Archive for the ‘Academia’ Category

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Recent videos

December 5, 2016

As long as I’m using this blog to support family causes such as my parents’ anti-fluoridation work, I should also throw in a plug for my sister’s company’s new video, which nicely showcases their customizable dresses and headbands for girls 3-7 and their dolls. Great fun for those who enjoy spontaneous, open-ended accessorizing!

Other recent videos of possible interest: my song Cranial Nerve Functions, performed by Do Peterson; my song Kidney Wonderland, performed by me at the UW Nephrology holiday party.

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I’m not an ecologist, but sometimes I play one on the Internet

December 2, 2016

This fall, I’ve been teaching introductory ecology & evolution labs for BBio 180 at UW-Bothell. It had been quite a while since I had worked directly with eco-evo material, so it was interesting to look at it with fresh eyes, sort of as my students were doing.

As the quarter progressed, I got the urge to contribute something to the excellent Dynamic Ecology blog run by bona fide ecologists, including my friend Jeremy Fox. So I pitched Jeremy a post on teaching with imperfect analogies, featuring eco-evo examples, which he liked and published.

With eco-evo analogies on my brain, I then started applying them to the realm of academic job searches, which led me to write another piece, which is posted below.

Ecology analogies for the academic job market

Dear Tenured People:

The academic job market continues to suck. Most of your students will be unable to land stable faculty jobs. Please discuss this fact, repeatedly, with your students and trainees. Explicitly acknowledging the extreme difficulty of getting a prized professorship is a vaccine against complacency and self-delusion, both in them and in you, the mentors who send them forth into the world. Since these discussions can be boring and/or dreary, you might consider enlivening them with the analogies below.

Sincerely,

Aging Adjunct

* * * * * * *

Analogy #1: Net reproductive rate R0

I began a recent UW-BERG seminar on job searches with an odd “hook”: a worksheet on net reproductive rate, R0, defined as the average number of female offspring produced by each female parent. (Females are the focus here because males are usually not limiting to reproduction.)

From the definition of R0, it follows that, in the absence of other changes (e.g., in lifespan), the population declines if R0 is less than 1, holds steady if R0 equals 1, and grows if R0 is greater than 1.

We can then move, as the worksheet does, to the concept of the academic reproductive rate as defined by Larson et al. (2014) and Gaffarzadegan et al. (2015). The academic R0 can be considered to be the average number of PhD students graduated by a tenure-track faculty member.

Gaffarzadegan et al. have a nice graph showing that, since 1980, the number of biology PhDs has increased dramatically while the number of tenure-track faculty positions has barely changed, causing the biologist R0 to rise from 2.4 (1980-90) to 6.3 (2010-2015).

With this additional information, discussions of academic job prospects can proceed in any of several directions. At my seminar, for example, I asked attendees to use the R0 model to make predictions about the quantity and experience of applicants for teaching-centric faculty positions. We then compared the predictions to actual job search data.

For me, those data are a mixed bag. The number of applicants per position was lower than I would have guessed. However, it is sobering that even the ad-hoc temporary openings attracted many experienced candidates.

Anyway, I find the R0 analogy useful in several ways.

(A) The R0 analogy underscores that mentors’ trainees are, in some sense, their “children,” i.e., people for whom they bear some responsibility. And that professors, departments, universities, and countries should not take on more children than they can reasonably expect to support.

(B) The rise of the biologist R0 so far above 1 is a sign that our entire training system may be fundamentally unsustainable, as argued by the scientific “dream team” of Alberts et al. (2014).

(C) The focus on a single easy-to-grasp number, R0, helps us contemplate the problems underlying it, as well as possible solutions. For instance, I said “MAY be fundamentally unsustainable” above because a high R0 would be acceptable if most PhDs used their academic training as an intentional springboard to wonderful non-academic careers. However, since most biologists would prefer to stay in academia (Sauermann & Roach 2012), a high R0 is a symptom of a serious problem. Partial solutions, then, might include training fewer PhDs and/or convincing more of us to give more serious consideration to non-academic options before we put all of our eggs in one basket.

And speaking of nascent forms of life….

Analogy #2: The soil seed bank

While I liked the R0 analogy enough to feature it in my UW-BERG seminar, I almost used an alternative analogy suggested by my colleague Cynthia Chang.

The basic idea of the soil seed bank is that soil contains deposits of seeds from many different species, any of which could potentially germinate, but few of which actually do.

So what are the implications of considering newly minted PhDs as “seeds” with potential to “germinate” into full-fledged faculty members?

Well, to start with, most seeds will not ever germinate, an obvious point also illustrated by the R0 analogy. But the soil seed bank analogy can be extended to make several related points.

(A) Germination may occur after a prolonged lag, but most seeds do lose their viability over time. People may hang on as postdocs and as adjunct faculty for quite a while, but after so many years, the odds of making the transition to full-time permanent faculty are quite low. Still, the lack of a firm “expiration date” makes it hard to know when to give up.

(B) Different conditions favor different seeds. Each species of seed has its own optimal germination conditions in terms of moisture, temperature, sunlight, etc. Which seeds actually germinate at a given time depends on local conditions at that time. Similarly, within a diverse crop of youngish biology PhDs, those whose strengths match the current needs of specific departments will be most likely to lay down roots.

(C) Seeds’ success or failure depends strongly on luck. A corollary to (B) is that, as conditions change from year to year, the species that sprout will change as well. If a fire happens to sweep through a given region, fire-resistant seeds will subsequently be favored. If instead the region happens to be hit with, say, a flood, different seeds will instead win the germination sweepstakes. The job-search parallels should be clear: whether a given candidate ultimately blossoms depends not only on their personal robustness, but whether they happen to enter the job market at a time and place that happens to favor their particular strengths.

This last point is often hard for hard-luck applicants to swallow. Words to the effect of “It’s not about you, it’s just an issue of fit,” while well-intended and true, are not necessarily comforting. Having had the persistence to come this far, we figure that if we can just hang in there, we will eventually have our day in the sun.

Indeed, some of us will ultimately be great oaks or sequoias, impressive and enduring, the giants of our fields.

For now, though, we are but tiny vessels of unrealized potential and uncertain fate, weathering harsh environments, hoping against hope for a favorable wind and a soft landing.

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An open letter to my students (revised)

November 9, 2016

Dear students:

As I write this, it appears that the United States has elected Donald Trump as its next president. Many of you undoubtedly have strong feelings about this outcome. But are those feelings relevant to our study of biology? Yes, they are. Therefore let me make the following two points.

First, this election did an amazingly good job of segregating us into rival camps of people who cannot even begin to imagine how the other side feels. It is easy to dismiss people for supporting a candidate who seems completely abhorrent. Yet all of us — Trump-haters and Clinton-haters alike — must continue to work together in lecture and in lab. It won’t be easy, but we must do our very best.

Second, I want to acknowledge that the rhetoric of this campaign may have felt threatening to some of you, especially those who have experienced discrimination or harassment in the past. You may be worried about your future under a president whose attitude toward traditionally marginalized groups has seemed at best insensitive and at worst downright hostile.

I fervently hope that any such worries will not derail your studies here at UW-Bothell. Please be assured that you are welcome here -– all of you. We, the faculty and staff who teach you and support you, want you to succeed -– all of you. Your lives matter to us. Your futures matter to us.

One of the great paradoxes of education is that people learn the most in circumstances when they are uprooted, made to feel uncomfortable, challenged with seemingly impossible tasks. Thus, we cannot protect you from all discomfort. A university is not simply a gigantic “safe space” for self-affirmation. But it IS a space where you have mentors, friends, and allies to help you get focused, get tough, and get things done. So: please, please, please continue to ask for help when you need it. We want to help, and we WILL help -– no matter who’s in the White House.

I’ll see you in class.

–Dr. Crowther

[Update: Danny Caballero, a physics professor at Michigan State University, has written a good letter in a somewhat similar spirit.]

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Greg’s crackpot theories, #3: why introverts love teaching

October 14, 2016

Yesterday at an interview I found myself trying to articulate why I find teaching so fulfilling.  Here is an expansion of what I said there.

  1. I am an introvert who is not especially comfortable at parties and dislikes small talk (i.e., conversations where the main goal is simply to be friendly rather than to discuss anything in particular).
  2. Nevertheless, to be happy, I need to connect with people beyond my family. In fact, I crave such interactions.
  3. Therefore, teaching is fulfilling in part because it is a form of social interaction with rules that are helpful to introverts.  There is no awkward casting about for something to talk about for a couple of minutes; an agenda of substantive topics provides fodder for months of ongoing, “meaty” discussions.  Likewise, there is less of a need to figure out who wants to interact with whom; the circle is pre-defined to include everyone in the course.  Finally, as the designated expert in the room, I have the privilege of offering my perspective without needing to fight for attention.  And as the moderator of the conversation, I can help other introverts find their voice as well.

[Update, Oct. 21: distinguished bio-blogger and fellow introvert Stephen Heard offers related thoughts.]

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More mandatory fun

September 25, 2014

As a follow-up to the summer’s odd teaching slides, here are some new examples fresh from this fall’s Anatomy & Physiology course (BIOL 241).

Dr. Alfred Yankovic, Adjunct Professor of Medicine

Red Rover: the nano version

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Best Guns N’ Roses reference I’ve ever seen on a college’s home page

August 14, 2014

From Bates Technical College in Tacoma, Washington….

appetite

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More juxtapositions

July 18, 2014

I have a soft spot for oddly juxtaposed teaching materials, e.g., a handout covering both lab-grown meat and the structure of the song “Hound Dog.”

Here are some strange bedfellows that appeared in animal physiology this spring and summer.

2014_06_24_sodium_gradient_border

Above: two ways to convey the idea that most sodium ions (chemical symbol Na+) is outside cells rather than inside.

2014_07_17_Botox_border
Above: Clostridium botulinum toxin, an inhibitor of the salt glands of marine birds … and the facial muscles of wealthy humans.

2014_05_20_Goldilocks_border
Above: In retrospect, this illustration of the importance of blood pressure regulation may have been too oblique.

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Mumbling towards clarity

May 13, 2014

Here’s a lesson that faculty like me need to re-learn every so often: our assignments aren’t nearly as clear to our students as they are to us.

My biology writing course (ENGL 299C at UW) currently requires the paper described below. It’s a modification of a previous assignment, so I’ve had a chance to polish it. Feel free to admire its elegance for a moment.

If I had passed out this assignment in class, then immediately asked the students if they had questions, I probably would have gotten few to no inquiries, and would have congratulated myself on another masterpiece of lucidity.

Instead, I made the students submit questions about the assignment along with their first draft. Their responses, when solicited in THIS way, suggested danger lurking around every turn of phrase! Would they as reviewers know the identity of the authors? Should the review be written to the authors, or the editors of the journal? If several different methods are used, what constitutes an “experimental strategy”? What’s the difference between evidence and data? If supplementary figures are cited in the references section, should they be considered “previous literature”?

We spent about 35 minutes of class time discussing these excellent questions and many others.

If we want useful feedback from students, we need to ask for it in the right way, after they’ve had a chance to reflect on an issue and are motivated to talk about it.

Paper 2: journal-like peer review (final version)

This “paper” will be a peer review of the article you’ve been reading (Wahl et al. 2013 or Vlad et al. 2014). For this assignment, we will imagine that the Wahl et al. or Vlad et al. manuscript has just been submitted to a journal, and that you have been asked to review it for the journal.

Most review forms ask reviewers to summarize and assess a paper’s hypothesis, the claims and evidence, use of previous literature, and writing effectiveness. You will address all of these issues in the discrete sections listed below. You should keep these discrete in your submission, rather than combining them into a single narrative. As with a real review, your audience is the journal’s editors and the manuscript’s authors. However, note that journal editors are in charge of many articles on diverse topics, and that English is not the native language of many editors and authors; thus, your writing should be clear and straightforward even in this context. Your tone should be somewhat formal, although you can still write from the perspective of a reader (“I was confused by…”) rather than making pompous pronouncements (“This was confusing…”).

1. HYPOTHESIS

Please write 150 to 300 words (1 to 2 paragraphs) that address the following questions.

What is the central hypothesis of this study? (Be as specific as possible. Use one or more direct quotes from the paper to assess whether it is defined clearly.)How was this hypothesis tested in this study? (What was the experimental strategy? What predictions does the hypothesis make?)

2. CLAIMS & EVIDENCE

Identify the 2 to 4 most important conclusions of this study, and write a paragraph (150 to 300 words) about each. How does each relate to the central hypothesis? What is the evidence on which each is based, and how strong is this evidence? Consider the appropriateness of the organisms chosen, the measurements made, and the data reported. What alternative or additional measurements might have strengthened the evidence further?

3. PREVIOUS LITERATURE

Among the sources cited by Wahl et al. or Vlad et al., identify 2 that are especially important. For each one, directly quote (with quotation marks) what Wahl et al. or Vlad et al. say about this source, then rephrase this in your own words to demonstrate your understanding. Briefly state how this source adds to Wahl et al. or Vlad et al.’s paper. Go to the source itself (you should have full-text access to it) and compare it to what Wahl et al. or Vlad et al. say about it. What specific parts of the source (figure/table number, etc.) correspond to Wahl et al. or Vlad et al.’s claims about it? Did Wahl et al. or Vlad et al. encapsulate the source accurately? Briefly explain.

4. WRITING

Identify one paragraph in Wahl et al. or Vlad et al. — not the abstract or first or last paragraph — that you think would benefit from rewriting. Use at least 2 concepts from ENGL 299C (reader expectations, omission of needless words, transitions/pointing words, reverse-outlining) to explain the problems that you see. Rewrite the paragraph and briefly explain how your version addresses these problems.

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Prof Don’t Preach

March 24, 2014

The song below is dedicated to the hordes of students in PhD programs at the University of Washington and elsewhere — especially those who remember the 1980s. It’s not my best or most polished parody … but the idea came to me in a dream, and when I woke up humming, “Ohhhh, I’m keeping my thesis,” I was tickled enough to spend an hour fleshing out the lyrics. So here you go!

Prof Don’t Preach
(a parody of “Papa Don’t Preach” written by Brian Elliot and recorded by Madonna; new lyrics by Greg Crowther)

Professor, I know you’re going to be upset
‘Cause I was always your protege,
But you should know by now (that)
I need to finish.
You’ve been my adviser for seven years;
I need your help, professor — let’s be clear:
If we can’t work this out,
I’ll convene my committee….

CHORUS:
Prof don’t preach!
I’m in trouble deep.
Prof don’t preach!
I’ve been losing sleep.
But I made up my mind:
Oh, I’m keeping my thesis!
Oh, I’m gonna keep my thesis!

The firm says that it’s going to hire me
As soon as I receive my PhD.
Maybe I’ll be all right; it’s a sacrifice.
But my friends keep telling me to give it up,
Saying I’m too young, I ought to live it up.
What I need right now is to schedule my prelims….

CHORUS

Professor Gray, if you could be in my place,
With three full square feet of office space,
You’d give me your blessing right now,
‘Cause I’m not in love
With this life any more….

CHORUS

madonna-wearing-eyeglasses
Doctoral candidate Madonna L. Ciccone. Photo from celebie.com.

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Civil discourse

December 30, 2013

A recent, typically excellent post at Dynamic Ecology addressed the question of “How do you critique the published literature without looking like a jerk?”

While I like Brian and Jeremy’s suggestions, they don’t capture the extent to which perceptions of jerkiness depend on very specific choices in wording, rhetorical structure, etc. I want to emphasize here that small changes can make a big difference in how you are perceived.

Brian and Jeremy did provide the following language/writing tips (paraphrased by me):

1. Don’t make ad hominem attacks.

2. When possible, identify possible solutions to the problems you’ve identified.

3. Don’t heap too much scorn upon one individual paper or scientist if the problem is common to multiple sources.

4. Focus on facts rather than opinions.

To these, I add the following additional pointers for avoiding the label of “jerk.” (Some were taken from A guide for new referees in theoretical computer science by Ian Parberry, which I consider relevant because standards for pre- and post-publication review should be similar.)

5. Define the viewpoint from which you conducted your evaluation. What do you know about and care about? What do you NOT know about or care about? Confess possible biases.

6. Acknowledge the positive aspects of what was done.

7. Be as specific as possible in your criticisms. Statements like “the data in Figure 5 were misinterpreted” are both more justifiable and less catty than “this study adds nothing to the field.” If you are questioning one particular paper, consider your target to be the paper rather than the scientist(s) who wrote it. “What’s wrong with this paper?” is usually a reasonable question to ask, but “what’s wrong with these scientists?” often registers on the jerk-o-meter. Also be specific in providing references. Claiming support from unspecified sources is sloppy and rude, but even incomplete citations such as “Johnson 2012” may be more ambiguous than helpful.

8. Give the most space to the most important problems. Don’t dwell on minor flaws. Harping on spelling errors makes you seem like a jerk.

9. Avoid unnecessarily dramatic language. In a manuscript review, I once identified four problems as “critical flaws.” A colleague noted that my concerns would be just as clear if I used a softer phrase such as “main flaws.”

In compiling this advice, I became curious as to how well I follow it, so I rated my past critiques of Lore of Running by Timothy Noakes, Born to Run (part 1; part 2) by Christopher McDougall, “Metabolic Factors Limiting Performance in Marathon Runners” by Benjamin Rapoport, Wheat Belly by William Davis, and “Misconceptions Are So Yesterday!” by April Maskiewicz and Jennifer Lineback. Results are below.

self-critique of my critiques

By my own reckoning, I’m not a complete hypocrite, but there certainly is room for improvement.