Twitchy Bias

(by namnezia) Apr 12 2016

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

(by namnezia) Apr 09 2016

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

(by namnezia) Apr 08 2016

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

(by namnezia) Apr 07 2016

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

(by namnezia) Apr 06 2016

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

Do you have 100 hours?

(by namnezia) Mar 30 2016

Allegedly, in Japanese there is a term, Tsundoku, that refers to the growing piles of new, unread books that accumulate around your house. You know, that book you bought in that cool little bookstore last time your were in NY. Or those books your read a review for and ordered on Amazon. If you are like me, you probably already have a pretty large Tsundoku. In addition to my big Tsundoku, I also have a rapidly accumulating list of TV shows and movies I want to watch. I almsot never have time to watch anything on TV or Netflix, HBO, etc. I do make a point of watching some select shows that I like and follow but I have an increasingly growing list of things-I-want-to-watch-but-will-likely-never-find-the-time-to-do-so. To make matters worse, a friend of the blog and twitter user @BanditoKat recently sent me a list of “50 documentaries you need to see”. Personally I don’t feel like I “need to see” anything, but that is a pretty damn impressive list. And I’ve only seen a handful of them. It has a healthy mix of classic documentaries and new ones and some that really changed the way I think about certain topics (I highly recommend Shoah, the most powerful documentary on the Holocaust and a great reminder of why hateful politics are dangerous). Others like Hoop Dreams and The Thin Blue Line are genre defining. And some bring me happy memories of going to see them with my sweetie during grad school, like the Buenavista Social Club. Many are also international and the ones I’ve seen are excellent. The list has some links to ones that are available for free, but you might have to search most of them out on your own. Anyway, here’s the link, hope you have an extra free 100 hours, otherwise expect your video Tsundoku to get a little larger.

4 responses so far

Better cover letters — so what is your paper about?

(by namnezia) Mar 16 2016

We recently submitted a paper to a fancy journal, and one thing that impressed me was how the journal made sure you carefully structure the cover letter to help the editorial team make the best possible decisions. When I first got started in this business, when submitting a paper I would basically just slap the cover letter on as an afterthought before hitting submit on a journal’s website. Something along the lines of:

“Dear Editor, Check out our new paper. Hope you like it, let us know if ya’ wanna publish it. K’thx."

And while that does convey the basics, over the years my letter has become more refined. Because really you want the letter not just to convey the title of your paper, but you want the editor to know what question you are addressing, why your findings are cool, and who would care to know about it. In this way they can quickly grasp the merits of your brilliant paper, begin to think about appropriate reviewers to send it off too, and more important to get excited about it. In some of the fancier journals this letter can mean whether your paper goes off for review or gets a desk reject.

So what should a cover letter contain? I think the best guidance you can get on this matter is from our friends over on eLife:

• How will your work make others in the field think differently and move the field forward?
• How does your work relate to the current literature on the topic?
• Who do you consider to be the most relevant audience for this work?
• Have you made clear in the letter what the work has and has not achieved?

And the key here is not expound for pages upon pages on this. Just a couple of concise sentences about each point will more than do. Don’t go nuts, don’t be pompous and overpraise yourself, don't write fucking War and Peace, just be helpful and guide the editor to the key points. In fact, it is always good to keep those points in mind while writing your manuscript and developing its narrative arc. It’s no guarantee your paper will be accepted or even reviewed, but at least it’ll improve your chances.

2 responses so far

Digital Tools for Teaching

(by namnezia) Mar 15 2016

In the past I've written about some of the analog tools I enjoy using in my work. However I also keep a toolkit of digital tools I use in various ways both for my research and teaching work. I want to talk about some of the tools I use to aid in my teaching, mainly in terms of preparing digital materials that can be used online or during presentations. All the tools listed here run on iOS and I use them on my iPad, and sometimes pass on the files to Illustrator, iMovie or Keynote.

Are there any tools you use regularly that would recommend?

1. Options for iPad diagramming, sketching and drawing apps. My top two are these:


Concepts – This is really good. It’s basically a vector drawing app, with lots of tools, easy interface, layers, etc. It can export directly to Adobe CC or to whatever as an SVG file which can be used in Illustrator


SketchBook - From Autodesk, really powerful for drawing and tracing, with lots of brush effects. Export, as far as I can figure out is only as PNG, but working with layers you can copy and move objects around in the app. So good for creating backgrounds, freestanding illustrations for slides, etc. A bit of a learning curve, but not really.


For creating other cool drawings to enhance sides etc I use either Paper by 53 and Procreate, which are the apps that feel the most like using actual drawing tools, especially with a decent stylus. I really like the watercolor effects on Paper.


Aside from those two, I’ve tried:


InkPad - Vector-based simple shapes, etc. Very straightforward and can export as SVG, but not as streamlined and polished as concepts.


Brushes - Very paired down but effective drawing/painting app. Has layers, is easy to use and the interface is totally non-obtrusive. Fun to use. Export only as PNG (or JPG?).


2. I also found good apps for creating animations (but for hand-drawn, stop motion animation, not necessarily moving objects):


Animation HD – really easy to make animated doodles. Basically a layered drawing program that allows you to create animations. E.g. create a face, copy it across frames, then alter the expression, etc. I really like the user interface and the smoothness and simplicity of the app.


Animate it! — Stop motion animation on the cheap. Very rudimentary editing capabilities, could probably be exported onto something else.


I'm still looking for something that let's you draw simple objects and move them around the screen, like to animate a pathway or a mechanism. I use Powerpoint or Keynote for this, but it is really bulky and cumbersome.


3. Digital whiteboards allow you to record video while draw on your screen with different colors and narrate, so you can create little mini lessons you can upload for your class if you want to clarify a concept, or provide some pre-class material:


Educreations – Great digital whiteboard with audio recording. Limitation is that animations reside in their website, so can’t easily be exported.


Doodlecast Pro – Not as good UI as the other one, but allows you to export as a movie file to use as you wish. This is the one I use the most.


Another tool I found that has a lot of potential is called Explain Everything. I'll be trying it out and report back once I've used it. You can incorporate pictures, etc. to your whiteboard presentation


A final note of caution. Don't use Prezi. Ever. It makes everyone nauseous and pisses everyone off.


Hope these are useful!


No responses yet

Messin' around time

(by namnezia) Mar 11 2016

I was recently compiling a list of projects a new person coming to my lab could embark on to get their feet wet. These are typically short projects that have a high likelihood of yielding some useful data that could either stand on its own, or be used to test a specific aspect of a larger project. Typically the payoff for these projects is as they say "incremental" but always solid and something to fall back on. Occasionally it leads to something bigger. Usually when a new person joins the lab I'll assign the one of these starter projects and then encourage what we call "Messin' Around Time" (MAT). We actually call it something else, but it's in the same spirit. The idea of MAT, is that said person, once they have a handle on basic  techniques used in lab is encouraged to try all sorts of crazy (but well reasoned) experiments. And the idea is that MAT experiments are basically sketches, which will then give you  a sense whether the project is worth following up. The more improvisational they are, even if imperfectly designed, the better. You might be testing one thing, notice blip in the data, crank up the dial to eleven and amplify this blip which then turns out to be something really interesting. Thus MAT requires the experimenter to keep a heightened level of vigilance, because you never know what will be interesting. It involves looking at your data in real time as much as possible and adjusting the experiment on the fly in order to optimize conditions. I think this improvisational experimentation is a critical exploratory skill that will help trainees formulate hypotheses, and then design proper experiments to see if the interesting effect they just sketched out persists. Since MAT often occurs in parallel with the bread-and-butter safe projects, in the worst case scenario where MAT fails, you still have something to say for your time. I once had a postdoc who would do Freaky Friday experiments. Test all sorts of crazy ideas on Friday afternoons. Most of the time nothing would come of it, but in other case they would end up resulting in a paper. I encourage everyone to do this, whenever possible.

3 responses so far

G-protein coupled receptors and other boring stuff

(by namnezia) Mar 10 2016

I really hate giving that lecture. I just find the topic so dry and I struggle with finding ways to make it interesting. It's not that the topic isn's important, but at least for me it's hard to get excited over the basics. As opposed to most of the other lectures in the class it just ends up being a straightforward, sit down and listen affair, with not much opportunity to add elements of active learning, or group work or other things that help break up the lectures up a bit. Topics like these are not good candidates for a flipped class session either, since there are no real problems to solve or clear group work that could be done around that topic, especially with a large class of 100+ students. I do have some cool animations, and go over some experiments and data, but much less than I do in the rest of the course. Today I decided to mix it up a bit by simulating a second messenger cascade, and the signal amplification that comes with it, by having students play the part of different transduction molecules and activate each other by giving each other fist bumps. Just with two GPCRs in each corner of the class, we were able to activate the entire lecture hall. Admittedly it was a bit hokey, but at least the students seem to be having fun while doing  it and will definitely remember the concept.

How about y'all? How do you liven up lectures on boring-ish topics? Or do you just skip them altogether and let the students learn about the material outside of class (e.g. via flipping) and do something altogether different during class time? Are you such an inspiring lecturer that you can even make GPCRs shine?

3 responses so far

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