Beginner’s luck?

I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve accepted a tenure-track position as an assistant professor of biology at Berry College! I’ll start in August 2019, and my research will be student-centered and will focus on parasitic plants. Berry is situated on 27,000 acres – including extensive forest – and local parasitic plants can be found right there on campus. I’m excited to learn more about identifying, collecting, and experimenting on local plants from some of my amazing soon-to-be colleagues.

I’ve studied the DNA of parasitic weeds in the past, but almost all the research I’ve done to date (on any system) has been in a lab or behind a computer screen. That’s not at all a complaint; my experiments and bioinformatics analyses have taught me so much about my study systems, genetics & evolution, and what it means to be a scientist. But no matter how much I love my career, I know that burnout is normal from time to time, and as a biologist, nothing cures me like spending time outdoors. That’s why I’m so excited about my career at Berry, and also why I try to get outdoors on a regular basis. I’ve been working on plant identification lately, so on a hike this past weekend, I was photographing lots of wildflowers. At one point, I said to no one in particular, “All right, show me some parasites!” And in the next few seconds, a population of Conopholis americana caught my eye! This is the first parasitic plant from the Orobanchaceae (the family I study) that I’ve ever seen in the wild. I could barely contain my excitement, and ended up describing the day as one of the best in my life. Even the most thrilling experimental results can’t give me the joy that seeing one of my favorite organisms in the wild can. Maybe finding this Conopholis population was just beginner’s luck, but as I start my career as a professor who specializes in local parasitic plants, I hope I find a lot more of them throughout the future!

 

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Dobby is the world’s best field assistant.

Celebrating young scientists on National STEM Day

Before I was born, my mom was voted meanest teacher in her school. Today, she’s one of the most compassionate people I know, so unless her former students were lying, her personality changed tremendously somewhere in the meantime. When I ask her about it, she says that having a kid (that’s me!) mellowed her out. She says that being a parent makes you a better person by forcing you to outgrow immature selfishness. I’m starting to think she’s right.

I’m not a mom, but I’m a mentor in the lab, and I’m amazed at how good it feels when my mentees succeed and are happy. I’ll admit it: throughout much of my time in graduate school, I was really self-absorbed. To some extent, that worked in my favor; obsessing over whether I was sufficiently impressing other scientists motivated me to get a lot of work done, and I’m grateful for the accomplishments I made. But working that way cultivates a vicious cycle of pushing (too) hard for the sake of recognition, getting exhausted, accomplishing little in periods of burnout, fearing a loss of recognition, pushing too hard for it again, and…if you don’t know firsthand how depressing that spiral can be, you can probably imagine it. (Also, it’s hard to be a nice person when you’re only in something to win something.) Where was the joy in my work?

For me, the joy comes from teaching, mentoring, and making amazing discoveries alongside teammates. When the teammates are young scientists, the joy is even greater. It took me far too long to realize this. When I taught in graduate school, I knew the joy of connecting students with the natural world, but it took more than that to convince me that working with students in the lab brings joy, too. It took finishing grad school, necessarily struggling with new projects in postdoctoral positions, not winning awards or publishing papers as soon as I thought I should, feeling uncertain and not at all confident in my abilities, and then being surprisingly uplifted by students’ success. So thanks, students, for helping me get past selfishness and for unknowingly picking me up when I’ve felt lost. And thanks for being patient with my still-developing skills as a mentor.

It’s National STEM Day, and also a day when I’m feeling especially grateful for my mentees. Why? Today, an undergraduate showed up in the lab with a couple pages of insightful experiments that he came up with in his free time, and, well…I hope I didn’t scare him with my excitement. The fact that he’s learning to think like a scientist means he’ll be better equipped to make informed decisions throughout life, and it means I’m doing one of the most important parts of my job. For me, this has been a week of failed experiments and lots and lots of time behind a computer screen, so my student’s success – not measurable by a grade or a publication but by his thought process – was tremendously rewarding. I can’t wait to see how his experiments turn out, but more importantly, I can’t wait to see how he thinks about the results.

I guess the moral of this story is that it can feel great to step outside yourself in the often intensely independent world of academic research. Wanting to impress people is normal, getting tired is normal, burning out is normal, but watching a mentee grow as a scientist is extraordinary. On National STEM Day, I’m grateful for the students who bring joy to my workday. I’m grateful that they ask and address important questions in and out of the lab. I’m grateful that they make me believe that the future of our world is in good hands.

Love academia? Check out an education conference!

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This past weekend, I attended my first education-focused conference with a couple people who’ve been affiliated with Spelman, where I was a CURE postdoctoral fellow. We led a panel discussion at CUR 2018 on what it’s like to be a postdoc at a liberal arts school and on how similar institutions can successfully implement postdoctoral programs of their own. Working at Spelman has been my only experience at a liberal arts college, and of course, Spelman is also unique in that it’s an HBC for women. The transition from the University of Georgia (my graduate school home) to Spelman came with its challenges, and in particular I struggled to produce research in an environment so different from the R01’s of my past. The nine months I had set aside for this first postdoctoral position weren’t quite enough to completely find my footing and feel confident in the work I was doing (but don’t get me wrong, I still had a great experience!). Because of this, I felt honored but also a bit nervous to represent Spelman on a conference stage.

 

After arriving at CUR 2018, I was both put at ease and deeply moved by the opening talk by Dr. Freeman Hrabowski. At many a research conference, I’ve heard plenaries that promote advancement of the field and/or discuss extremely charismatic research projects. Those kinds of talks are important; they motivate us to do our best work as scientists, and they captivate us by telling true stories that sound like the stuff of science fiction. I’ve also heard a few plenary speakers lament scientific illiteracy in our society, which is indeed a depressing problem that contributes to the path of destruction our planet is on. But the plenary speaker at CUR 2018 was completely different, in that he reminded us that humans have an innate capacity for personal growth and that we, as academics, have a responsibility to do the work of social justice. As educators, we must fight for everyone to have access to education, not just in lectures and standardized lab classes, but in the process of independent inquiry through research. My favorite quote from his talk was “anyone at any age can learn anything.” Whether or not that’s strictly true, if we adopt it as our default belief about everyone we meet, how can we not develop a passion for interacting with our fellow human beings? How can we not assume the best about people? How can we resist sharing our love for science, the scientific process, and the evidence-based decision-making that it empowers us to do? Beyond this one particular quote that so captivated me, the rest of Freeman’s speech was pretty great, too. In fact, he got a standing ovation at the end. And throughout the rest of my conference attendance, as I observed various talks and posters, presented at my panel session, and chatted with my fellow attendees, I noticed that the whole atmosphere was one of positivity and faith in humanity’s ability to better itself through education. To say the least, it was my favorite conference that I’ve ever attended.

I’m not suggesting that teaching is better than research, that it’s wrong to want to get experiments done and papers published, or even that every research group should take on every student who applies to be a part of it. In the world of academic science, we often have to produce the research that we love at a pace we don’t love, and we can’t assume responsibility for everyone who wants to join us in that intense, time-consuming, often painstaking endeavor. (But if we don’t have the resources to take them on, hopefully we can point them in the right direction! And if the right direction doesn’t exist, we need to fight for it to exist!) Anyway, research is vital beyond measure to our planet’s health, our own well-being, and our progress as a society. But I do think that research culture can cause us to miss the forest for the trees. The independence and intensity that research demands of us force us to constantly scrutinize ourselves and the work that we’re doing. If we don’t balance that necessary self-centeredness with connection with – and compassion for – our fellow humans, we risk cutting ourselves off from the things that are most meaningful. So if research is your jam, by all means, get huge sums of grant money, publish top-notch papers in top-tier journals, and feel proud of yourself for surviving in such a fiercely competitive field. Go to lots of research conferences, engage in shameless self-promotion (within reason), and if you’re fortunate enough to get a plenary speaking gig, talk about some super cool science if you want to! But one of these days, in that elusive spare time we all hear about but never seem to have, you just might want to check out an education conference. I bet it will make you feel a whole lot better about the world.