Archive for: April, 2016

Research Talk

Apr 28 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

So today for my class, rather than having a regular period I decided to give a research talk about some of the research going on in my lab. I think it went pretty well, I gave it at the level that I would to a regular seminar audience (usually grad students, postdocs and faculty) and they appeared to be following quite well based on some of the questions. They should be able to follow if they had been paying attention during the whole semester, since there really wasn't any concept in the talk that we hadn't at least touched upon during the course. For some reason I felt far more nervous giving a research talk to my class rather than to a seminar audience, maybe because if I came off sounding like an idiot I would still have to confront them during the rest of the semester. In any case I don't think I came off sounding like an idiot, and hope that they learned something.

Does anyone else routinely talk about their own research during your classes? Or is this bad form and self-important?

6 responses so far


Apr 25 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I had fun reading the various #gatewaytoscience tweets late last week. People wrote in what initially got them into science. I think anyone who is a scientist as an adult probably had some interest in science as a kid and it was fun reading about the various books, teachers, experiences that got people hooked. But the tweets I found more interesting were those that describe how folks became interested in science as adults. And I wanted to share my own experience, not because it is particularly interesting, but because it is apropos about recent discussions about undergraduate access to research labs. When I started college I knew I wanted to do some sort of life science (molecular biology sounded good, although I had no idea at the time what that actually meant). My first semester I enrolled in a Neuroscience course. I was very excited because I literally knew zero about the nervous system, and that was pretty much the same for everyone else in the course. This was a great equalizer, because we were all on the same footing and about to learn some really cool things about an incredibly complex system. Needless to say I was floored by the course. It was a huge lecture course with about 350 students and team taught by various faculty but I remember just being awestruck, and decided I wanted to learn everything I could about neuroscience (I also realized that molecular biology, at the time, was kinda boring to me). So I kept on taking neuroscience courses and becoming more and more enamored. I remember going home that first summer and working in my father's hardware store and just thinking about how I'd much rather be working in a lab. So sophomore year I went back determined to work in a lab. I approached my favorite professor, told him I wanted to learn everything about the work in his lab and wanted to do research. He told me his lab was already too big, that he appreciated my enthusiasm but sorry. So I kept on bugging him until finally, second semester he offered me a volunteer position. For two semesters I volunteered (also got a summer fellowship for both ensuing summers) and then I worked in the lab for course credit the other semesters. I have to say this was a life-changing and career defining experience. Not only did I get to do a bunch of incredibly cool things (record from neurons! study memory in a dish! slice and stain brain slices!), I also learned so much both from the PI and from the other people in lab. I learned what research was like, how to make figures, how to analyze data, I got to present at the Society for Neuroscience meeting, was co author in a glam pub and was also first author in another paper based on my senior thesis. To me having this opportunity, first as a volunteer and then as an honors student, was central to me becoming a neuroscientist, and to hear someone say that I was being 'exploited' because the PI benefited from my labor seems ridiculous.

Not to say that unpaid undergrad volunteers can not end up in a more exploitative situation, as proposed elsewhere. Especially with lack of mentorship and being relegated to menial tasks like making stocks and washing dishes, rather than contributing to a project. So just because I wasn't exploited doesn't mean that others haven't suffered from such an arrangement. But what I see as the biggest issue here is access. I was lucky enough that I did not have to work and extra job during the school year when I was in college, so I had time I could devote to working in the lab. Not everyone can do this, and that is why I have made the argument before that working in a lab should be something that could be used to fulfill work-study obligations. And so we should work towards making research accessible to everyone, rather than limiting the ways people get to do research. Everyone's path is different, what worked for me might not work for others. Nevertheless I think that lab experience really is something that should be done by anyone before they go to graduate or medical school. For future grad students it really helps you figure out if research is really for you, before its too late. With such a low probability of success of a career in academic research, you better really want it before you embark on your journey. For med students, science is really at the root of their discipline, and knowing how fickle and variable science really is will go far in making future doctors evaluate medical and scientific literature when deciding how to treat their patients. I certainly have far more confidence in a doctor if I know they've spent time doing research.

5 responses so far

Lab Insurance

Apr 22 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

A lot has been written about how big labs with more grants are not necessarily more productive per grant dollar spent on research. This may be true, but one big advantage that having multiple grants gives you is: insurance. I've always had a small lab and I think we've been fairly productive with the very limited amount of grant funding we've had over the years. The largest my lab has been (briefly) was 2 postdocs and 3 grad students, but normally we're about half that size since that's all I can afford to support (barely). Which is fine, we also have a lot of undergrads working in the lab for course credit and towards their Honors theses and they can be fairly productive, but often devote less of their time to research during the school year. And I've been lucky to have good people who get a lot of work done. But the problem with a small lab like this is what happens when one of your 2 or 3 lab members is not very productive. And I don't mean so non-productive that they'll lose their job, but maybe just not so into it or distracted with a bunch of other stuff. As a mentor, one tries to correct these things, but sometimes it just doesn't work out quite as well or the person only partially responds to your intervention. As a result of one unproductive person, you can have entire projects grind to a halt, making it harder to publish papers and to get more funding. And it is easy enough to say, well "why don't you just kick this person out". But again that is hard to justify in the absence of any egregious wrongdoing, and even if you do, then you are halfway through the grant cycle and can't really commit to hiring anyone else, since who knows if your grant will get funded again. This makes it increasingly difficult to recover from funding lags, and forces one to basically start from scratch once new funding comes in but there's no one left in your lab to help train the new people. With multiple grants one can afford to support multiple individuals, spread projects more evenly across the lab and thus be more protected if things don't work out with a lab member.

9 responses so far


Apr 13 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

So I've been making some drawings on my iPad. I started playing with my cool new Pencil stylus and by habit I drew a few neurons. Then started adding some color splotches, and then digitally cutting up the image and rearranging them. This lead to more doodling, this time following connectivity schemes of specific neural circuits and then overlaying some of them on collages made from drawings from Cajal and other classic neuroanatomists. It's a bit hard to have much control on an iPad mini, but it works OK. I've been posting a few of them on Twitter, but I figure it's be fun to share some of them here. A sort of "Handbook of Neural Circuits".

Here's one of my favorites, it's based on the circuitry of the olfactory bulb, which is responsible for sorting, organizing and relaying olfactory information from the olfactory epithelium to the rest of the brain. The underlying image is actually a drawing from Camillo Golgi, Cajal's colleague and rival. Hope you like it!

Olfactory Bulb 3

2 responses so far

Twitchy Bias

Apr 12 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I've written in the past about what it's like living with Tourette syndrome. In general, my tics don't really bother me, they're just there in the background and for the most part I can suppress them if the situation calls for such action. Thus, normally my tics are not a problem for me when I do things like teach or give a seminar. Especially if I am "in the groove" while I'm teaching or speaking, then urge to tic really becomes suppressed on its own. Sometimes when I'm stressed or tired, and having problems focusing, then it is more of a challenge to suppress my tics during class or meetings. And on days like those, teaching can be very draining since a lot of my energy is directed toward suppressing my tics, and then they tend to get pretty bad for the rest of the day. That said, this is all from my perspective. Although I may think that I am suppressing my tics because I can push them out of my consciousness, it doesn't mean that they are completely invisible to everyone else. This is why absolutely hate seeing video of myself, because I realize three horrifying things about myself: (1) that my voice is really high, I never quite realize how high my voice really is until I hear it recorded, (2) I need to lose about 20 pounds and (3) that even though I'm not thinking about them my tics are really obvious.

Fortunately my students have had the tact to not really comment about them, at least not openly to me, and imagine that they simply get used to them. One time there was one student who wrote on the teaching evaluation "the professor’s tics are very off-putting". Which was a complete asshole remark to make, but at least they let me know that I may need to do a better job in controlling my tics during class. Seeing my twitching on video also makes me think about how I come across to my colleagues. Since I’ve started my job, only two people have ever asked me about the tics, one was a friend who was just curious the second wanted to learn more because they had a child with Tourette's. Everybody else seems to just ignore them, but again maybe that's just what I see. It could very well be that they discuss them amongst themselves when I’m not around, and I've often wondered if my Tourrette’s clouds their perception of me as a serious colleague. I recently read an article about how disabled people are often perceived as less competent than fully able ones in realms that are completely unrelated to the disability. I think that is human nature that when we perceive any form of weakness in a person, we are biased to somehow take them less seriously or think about them as being less competent. And so I worry. Although I do not consider my Tourette's to be a disability, I often wonder when sitting at a faculty meeting if my colleagues will ever so slightly take the twitchy guy perhaps slightly less seriously. I'm sure not everyone does this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some do. It doesn’t help that the science I work on is somewhat out of the mainstream from what goes on in my department, at least in first appearances, and so I feel a little bit like an outsider. And I have noticed that for example when certain faculty are asked to talk about their research in front of potential donors to our department, or to showcase the research in the department for whatever reason, I am always overlooked, even though my publication record is as good or better than other people, and I think my research is pretty cool and exciting. And again this might have nothing to do with the fact that I have tics, might have a little bit to do with it, or might have everything to do with it. And I will never know since a lot of these biases are unconscious, and the people harboring them might not even know they have them.

6 responses so far

Abstract thoughts

Apr 09 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

Many of us who are neuroscientists are probably preparing to submit an abstract (due in the next few weeks) for the annual Society for Neuroscience. This typically involves filling out an online form, making sure you abstract does not go over the character count, and then submitting electronically. I remember the first SfN abstract I was involved in submitting. It was when I was an undergrad and I was so excited to be an author and to get to go to SfN. Back then, every SfN member would get a meeting booklet in the mail and there was a tear-out form with an empty blue box and you were supposed to type your abstract in it. Of course, this was the 1990's and nobody used typewriters anymore, so the key was to get your computer to print the abstract exactly where the box is. No easy feat, since MS Word sucked back then (ok it's not much better now) and it took a lot of finessing to get it right. I remember my PI asked me to make photocopies of the form that we could use as test runs. So I made a bunch of copies and we kept adjusting margins etc for like an hour until we got the printer to print entirely inside the box. Once we were convinced it was all set we put the actual form in the printer and printed the abstract.

When it came out, the abstract was basically half inch or so out of center with the box. Apparently when I made the photocopies I did not center the form correctly on the copy machine and our dummy forms were off by about half an inch. Ooops. Needles to say, PI was pissed. Eventually we had to find someone else who wasn't using their form and then retry the whole thing. This time PI made the photocopies. In the end it was all fine, abstract got printed, I got to go to my first SfN, and had a ton of fun, even if the meeting was in Anaheim.

2 responses so far

On sticking your hands in hot oil

Apr 08 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I remember one episode from the Simpsons (I can't find a link to a clip) where there's this teenaged worker at Krusty Burger, and he drops something in the hot oil and sticks his hand to get it, burns himself, says "ouch!", then sticks his hand in again, says "ouch!", then keeps doing it indefinitely burning himself. A clear case of lack of associative learning.

I totally feel like this guy. Yesterday I tallied how many grant proposals I've put in since starting my faculty job about 11 years ago, and counted a total of 59, although I may have missed a few from the count. These are not all huge proposals, some are for smaller grants some for R01 NIH grants. I also didn't count any of the fellowships I've helped my trainees put in, that also take a lot of my time to work on. Of the 59, only 7 have been funded, and about half are small private or in-house grants. In combination with individual fellowships this has been enough to keep the lab afloat and funded, so I'm not complaining. That said, 52 grant rejections certainly do take their toll. To keep sticking your hand in hot oil seems to be an integral part of this job, so onwards...."ouch!", "ouch!", "ouch!"

6 responses so far

Making undergraduate research accessible to everyone

Apr 07 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

It is clear that working in a lab as an undergrad can be an extremely positive and enlightening experience. Especially if one wants to pursue a career in a STEM field, or go into medicine. Not only does this experience allow you to really understand the guts of the scientific process and to gain an insight into science as a social practice, but it also provides a distinct advantage when applying to graduate or medical school. In fact, to be competitive for most graduate programs lab experience is pretty much a requirement, and if you are able to have your name on a scientific publication, then even better. I work at a fairly fancy research university with lots of resources and opportunities for undergrads to participate in research, and a large percent of our science undergrads spend some time in a research lab and several of those work on an honors thesis.

Recently I had a conversation with one of my graduate student who made a great point about how these research opportunities are not accessible to many students that could benefit from it. Many students, as part of their financial aid package, are on a work-study program. Which means that they have to spend several hours a week working a university job to cover their financial aid. Typically this means working at the cafeteria, library or other places on campus. Oddly, for reasons that neither I nor my student could track down, working in a lab is not one of the options for fulfilling work-study obligations. Since underrepresented minority and first generation college students make up a large amount of students on financial aid, these groups are thus denied the opportunities that many of their peers have that don’t have these obligations for 10 - 20 hours per week, further putting them at a disadvantage compared to other students in STEM. I’ve tried to figure out why working in a lab is not applicable. If they are allowed to spend 10 hours a week checking out books at the library or cashing people out at the cafeteria, why can’t they spend this time instead doing scientific research? This problem also extends to summers. While the university has several fellowships to support student researchers in the summer, this is not enough to fulfill summer earnings obligations for many students on financial aid. I’ve had several of my students turn down summer fellowships, because they simply didn’t pay enough.

I wonder if others have experienced similar things at their home institutions, and if not, what has your university done to facilitate URMs and first generation students ability to work in a research lab?

11 responses so far

To flip, or not to flip

Apr 06 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

Over the last few years there has been a trend towards increasing the amount of ‘flipped’ undergraduate level courses. The idea is that class time is better spent using instructor-facilitated active learning activities, while relegating ‘passive’ aspects of learning, such as listening to a lecture, to outside of class time. While there are many different ways a class can be flipped, for example check our Dr. Isis’s post, there seems to be a more or less "standard model" that’s emerged. In this model the instructor prepares some material in advance that the students access before class. This typically involves recording the instructor giving a lecture and putting this lecture online, as well as providing other resources for the students to explore before class. The instructor then evaluates how effective this pre-class material was by administering a short quiz at the beginning of class to assess how well the students understood the basic concepts. Class time is then spent doing problem-based activities in small groups of students, facilitated by the instructor and the teaching assistants who walk around interacting with the various groups. In this way students get much more direct instruction from the professor and spend the class time in active learning.

There has been quite a lot of research that shows that this approach leads to better outcomes in terms of students performing better on exams, and showing greater comprehension of key concepts. That said, this approach is also a lot of work for a professor, since preparing various sets of quiz questions for every lecture, as well as meaningful in-class activities can be time-consuming and not necessarily very rewarding, as has been written about before. Flipped courses also require a lot of resources, especially if you have a large class, since it is difficult to find the space to do small group work when you have a class with over 100 students. It also requires a lot of TAs since the instructor won’t necessarily have enough time during a class session to do individual work with all the groups. In a large class it is also hard to monitor the dynamics within the small groups to avoid having certain students dominating the group and silencing others, but that is a topic for another day.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking very hard about whether a flipped model would be appropriate for one of the courses I teach. This is a fairly large (100+ students), mid-level neuroscience lecture course. One of the reasons I've been hesitant to give up the lecture, and relegate it to online pre-class material, is that one large emphasis of my course, is teaching students to understand scientific methodology. So for every concept that I introduce, I also extensively talk about the type of experiments that were performed (some classic experiments, some current ones) in order to support the concept. This requires talking a lot about primary data, and going over various figures from papers in a step-by-step way. Often when I'm lecturing I’ll show part of a slide, ask several questions to the students, let them ask questions, and only when I'm convinced the fully understood that part, move on to the rest of the slide. By taking this step-by-step approach I can monitor how well the students the following and whether I need to repeat the concept again, or explain it in a different way using the blackboard. If I relegate this whole thing to an online lecture, that the students may or may not be watching before class, I really have no way to gauge whether the students understood all the nuances involved. And personally I would find it hard to assess, based on a quiz, whether this level of comprehension was achieved. I admit that with 100+ students making this assessment is difficult, no mater how you slice it. Secondly, the class to me seems way too big to perform small group work, and still be convinced that all the students are receiving adequate instruction, especially since an auditorium configuration does not lend itself to this kind of work, and it would require a lot more TA's than I presently have. Finally, another reason I'm I'm hesitant to let the lecture go, is that consistently when looking at student evaluations they almost always say that for them the best part of the course was attending lecture.

Over the summer I participated in a workshop at my university about flipping courses. One thing that I learned is that in fact, there are many different models for flipping a course. And that flipping is not necessarily an all-or-nothing proposition. This means that you can flip certain aspects of the course, where it makes the most sense, and leave other aspects in a traditional lecture format. I've also read a couple of articles that suggest that the reason that flipped courses work so well for improving student learning is simply because you're just increasing the amount of active learning that students are engaged in, and also making them perform more work before class. So the key would be to find a way in which to incorporate a greater amount of active learning, while still preserving the overall lecture format. What I've done in redesigning my course is to intersperse certain aspects of active learning within the lecture. The solution I found is as follows: Before coming to class students are given a "neuroscience question of the day". These questions are open-ended questions that require the students to explore the key topics that will be touched upon during the next day's lecture. Students can use any resources they want to answer the questions, and are encouraged to discuss and work through the question with their classmates before class. Students have to write up the answer to the question in an index card which they bring the class (and turn in at the end of class, in order to keep track of attendance). During class there'll be key moments where I try to tie in that day’s question with the lecture. And at that point I will pause and allow the students to discuss in small groups their answers to the question, and then I call in various groups to share their answers with the class. Also interspersed with the lecture, are various times when students do work in small groups (basically their immediate neighbors) to come up with answers to problems or thought experiments that I put up in the board. Simply interspersing these types of activities within the lecture keeps the students alert, allows them to pause and internalize what we just talked about, and also gives them confidence to speak up in class since they have had a chance to discuss the answers with their peers. To complement the lectures and neuro questions of the day, students also have to complete a series of online virtual labs that are tied in to the lecture material. Sometimes these are completed after class, and sometimes these need to be completed before class in order to answer the question of the day. The labs usually consist of online activities that require running some type of simulation or using some other kind of digital resource, that helps them explore the concepts covered in class. In addition to this, students can attend weekly review sessions where TAs further answer questions and go over problem sets.

So how has this worked out? While I have not systematically evaluated the effectiveness of this approach other than looking at midterm grades (which have improved), what I do see compared to other years is that the students are far more present during lecture. Normally I think I’m pretty good at getting students to ask questions during class, but this semester I've noticed a huge increase in participation, and more importantly participation from a much larger and diverse group of students than is usual. I'd like to think that having a chance to prepare and discuss the class material in advance, and during class, gives the students a certain amount of confidence that they would not necessarily have had they been learning the material for the first time during lecture, or not interacting with peers. When I was in college I love to going to lecture, to me that was one of my favorite aspects of of going to class. So I disagree that lecture is necessarily passive learning, I think that if the instructor is good enough or creative enough they can stimulate as much active learning as you would during a flipped class. Also, there’s not just one way to flip a class, any change that stimulates active learning can only have a positive impact.

4 responses so far