can learn a lot just by talking to them about their experience. Chances are, as a postdoc, you know some new faculty or at the very least older postdocs who have been through the job application process. Enlist them. If you need to, buy them beer.

Also, the more you apply, the more you will learn. So, keep learning and evolving. It is o.k. to write a department and ask why you were not considered more fully. Most of the time you will not get a response, but when you do it can be quite valuable. You probably will not get the response until after application season is over, so you use it for next time. That is, if you can use it. Usually it is just that you were not a match. Which means you should plan on a few application seasons. Don't put all of your eggs in one basket. 

A grain of salt.
All of this should be taken with a grain of salt. I am offering advice and my experience with these things is minimal. Frankly, I wasn't successful last year. However, this is what I learned from my 'test' season: I spent much of last year reading books about how to get the academic dream job until my PI asked-- 'who the hell writes those books anyway?' I never thought about it, but most folks apply a few times eventually find something and then are busy researching and teaching and dont have time or energy to write a book about the job search. Who do you want to learn from-- the person who got their dream job on the first try or the person that it took 10 seasons to find something? Who is writing the book? Furthermore, what field are they in and do they know what it is like in your field? In the end the books may or may not have good advice. I may or may not have good advice. You need to use your logical science mind to filter the b.s. from the good stuff. You need to be yourself, have a little faith, and hope for some luck. 

This year
For me, my first application of this season is due in a little less than a week. I have a number of places that I am applying this year. I do not know if I will get anything. However, I am hopeful. Some folks say that I am 'too green', which I probably am, but I want something for myself; I want roots. I want to be somewhere permanent

Scientific funding-- another soapbox

posted Jun 26, 2013, 9:38 AM by Cynthia Harley   [ updated Sep 27, 2013, 8:18 AM ]

I recently had someone wander into the lab and tell me that they thought that scientific funding above 10% of grants would be wasteful spending. Sadly, this is often the view of the general public especially when it comes to folks like myself who research basic science in icky creatures. Currently NSF and NIH budgets are cut such that few labs are getting funding. Less and less money is going to basic science and more is going to health related science or new technologies. While scientists from other countries have told me "it is bad here too", most of them have more than twice the chance of getting funding than someone like myself. Whether or not you happen to think that my research is cool, you should think about basic science and its relevance to you. Without Gregor Mendel studying peas we would not understand heritability and never would understand DNA. Basic science is the home of innovation and helps us to understand the world around us. The lack of funding is leading many folks to leave the life of research and turn to industry or completely alternate careers. Other folks are finding new and different sources of funding. Usually this money is from private foundations which often have their own agendas. This may lead to some crummy research. Furthermore, a lot of the good researchers are losing jobs  or leaving science entirely because of lack of funding.

So how does this affect the non-scientist-- when a scientist is awarded a grant half of that money goes to the university. It supports things like keeping lights on and whatnot but it also helps the university as a whole. As grants become endangered species, universities have less money to deal with meaning higher tuition to cover these costs. For granting agencies (sponsored by the government) fewer grants often mean that people put in more grants hoping that one of the many will be funded. In England, this has resulted in the system becoming overloaded with the need for grant reviewers and administrative personnel to cover the increased load. My last and perhaps most important point is that we are losing minds that would otherwise benefit science in the U.S. Some of them are moving to other countries and others are leaving science. That said, we often discuss wanting our country, our innovation, and our education to compete on the world stage-- how can we do this if we are setting our brilliant minds out to pasture? A small funding cut can lead to years of a slow in scientific progress. 

Here are some articles about scientific funding:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-23065763 (an article about why England is not freezing scientific funding)

SFN annual meeting locations

posted Feb 18, 2013, 9:36 AM by Cynthia Harley   [ updated Sep 27, 2013, 8:18 AM ]

The society for neuroscience meeting which rotates between Washington DC, San Diego, and New Orleans is interested in changing all future New Orleans dates to Chicago. While I love Chicago, I oppose the move. The reason is this-- New Orleans is not rebuilt yet, in fact, it is not even close. They need our help. By holding the meeting there we do take a risk that another natural disaster will derail our plans (though we cannot assume that this would never happen at any other location). However, by having the meeting there our society of 30,000+ members will bring much needed revenue to New Orleans. We can benefit the city just by having a meeting, something which we would do anyway. Let's take a chance and give back. 

Soap Box

posted Jan 30, 2013, 8:51 AM by Cynthia Harley   [ updated Sep 27, 2013, 8:15 AM ]

I am going to stand on my soap box for a minute. 

I believe in community outreach. Saying this sometimes causes people to think that this means that I am not serious about science because I am willing to spend my time on other things. To them I say, you need to make community outreach work for you. I am currently writing an article that discusses my experience working with high school students, the very same ones that are authors on my leech papers. Mentoring a high school student was eye opening. At first I did not think that the student would be able to do any 'real' work but I was desperate for help in the lab and put them to work anyway. These students performed many of the assays for two of my papers and did a fair amount of analysis but the benefits of working with them go far beyond papers. While mentoring them required a slightly different approach to lab management than I had been using, I have since found that my new management methods are better for high school students and undergraduates alike. I have also found that my ability to communicate science to the masses is much improved. While the benefits of university research experience to highschool students are well documented, I have found little documentation about the benefits to the researcher. I am here to tell you, just try it for yourself. You will be surprised.

In writing about my experience, I have been thinking about not only the public perception of science, but the scientists perception of the public. As scientists we often feel that the public does not understand what we are doing. In addition we are in a climate where american science students are performing behind their international counterparts-- something which is often blamed on high school teachers, but something I blame on a lack of excitement for science. What if we could do something about it? What if each of us took on a high school intern or two? Could we benefit education? Could we create more people in the public that understand research? Could we get people excited about science and the scientific process? There are a multitude of studies that suggest that the answers to these questions is yes. In fact, doing this kind of outreach could even recruit more minority groups into science. 

For reasons listed above I am standing on my soap box with a call to action. Contact your local highschool and see if the science teacher has a promising student interested in research. Working with them will change both of your lives.

Science tube

posted Oct 14, 2012, 10:19 AM by Cynthia Harley   [ updated Sep 27, 2013, 8:16 AM ]

I was chatting with Sasha Zill at the sfn meeting. Sasha does a series of anatomy review lectures and places them on the internet. The lectures are informative though they seem to also have his light hearted nature. This led me to think about the following (which is not a new idea but hey....): what about creating a series of 15-20 minute lectures and placing them on the Internet. They should be accessible to folks from a variety of backgrounds but I also think they should be mostly science focused (we'll leave the other stuff to the folks at Ted). This would be lectures-- not demonstrations of the science you are currently doing, but rather a way to communicate some interesting scientific phenomena to the masses. They should be light hearted. For instance, Sasha's skeletal muscle lecture is given from the perspective of pouring a beer-- what changes as the glass is grabbed, what about when the glass is getting fuller and thus more heavy.....you get the idea. 

Could be cool. I am leaving this post open to comments. Let me know what you think...

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