Number crunching is exhausting but oh so good


The power of numbers

As I am plowing ahead with the analysis of a course design change in a general biology course, things changed for the best when a colleague who loves numbers agreed to help me out with the statistics.

Statistics is a beast I know slightly, but not enough to be confident in my analysis. To have somebody with the knowledge work the numbers is priceless.

Over the past few days I learned two things:

  • Have a biostatistician buddy. They will make all the difference between despondence and hopefulness. Not to mention saving time. If I get a not significant result, there is always the little voice in the back of my head that thinks I might have just done the wrong analysis.
  • Get numbers and use them. The data table gathered (all IRB approved and anonymized) of the time period studied has 1738 students! Meaning, grades and demographics of 1738 human beings that took that course.
    • For one, it is staggering to see the reality behind the numbers. For example, the age range went from 19 to 69! This is a GE course. I feel immensely proud of the 69 old female who took this course. These are the famous “non-traditional” students we hear so much about.
    • Numbers have powers. Right now I am in the middle of writing an application to a competitive residency program. Do not know what to expect, but am applying because a) it would be great, and b) the application process itself is a learning experience.  In one of the essays where I have to describe my projects and plans I am using those numbers, including demographic data to show the potential.

The bottom line is, if you are faculty who is interested in education research and wants to apply for grants, collaborations, etc., you will be asked for numbers (enrollment,demographics). Have them collected ahead and use them to your favor. Right now, showing that your teaching serve non-traditional students, minorities, females, and veterans will be in your favor.

Update: I will be writing a separate post about the importance of IRB approvals for education research, but this is something I learned the hard way- you NEED IRB approval for any human subject research, and that includes student surveys and especially collection of demographic data.

Once I am done with the applications and posters…

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Barral allGEP AAAS poster draft

The state of my AAAS poster, January 24 6.27 AM.

I cannot wait to be done with the three essays, three posters, and one merit letter. They are all due during the first two weeks of February, and as a good procrastinator, I have left them all to the last minute (and because I had a bunch of other deadlines before). In fact, things are better than usual! I already started working on one essay, two posters, and the letter.

And, things are better also because the only one that requires creativity is the merit letter. And by creativity I mean, in the literature sense. A merit letter has to be in a beautifully written and convincing prose. Obviously, content is essential, but presentation matters. In a way, beauty reflects content, I believe Hegel said, and in this case it reflects craftsmanship, attention to detail, and also how important this particular item is for us. While I don’t consider myself a good writer, over my lifetimeI I have created some decent pieces of writing. The exosome review I published in a relatively obscure journal ten years ago is still being downloaded, and it is one I am very proud of. It took forever to get started, but once I came to the first sentence (it was sitting in silence looking at one of San Diego’s canyons), all went quickly. For the merit letter, I already have the thread that will string together my accomplishments, so the “only” thing that I need is to sit down and write it.

The other essays are not really literary essays- I just need to show that I have the background and experience to be successful for that particular training program. As I mentioned in one of my previous postings, my administration has been asking for monthly lists of activities, providing us with an effective and detailed log of scholarly and outreach achievements.

Posters are a different beast. Two of them are student posters, but I started them so the students can putz around with the results. For mine, the challenge is to adapt a number of very scientifically oriented verbiage to AAAS’s (I expect) more general audience. My poster is about the Genomics Education Partnership, of which I have blogged extensively. The structure and modus operandi of GEP allows sharing of presentations so we are not really starting from scratch, but I would like to lighten up the informative load to make the poster stand out and make it more attractive. Here is a problem, though…I do not want to look too “flashy.” So I am struggling with the background. I really like the one I have now, but I may need to step back and change it to a more conservative color. I tried putting Drosophila flies as a background, but that was too busy. Dear Readers, what do you think? I am open to suggestions. Of course, my coauthors will have the last say, but it would be nice to have feedback.

Now, I started saying “once I am done.” Yes. There is an exciting completely new research project I am involved with now, that has to do with microbes, plastic, and the ocean. I can’t wait to get started in earnest.

But I need to be done with three essays, three posters, and one merit letter first…

Surrounded by geniuses?

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Obi wan Kenobi

Readers may have noted my absence for a week- I was out of town for a workshop last weekend, and when I returned there was a big pile of reports to grade, plus a number of pressing deadlines. I had to hunker down and plow through them- not yet done, but feeling better now.

Most people, and particularly academics, are familiar with this ebb and flow of work load. How many times we shake our heads and mutter, “Why am I doing this to myself?” Answers are of course manyfold, and luckily most of us do enjoy what we do. Then of course, there are some bonuses.

Yesterday was one of those days that my brain did not seem to work right. I overslept, causing some stress in the morning heading to a meeting, and as the day advanced, I was aware that my mental processes were sluggish.

On the other hand…

  • I was in a meeting discussing the possibility to host a Small World Initiative training at our campus. It was a pure logistics meeting (cost of lodging, catering, possible dates, transportation). I was stuck in the model of previous training workshops. The facilities director asked: “Can we make it a regional workshop to cater to instructors who live close-by and can drive?” Funnily enough, this was an option that had come up before, but somehow got lost in later email threads. As an option, it would be for sure simpler to arrange.
  • Another colleague and I are going through some serious number crunching to look at the effect of an intervention in a non-majors biology class. As it was my original idea, I had a set of parameters I wanted to look at. She suggested to look also at the number of W students (withdrawals) as a proxy of retention.
  • Thanks to a small internal grant, I am now in practice the administrator of resources, a fact that makes me nervous. Have been looking at ways to make it as transparent and clear as possible to prevent any doubts of what is the $ used for. As the project involves the use of a consultant, I have been thinking of some kind of document to reflect expectations, deliverables, and deadlines. My faculty mentor, whom I jokingly call Obi wan Kenobi, pointed out to me that there is indeed an official form for contracts at the university and explained the instructions to its use.

The common denominator of these three examples was my reaction: “Genius!” I exclaimed all three times, as the simple solutions just moved the process along. And yes, I may have arrived to the same solution by myself…but on a day like yesterday, it was wonderful to feel the power of teamwork.

Happy weekend to you all!

Do you need a doctorate to teach at a community college?

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“Dean Dad” Matt Reed had this blog post yesterday, and this morning there were a number of thoughtful comments on it. It is not that often that DD mentions specifically biology positions at Community Colleges, and the posting was right on. The blog post is in response to a graduate student who is considering not finishing his/her Ph.D. and apply for teaching positions at CCs. Matt advises to think twice before abandoning the Ph.D., as the field is competitive, and also to try out teaching at a CC to test the waters and find out if it is the right option.

The commenters were in agreement- finish the Ph.D! While I do not work at a CC, I taught for them before and know the system through friends and colleagues. It is not only that the field is competitive, with many more Ph.D. graduates abandoning or not considering the traditional academic career. Many CCs are now aiming at granting Bachelor’s degrees. But what I am seeing from my corner is that more and more research is being encouraged, supported, and funded in CCs. Big funding agencies such as HHMI and NSF are supporting grants and collaborative projects involving CCs. And to run research and being able to discuss with the “big boys,” a Ph.D. is a clear advantage.

Becoming “real” in an online course

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Screenshot 2015-01-14 07.18.17

Screenshot from one of my weekly videos for an online microbiology course, shot during Halloween. It was a hit!

Things have changed quite a bit in the online teaching world, and I am not referring to the teaching side only.

Students have changed too. They are expecting much more than before in terms of online content and interactions. And not only young students- even adult learners are much more tech savvy. If they are used to multiple media and devices, and abundant online interactions, they expect the same in online courses. And while quality of content is essential in any course, online included, student engagement and interest (which increases motivation) is greatly helped by increasing interactions.

A very important aspect of getting students engaged is instructor presence. Years ago, instructors were expected to post a weekly announcement and be active on the discussion boards. More recently, the norm is that instructors maintain steady communication with students, including reminders and email discussions. While not responding emails at night is a mental sanity policy for the overwhelmed instructor, truth is, online students are online for a reason, and most often it is at night when they have the time to study. Responding quickly to emails or communications in general usually provides high marks for the instructor. Which, in these days of instructor evaluations being scrutinized, is important.

But what I have noticed lately is that students are starting to ask for “real life” presence, and praising if the instructor shares pictures, posts videos, or holds synchronous video sessions. One of the online adjuncts I mentor, a prolific email writer and communicator, received a comment of “it would have been nice to see what she looks like.” The comment was in the context of her being perceived as distant, holding students at arms’ length. I just started a course my usual way, posting a picture of myself as part of the introduction, and uploading a short video welcoming them to the course. For the first time, most of the students uploaded pictures of themselves in the Introductions, and I received praise from a student specifically for being present and building community.

I have taken a few MOOCs at Coursera, and I understand where students are coming from. Most lectures have the professor talking into camera, either in a studio or recorded in the room. There are always video presentations in the beginning, and more and more, real-time Q&A sessions. Well-done online courses, with plenty of room for community building and an instructor who is perceived as “present” are becoming the desired norm, not the exception.

In any case, there are many articles and pages dedicated to the different tools and resources to use for livening up your online course. Here comes a short list of what I do, and how I do it.

  • A couple of years ago I invested in a professional picture of myself, which goes to my official intro or syllabus pages. Nothing new there, but I really support the professional picture part. It is worth the cost.
  • I also have a few personal pictures that are deemed appropriate to share in the course. Good choices include pictures reflecting pets or hobbies, as they invite connection with most students. They will also show the instructor’s “human” side.
  • Welcome videos are highly recommended. I use a very simple Logitech webcam, and have learned how to place a floor lamp by my side so I am not talking from a dark blur. How to record it is much depending on your computer and expertise. I make it easy on myself- on my Mac I use Photobooth to record the video, and then upload it to Youtube. One can record directly to Youtube, and there are many other programs, but Photobooth has been quick and easy.
  • While many students shrug at live chat sessions, others expect it. Many students do not take the time to clarify questions via email, but wait for the opportunity to ask in person. I have gone a long way from dreading the ClassLivePro (now Bb Elluminate/Collaborate- I lost track of the name) sessions to making them an opportunity to interact with students and hopefully engage them. There is an amazing range of options of what can be done in those sessions, and I am still learning. For now, it is mainly uploaded powerpoint slides with quiz questions in-between, and webtour of internet pages. But I have my webcam on. It has taken me a few years to become comfortable with seeing my face onscreen, but it is doable. If the course does not include Live chat opportunities, there are other options: Google hangouts, Skype chats, Zoom, and many others.
  • One last detail- being yourself is fine on video, within certain limits of course. One is time- 2 minutes and change is a great length, more than 5 is a no-no. I have to write down what I want to say otherwise I ramble on. Occasional humor is ok (see the Halloween picture), and also to be attuned to the time of the year, such as wishing happy holidays at the end of December. I record my videos fresh every time, so I can refer to specifics from the course, making it real time feedback.

Dear Reader, please share your experience with making yourself more real through online courses. As mentioned, this is my little list of what I do, but there are many different ways to make it happen. Thank you!

Mark Zuckerberg’s global bookclub

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Screenshot 2015-01-13 22.25.25

I am on Facebook, of course, although you will not find me easily- I have checked the little box that hides my profile from public searches. But I do share quite a bit with my friends and family members, many local but most far flung.

It was not until I saw the movie “The network” that I figured out who Mark Zuckerberg was, and I cannot say that at the time I was sympathetic to him. But with time, and seeing his activities in the world, a number of initiatives, charity work, etc. I decided he was ok after all.

Then I watched him speaking Mandarin and my “ok opinion” jumped to a much higher level. It is admirable that he took the time to study a completely different, challenging language, and was open to come out to a high profile, public event and risk making a fool of himself. And for an American, that was quite a statement. I started almost admiring the guy, and as such decided to follow him on FB.

His posting asking opinions as to which should be his 2015 yearly challenge was also endearing to me. Of course I suppose he already knew what he was going to choose and this was just a PR gig. But, honestly, why would he even need a personal PR gig?

And then he announced that he would read a book every 2 weeks, and formed a page called A Year of Books, which as today has more than 249,000 likes. The first book was Moises Naim’s The End of Power. The book was sold out in Amazon by the time I checked, luckily I could get the Kindle version. And today, there was a Q&A with the author. I am delighted. No, I have not finished the book yet, but still enjoyed reading the questions and the answers by the author. Here is what he would like the readers to take away from the book:” That power has become easier to acquire, harder to use and easier to lose. And that this is happening everywhere, both geographically and functionally. That is, it is happening around the world and in all human endeavors where power matters – from politics to the military, and from religion to higher education or business and all else.”

I think this is a great idea. Love books, and love the idea to spread the word about books in such a global manner. Can’t wait to learn which is the next.

Accelerated learning, living a la Tim Ferriss, and the delight of tea.

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Picture taken at a quaint Victorian tea place my women colleagues go for holiday tea every December. Love the tea, but not the cup- I drink from large ceramic mugs!

Picture taken at a quaint Victorian tea place my women colleagues go for holiday tea every December. Love the tea, but not the cup- I drink from large ceramic mugs!

In a previous post I recounted how I came across Tim Ferriss’ 4-hour approaches, and how it influenced the design of my lectures. For the record, I have not read any of Tim’s books 100%, and I do not think that is his goal anyway. I got “The 4-hour chef” from the library and managed to try out 2 recipes (which worked fine), learned a way to chop onions without chopping my fingers, and again shook my head at his lambasting statements about being able to learn anything in a very short time.

On the other hand, as I mentioned before, the whole issue of accelerated learning is important for me. My university’s approach and niche is accelerated learning, with courses 4 and 8 weeks long. For somebody in the semester system, that sounds crazy. However, our students take only one class at a time, which means all their attention is focused on that class.

And then it comes, of course, the issue of “simpler is harder, less is more” mantra, which has been my leading light for the past years. In 2012 I attended at ASCB 2012 an education symposium, where an integrated science curriculum at Princeton was presented. I order to make it work, the course was streamlined- students spent a lot of time on mathematics and physics principles essential for quantitative analysis, and learned even some coding early on. What was taken out the curriculum? Descriptions of the classic molecular biology experiments of the 1950s. I remember nodding. Why do we teach those historical milestones? Because we were taught that way. Of course they were relevant and elegant, and they teach students about the scientific process, but would not be more relevant to let students figure out how science works while actually doing it?

Currently I am in a phase of thinking a lot about teaching and learning. In “educationese,” I am in a metacognitive phase (chuckle). Reasons are manyfold: such as embarking with a colleague on an ambitious flipped classroom project for a majors biology class, or the need to write a number of reflection essays for different proposals. And as tighten my mental reins and try to be more focused and more productive (while not losing completely the ability to spot attractive unexpected possibilities), I am also more open to suggestions of how to do it.

This posting was inspired by a recent posting by Tim about productivity tricks. I was pleased to see some approaches I already use, and even more about the change from coffee to tea! Yes, me. As long as I remember I have been an inveterate coffee drinker of multiple cups just to get started in the morning. Recently and following doctor’s orders I cut down to one cup in the morning, after which I switch to tea. To make the transition more palatable I decided to go for finer loose-leaf tea, and in the past weeks I have assembled a nice collection (still growing) . What is mind-boggling for me how easy the transition has been, and how much clearer my mind is. In fact, if by habit I pour myself a second cup of coffee it does not feel good at all.

Bottom line of this slightly rambling post? Inspiration can come from many sources, some quite unorthodox. Tools can be adapted from other contexts very effectively. And sometimes small changes (like switching to tea) may have large effects.

Why does Twitter work for me?


Science tweets galore!

Although I have tried numerous times, both “formally” as part of professional development chats and informally, few of my colleagues or friends have adopted Twitter. I have noticed misgivings and suspicion about “being on Twitter,” and no explanations or examples have worked to change that perception. I understand the misgivings- as my friend and mentor Michelle Pacansky-Brock knows, I was extremely suspicious about the public nature of Twitter when she introduced it to the Building Online Community course. The fact that I embraced it afterward and it has remained one of the few social media outlets I follow publicly is pretty telling.

Blog writers and readers love lists, so here comes a short one top off my head about why am I on Twitter:

  1. Learn about news first-hand and in real-time.
  2. I get “curated” news from different point of views, directly in my feed (more later).
  3. Make new connections and friends.
  4. Learn about what is going on at professional conferences I cannot attend.
  5. Ask for and receive advice.
  6. Complain about or praise services- I usually receive lightning-speed responses from vendors.
  7. Provides a virtual “water-cooler” environment. Not all is serious and professional. However the 140 character limit keeps chatting under control.

Let me give a quick and recent example of point #2 regarding curated news. A few days ago, namely January 7, Nature magazine published an article about the discovery of a novel antibiotic using a very creative technique to culture soil microbes (of which the majority are impossible to culture in the lab with traditional methods). The article was picked up very quickly by many mainstream media outlets and was heavily publicized over the next few days.

How did I learn about the article? Through Twitter.

I am not sure which was the first tweet that caught my attention, but I do know that is was in the evening or night. And it was not Nature journal’s account’s tweet that I saw, but noticed a flurry of activity among a number of microbiologists, geneticists, and metagenomics experts that I follow. They were referring to the article in the way experts do-  commenting, asking questions, expressing doubts and/or enthusiasm. Soon knowledgeable science writers joined (think Ed Yong) and by the end of the night I had a pretty good idea not only what the breakthrough was about, but also many of its highlights and also limitations.

Next morning the article was everywhere in the news outlets. I received the article by email from friends and colleagues and was asked about it directly. It is a great way to motivate students who do soil research in their courses (as we do), and also raise awareness of the issues with antibiotic resistance.

Let’s say that I was not on Twitter. I might have seen the article if I was the kind of person who reads Nature fresh off the press (which means having full-text online access from home- I don’t). Most probably I would have seen it at the same time as the general public, so I would had to go and read the article first to know what was it about (with all due respect, but I do not trust any press conference about a scientific discovery to get it 100% right). With my knowledge of microbiology and some idea of metagenomics, I would have probably come up with a few opinions and ideas of my own. As I am not surrounded at work with experts in the field (I am at a mainly teaching institution), I would have missed the opportunity to discuss this in person. All in all, to acquire the same knowledge that I got reading at night the Twitter feed of a few selected experts in the field may have taken days or even weeks for me.

Add to this the fact that I am still privileged: I have access to journals through the university library, and I can connect with other experts albeit not as fast as if I was in a top tier institution. Imagine the situation of those who cannot: either as an adjunct disconnected from campus life, or for academics in countries where access to information is more limited.

In summary, Twitter, with limitations of course, allows anybody with internet access to learn from experts and join enlightening and educated conversations. Dear Readers, have you succeeded to get your fellow scientists and colleagues join Twitter? If so, please share how you did it- thank you!

Apropos gut sense and dots

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Today I was preparing one of the live chat sessions I do in my online biology class. Part of it was to clarify an assignment, basically a research project on a topic, and I was stressing the importance of being focused and keeping it deep but simple.

I googled “Steve Jobs quotes” to find the exact wording of the “Simple can be harder than complex” quote. Found a number of other quotes and could not resist reading them.

This thought expresses so much nicer what I tried to say in yesterday’s posting:

“Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

That commencement speech was indeed so special.

via Text of Steve Jobs’ Commencement address (2005).

Throwback Thursday and following the gut instinct

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During my Ph.D. thesis defense.

During my Ph.D. thesis defense.

(Note: This post was scheduled for yesterday, but I postponed it due to the tragedy in Paris)

In a previous posting I expressed a resolve to ignore the siren song of “cool new things” in order to focus better on my priorities. That is solid and useful common sense. However, in my personal experience, many of the most life-changing opportunities came out of the blue and I have learned to “listen to the universe” for clues. Take for example the fact that I came to do my postdoc in the States. It all started by a simple question the evening of December 6th 2001, during the formal celebratory dinner of my Ph.D. thesis defense. My opponent, a renowned cancer immunologist and I were chatting about my future plans. I explained that I had a postdoctoral gig lined up in Spain. It was related to my field of interest, it would allow me to be close to family and friends, and also to give my son a  Spanish-speaking environment for a change.

“Have you considered San Diego?” he asked.

I looked at him. Earlier that day, he and the tribunal grilled me for hours in the Swedish tradition of a Ph.D. thesis defense. After the official announcements and champagne it was time for lunch with only the supervisors (I had 2), the opponent, and the newly minted doctor. During lunch my opponent had talked about his experience as a visiting researcher in San Diego. In the deep Swedish wintertime his descriptions of the blue ocean and the sunshine sounded like a golden fantasy.

“I know a few groups where your expertise would fit right in.”

Even after so many years, I remember that I saw a door opening and a clear phrase appeared in my brain: “If I say no, I will regret this the rest of my life.”

Well, the rest is, as they say, history. It took many months, horrendous paperwork, lots of money, heartbreaks, self-doubts, and yes, fear, but in September 2002 I boarded the plane, together with my 12 year old, that took me to California and the beginning of a new life.

So going back to common sense. Yes, it is necessary to shut out the distractions and the noise, and focus on priorities. But great opportunities sometime arrive unexpectedly, and with potential to upend careful plans and bring chaos. In my very personal experience, no rational analysis has ever been able to identify the real thing. When it is right, it just feels right. It is a gut feeling.

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