29 Apr

Communicating Science


One of the many things I’m learning in graduate school is how to communicate my research to fellow scientist. This includes seminar talks within my department to fellow students, giving a poster presentation to recruits, or giving a presentation (either poster or oral) at a national conference. Being able to quickly and coherently summarize your research is vital (affectionately referred to as your “Elevator Speech”). It allows you to create collaborations with fellow scientist, convey the importance of your research to the grant committee (can’t do science without money!), but most importantly, it allows you to educate the general public about your work.

The Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology writes that “although traditional scientific training typically does not prepare scientists and engineers to be effective communicators outside of academia, funding agencies and research institutions are increasingly encouraging researchers to extend beyond peer-reviewed publishing and communicate their results directly to the greater public.” Despite this, as an academic, we still focus on high-level, academic speaking, which works for seminars but doesn’t really work for speaking generally about research to non-academics.

So how do we go about solving this dilemma?


Tell a compelling story! This first tip seems kind of obvious. In order to get people to listen to you, you have to grab their attention. As with any story, you should have a beginning (your introduction), a middle (the meat of your research, the data), and an end (your conclusion). It’s important to stress why what you are researching is important.

Be straight-forward and simple. Remember the acronym K.I.S.S.? Keep It Simple Stupid! Nowhere is this more important than when trying to explain your science to the non-academics of the general population. They don’t want to hear you ramble on about a technique when the results are what is important. Something I’ve learned over the years is that the more you understand a topic, the easier it is for you to explain it in simple terms. As Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”


Practice, practice, practice! Seriously, practice, especially in front of others. What makes perfect sense to you may not be so clear to someone who doesn’t spend their waking moments engulfed in the topic. As grad students, we are always giving talks somewhere. In my department, I just send an email to our graduate association asking if anyone wants free food for an hour of their time. My last practice had 10-12 people show up (we all know the best way to get a grad student to show up is to offer food!).

What advice do you have for communicating science to general audiences?

27 Apr

Email Etiquette or How to Deal With Rude Students

A close friend of mine shared the following email from one of her students with me (names have been changed for privacy). This student sent an email asking for an explanation as to why he got a question wrong. My friend emailed back explaining what she was looking for in the answer compared to what he had put for an answer. This was the response she received:

Hi “TA”,

 Okay, I understand now because that makes sense, but I think you and “Dr. Professor” should clarify those definitions in the future. I politely suggest rewording the slides or a clarification in class/recitation, because what you said doesn’t appear to coincide well with her notes.

 Slide 16-21 of the 3-13-15 Enzyme Inhibition notes refer to “mixed” and “non-competitive” inhibition interchangeably (Slide 16-20), not labeling any distinction between the terms, like interchangeably using square and rectangle. Then, “pure non-competitive” inhibition is brought up (Slide 21) as the only difference from what was previously discussed (a case of the previous type where only Vmax changes, Km is the same). So, according to the notes, there is “mixed or non-competitive inhibition” and then “pure non-competitive inhibition,” which I think can be confusing if there is more distinction than that. This is why I thought mixed and non-competitive were the same, and why I didn’t assume you asked for pure non-competitive unless it was directly stated. Perhaps this confused other students as well.

Just a suggestion.


“Rude Student”

He was the only student that seemed to have an issue and this was the first time this had happened (what he felt was the TA and the instructor being on different pages). Had this happened numerous times where it was obvious that the class was suffering, I could understand getting frustrated and politely asking for the TA and professor to coordinate. However, this was not the case and the student did not handle the situation appropriately.

The question arises of how to deal with these types of emails and how to avoid them in the first place. Below is my advice. Some of these tips I already do while others are things I’ve thought of and plan to implement the next time I teach.

Set the tone. After receiving some inappropriate emails my first couple semesters of being a TA, I started to include an “email etiquette” section in my syllabus (or during my first lecture if the course doesn’t allow me to have a separate syllabus from the main one). In this section, I include times/days where they can expect a response (usually laying out I won’t respond on weekends). I also state times I explicitly won’t respond, now matter what day it is (such as a two to three hours before an exam or when a major assignment is due). Obviously there is some flexibility here. For example, if they are needing to upload an assignment to our class website and they cannot get it to work, as long as I am aware of the problem, I will respond and try to help them resolve the issue. Which brings me to my next point. I also make it clear that the email should have a subject that fits the message or I won’t open the email. I get between 25 and 50 emails on any given day so being able to sort through the ones I need to actually open and read is important.

Be a mentor. Something I’ve come to realize is that “kids these days” don’t view sending an email as sending a letter. To them, it is more like a text message. I’ve gotten emails with no greeting and lots of internet slang, even smiley/frowny faces! As such, I make it a point to use my responses as a teaching experience and allow students the opportunity to learn proper communication skills. The Association of Psychological studies has a great article on how to respond to inappropriate student emails.

Instruct them. By and large, most students do not mean harm when they compose their emails. Sometimes, you just need to put their own words into perspective. Most of the time, this can be done simply with your response, but sometimes a more drastic approach is needed. If you get so many inappropriate emails during a semester from several students, try setting aside a small amount of time during a lecture to outline the guidelines that you expect (which should be laid out in your syllabus already) and give them examples of both bad and good emails.

Ignore them (sorta). Sometimes the best response is no response. If the emails are so outlandish or personal in nature, I won’t bother with a response. When it comes to emails that I receive outside my normal response times, instead of never answering, I’ll reply to their email at my next “window”. For example, if they email me on a Sunday afternoon, I’ll reply first thing Monday morning. This usually will allow them the opportunity to realize their mistake. Also, if they have sent an angry email, by allowing them some time to “cool off”, they will be able to handle the situation much more maturely.

Be prepared for the worst. In most cases, graduate students are only a few years older than the students the instruct as a TA. This leads to the potential of students sending romantic requests or sexual innuendos (all though this may happen even between an older faculty and the younger students as well). You should not engage in dialog with the student. You should talk to them privately with a responsible third party present (just in case the student attempts to damage your reputation). If the situation continues, then you need to notify the proper channels within your department and university. This goes for any violent threats as well. I have thankfully never encountered any emails in these forms, but it is wise to have an idea of how you would handle the situation shall it arise.

How do you deal with inappropriate student emails? Share your wisdom in the comments below!

24 Apr

This week in science!

This week in science: Chimps look both ways before crossing a road; gazing into your pooches’ eyes increases oxytocin levels; vaccination against ebola; mutation in IRF7 increases risk of lethal flu

Wild chimps have learned to look both ways before crossing a road! Researchers observed wild chimps crossing a busy road in Sebitoli, in northern Uganda’s Kibale National Park. The noted that the chimps would pause at the road and look both ways for vehicles. They would quickly cross the road in small groups while continuing to look for oncoming cars. The researchers also observed that the alpha males of the group would lead the crossing and wait until all members had crossed. Chimps in Bossou, Guinea behave differently as the roads are quieter. Here, they would cross in a single file line. (Cibot, M. et al. American Journal of Primatology (2015), doi: 10.1002/ajp.22417)

Staring lovingly into your dog’s eyes increases oxytocin levels. Gazing is an important part of non-verbal communication in humans. The “mutual gaze” has been discussed as the fundamental manifestation of the attachment between mother and infant, with maternal oxytocin levels rising during the moment. Now researchers have shown that man’s best friend have hijacked this nonverbal cue. Researchers examined whether a dog’s gazing ability affected the oxytocin levels in both the dog and the owner during a 30-min interaction. Indeed, the oxytocin levels in both dogs and their owners was shown to increase. This suggests that humans may feel affection for the dogs in a similar manner felt towards their family members. So the next time someone refers to Fido as their child, they really do feel that way! (Nagasawa, M. et al. Science 348, 333 (2015)

Ebola vaccination protects nonhuman primates against lethal infection with the virus. As we are all aware of, ebola is a very dangerous virus. With the recent epidemic in Africa and with the recent scares we’ve had here in the US, it’s no surprise that research is underway to find a vaccination against the virus. It has already been demonstrated that a vaccine that is based on a replication-defective strain of ebola (it can not make more of itself) can protect mice and guinea pigs against lethal infection with a rodent-adapted ebola virus. Now, Marzi et al. have demonstrated that this same vaccination protects nonhuman primates against lethal ebola infection. The group further inactivated the virus by treating the replication-defective virus with hydrogen peroxide. It has been known for many years that hydrogen peroxide is an effective viral inactivating agent but only recently has it been revealed that this treatment does not affect the antigenicity (or ability to cause a reaction from our immune response) of the virus. This vaccination provides a safe and effective means to vaccinate against ebola. (Marzi, A. et al. Science 348, 439 (2015))

A mutation in IRF7 increases the risk of lethal flu infection. A mutation in IRF7 in an otherwise healthy child has been linked to life-threatening influenza (flu). IRF7 encodes the transcription factor interferon regulatory factor 7 and plays an important role in the expression of virus-targeted genes. With these mutations, the child’s body produces very little type I and type III interferons (IFNs). IFNs are signalling proteins that are released in response to pathogens such as viruses.  This suggests that type I and III IFNs are necessary for protection against primary infection by the flu virus. (Ciancanelli, M.J. et al. Science 348, 448 (2015))

Other random science-related facts:

  • Germany’s political parties have agreed to increase funding to science by $5.4 billion (US) between 2018 and 2028. Now if we can get the US to follow suit!
  • The Center of iPS Cell Reseach and Application (CiRA) of Kyoto Univeristy has partnered with Takeda, a Japanese pharmaceutical firm, to develop clinical applications for induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, including treatments for heart failure and diabetes.
  • The CDC has started late-stage clinical trials of a potential ebola vaccine in partnership with Sierra Leone’s College of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences.


Did I miss anything you found interesting? Want to learn more about any of these topics?

22 Apr

Finding The Time

As a grad student, I spend a good part of my day in my lab attempting science. I also spend a lot of time preparing to do science (reading articles, discussing ideas with The Boss or fellow students, planning overlapping experiments, etc.) or talking about my science (seminars, posters, conferences). If I was single, this would be a null point. But I’m not, I’ve been happily married for 13.5 years now.

I’m lucky in that I have a very loving, supportive husband. We don’t have children so we don’t have to worry about daycare or one of us being home when daycare closes. He has and still works hard so that I can pursue my dreams of completing my Ph.D. and entering into the academic field.

I gained a lot of weight my first two years in the program. About 6 months ago, I decided enough was enough. My blood pressure had been high my last couple check ups and my dad has recently been put on medications to regulate his blood pressure. My doctor told me I’m young enough to fix it with weight loss and eating healthy but I had to do something or I’d be like my dad. I hired a personal trainer (who is amazing!!!!) and began my journey. I have lost 20 lbs and am 5 lbs away from my goal weight.

Working out has taken an hour a day six days a week out of my already crazy schedule. The school/husband/personal time balancing act has become a major priority. Where does this hour a day come from? Do I sacrafice time with my husband? Or do I shave time from when I’m in the lab?

I’ve made a personal choice not to work on the weekends and spend more time in lab during the week. Weekdays I spend an extra hour or two in lab. If I don’t have an experiemtn to do, I sit at my desk and read/write. Then on the weekends, I spend the time with my husband. On Sundays, I get up “early” in the morning and do my long run before he even gets out of bed. This means I lose sleep this day, but I don’t lose what precious little time I have with him. By not working on the weekends, things take me longer to get done. I also get weird looks from other students when I mention this to them. Some PIs expect their students to spend every waking minute in the lab. Mine doesn’t expect this. In fact, when I started, he said to make sure I take me time!

So, this is how I’ve handled the work/life balance problem for my situation. How do you balance the two in your life?

20 Apr

The perils of tutoring

I love to teach. I always have. My mother has told me (and I vaguely remember) that I used to set up my easel as a kid in front of some milk crates and chairs and “teach” my younger sister and our stuffed animals. I even hijacked my dad’s mechanic manuals to use as textbooks! So it’s no surprise that I’ve actually enjoyed being a teacher’s assistant and tutoring here at my university.

That being said, tutoring is very time and energy consuming. I am in a molecular genetics lab so I don’t use a lot of the biochemistry and metabolism that you learn in the biochemistry classes. I have to spend several hours a week reviewing the material to keep it fresh in my mind. In addition, finding and preparing materials for each student is time-consuming as well. I’m lucky in that I learn very quickly how people learn so I know within a session or two how to present material for each student but this means I might be constructing several different types of material depending on how many students I have. All on top of my responsibilities to stay well-read in my field and keeping my research moving forward.

As a tutor, you rely on your student putting forth a certain level of effort, obviously dependent on the grade that they hope to achieve. Here is where my dilemma lies.

I am currently tutoring a non-biochemistry major student. This is her third time taking the course and she sought a tutor about half way through the semester when she realized that she was, yet again, not going to pass on her own. I gave her the same advice I give all biochemistry students: Start memorizing the pathways the day they are introduced to you. There are numerous pathways, some of which are very complicated and they can not, by the average person, be memorized overnight. As the semester has gone on, it has become obvious that I’m putting more effort into our sessions than she does. She falls asleep during our hour sessions and is never prepared.

So now I’m stuck with the decision of continuing this one-sided relationship or parting ways. What would you do?

20 Apr

Hello world!

Why, hello!

I am the absent-minded biochemist. I am a Biochemistry Ph.D. student at a big state university. The reason I choose biochemistry is pretty simple: most people don’t really know what a biochemist does so you can do whatever you want to do!

I’ve been tossing around the idea of starting a blog as a means to improve my writing. Then I stumbled across a blog post over at Next Scientist by Julio Peironcely. Julio writes about how by starting a science blog, it allowed him to open up to others and it helped him get back on track and regain hope in his PhD. This was the catalyst I needed.

I have two “themes” for my posts that I plan to write:

  1. This week in science/check this out: A weekly post pointing out awesome things that are happening in the field of science. I hope to be able to convey the fascinating and important things going on in the field of science to non-sciencey people.
  2. Grad life: posts relating the struggles and anguish that we all experience in grad school! This will include the struggles of balancing life with school, research woes, and teaching experiences. Most importantly, I hope to include things I wish I would have known when I started.

Let the experiment begin!