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I’m really enjoying the start of this partnership.  The summer student has a keen eye for detail, learns really quickly and asks many questions.  I’m particularly impressed with the types of questions he asks. Each question shows not only that he’s paying attention, but that he’s anticipating what will happen next.  

Over the last few days, we’ve been working together to edit and align sequence data. This involves interpreting the output of the most high-tech piece of equipment in our lab (the automated sequencer), and making judgement calls in cases where the machine can’t do it for us.  Just to quickly boil things down, the sequencer reads fluorescently labeled DNA to output a graph from which we read the sequence. (A fairly good summary can be found here.) For various reasons, including that this technique is not perfect at matching sequence peaks to the correct nucleotide, we have to manually edit the sequences.  Now that we’ve practiced a bit together, and I’m sure the summer student can do this on his own. He’s pretty happy about that too, since he is interested in learning about data analysis, and this is the first step.  

Starting tomorrow, I’ll be heading into the field again, this time for about a week, and following that, I’ll be attending the Let’s Talk Science Partnership Program National Conference.  This means that the summer student will be on his own while I’m away. There are lots of other people in the lab, so he can ask questions whenever he needs to, but I think it will be great for him to work independently while I’m away. I’ve found that some of my most memorable learning experiences in science have been times when I’ve had to figure things out on my own. We had a chat today, and I feel confident that he’s going to have a productive time while I’m gone.

I’ve been off in BC, doing some field work and visiting family. Meanwhile, a new undergraduate student has started work in the lab. I’m lucky enough to be this student’s mentor for the summer, which means that we’ll be working on the same project (one of the sub-projects that is part of my PhD), and learning from each other. The summer student has already been working in the lab for two weeks, learning techniques from our lab manager. Rumor has it that he’s got his first set of data already. Starting Tuesday, I take over as his mentor.

We’ll be working together to develop a suitable marker (short bit of DNA) to use for DNA barcoding. We’ve got 100 samples of green seaweed (such as Ulva), extracting the DNA and then sequencing three specific regions of the genome to evaluate which will be the best for distinguishing species. The project comes with lots of challenges because the one marker that has worked for animals, and most other seaweeds doesn’t work for green seaweeds. This means that we’re treading on new territory, and while that is an exciting part of science, it can also be difficult because experiments don’t always work, so there are not always positive results to keep you motivated.

This is my second summer mentoring an undergraduate, and having been an undergraduate working with a grad student myself in the past, I think there are several factors such as effective communication and mutual respect that lead to successful cooperation, and a positive experience.  

I’ve started this mentorship (and my previous one), by sitting down with the student and asking what his goals for the summer are.  This is good for me to know so that we can tailor his lab experiences accordingly.  This summer, learning data analysis and bioinformatics are high on the list. Great! I find this stuff fun too, so we can spend time editing sequence data and learning about BOLD.  I also try to check in and discuss goals again throughout the summer, because I found that when I was an undergrad summer student, my perspectives and goals changed rapidly as I learned more.  I want students that I work with to feel that goals, and our definition of success, can be continually updated throughout the summer.  What I haven’t done, and I think I should, is communicate my goals and expectations. Of course, communication needs to go both ways.

At times during my undergraduate (like during interviews for the co-op work placement program) I felt, well, I’m not sure the exact word, maybe: under-appreciated.  I knew that I had lots of enthusiasm and could learn quickly despite not having experience, and so when interviewers, or employers wouldn’t trust me with things “too difficult/too complicated/too important for a undergraduate”, I was disappointed.  In my fourth year, I found a supervisor for an independent studies project who was completely different – he challenged me to choose my own research questions and approaches, and come to my own conclusions, yet he was always willing to provide guidance.  For me, this was the perfect balance of independence and freedom to develop critical thinking skills while not leaving me abandoned with no guidance at all.  For students that I work with, I want to cultivate a sense of trust, so that the students know that I value their work, I will challenge them to learn as much as they can, but I always be there to provide help. How will I get this balance right? Surely, some people prefer more guidance than others, so how will I know when to give advice, how much direction to give, or when to just be silent and allow things to run their course (mistakes and all)? I think I’ll just start at some arbitrary level of guidance, perhaps at a level that I might have liked, then talk to the student about how that’s working and take it from there. Signs of frustration are usually pretty easy to pick up on, so these types of cues will help me gauge my level of interaction. 

I’m looking forward to the next few months. I’m sure that I’ll learn more about being a better mentor, teacher and co-worker and it will be neat to see the learning and development of the student too. More updates to come.

One thing that I really like about the education community is the willingness to share work, share resources and generally help each other out. I’ve often been offered full lesson plans or supplies from other teachers and I thought that I’d contribute in the same way. Occasionally, I’ll post activities or lesson plans, free for anyone to download and use. Here’s the first. This is a DNA extraction lesson plan that I developed by modifying lesson ideas that I found on the internet, talking to other people doing similar lessons, and then trial and error. I use it as part of my volunteering with the Let’s Talk Science Partnership Program (LTSPP) at UNB. I’m providing it as a Word document, so anyone who downloads it can cut and paste, modify and use the document as they see fit.

This lesson has been successfully executed in Grades 6 all the way to Grade 12. Personally, I’ve only done it with Grades 8 and up, but some volunteers at LTSPP have had success at Grades 6 and 7. The general idea is that you take fresh or frozen and defrosted bananas, grind them up using a blender, and then use a combination of some common household materials to extract and see the DNA. The one chemical that I usually get from campus is ethanol. I have heard, however, that rubbing alcohol can be substituted and the results are not as good, but it still works. 

As a possible extension, I’d suggest trying the same procedure on other fruits or on vegetables.I have tried spinach once, and it didn’t work – but you may have different results. Discussion of the scientific method, how experiments are designed, use of controls and so on would fit well here. The lesson plan also mentions an enrichment activity which involves using the genetic code to decode messages. Some messages to be decoded can be found here. Usually, I get the student to make lines after every third nucleotide letter in the decoding activity, and then place the one-letter protein code above each the three-letter codons.  The protein letters then spell out the messages. (I don’t worry about 5′-3′ vs 3′-5′, transcription, and translation specifically during this activity, but this could be added easily if you wanted.  I also encourage you to make up your own messages.) If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.

Recently, I attended the Annual Conference of the Senior Women Academic Administrators of Canada (SWAAC). Since I’m not an academic administrator, you may wonder why I attended.  I applied for, and was awarded one of their merit scholarships, so they invited me to come to the conference.  What a new and different conference experience this was for me! The major topics of the conference surrounded challenges universities are facing in the grand scheme of enrollment, organization, funding, internationalization and how administrators can address these challenges.  This was something that I had not spent any time thinking about previously, so it was stimulating to see universities from a completely different perspective (the administrative side). Furthermore, right from the first moment, all the women were incredibly friendly and open.  If, during a coffee break, I found myself not talking to anyone for even just a minute or two, a new, friendly woman would come up and introduce herself.  This put me at ease immediately, and I was delighted to talk to such a wide diversity of women, from so many varied departments, faculties and backgrounds.  What struck me was that if these are the women who are leading our universities into the future, then the future looks bright!  (On a side note, we did hear some statistics about the need to improve the gender balance at the assistant professor and above levels in Canadian universities, but that’s a topic for another time.)

The theme of this year’s conference was mentorship, and here is where I was really inspired. Built into the conference was a session called “Speed Mentoring”.   In this session, any conference attendee was welcome to sign up either as a mentor or “mentee”. Each pair of mentor and mentee spent 15 minutes talking.  During our session, my mentor inspired me to start this blog.  I told her about my career aspirations in science outreach and teaching, and she gave me a list of things to do. I think they apply for a broad range of careers, so I thought I’d share the list here:

  1. Create a well written and flashy CV.  If you need help, universities have career centres that can provide councelling.  The CV should be focused toward the career you want. Again, career councellors can help with this. 
  2. Write a business plan. I’ve never done this, but I’m sure that again, the career centre would help. As a start, I’m going to surf the internet – there has got to be examples out there.  And, I’m going to ask everyone I know who may have done something like this and see who can help me. Which brings me to point 3.
  3. Ask for help.  Join networks of people doing the same thing you want to do. Join networks of people that do related things, that are not exactly the same. Ask anyone and everyone you know for advice, for contacts, for any help they can give – and they will help!  
  4. Cast a wide net as you make contacts and network.  When I mentioned that I wanted to work for a university or college, my mentor said that I could do the same type of job, but for government, or high-end industry. This had not occurred to me – but she was right. 
  5. Create a web presence. Publish your CV and profile on the internet and maintain an active web presence.  My mentor told me a story of someone she knew who wasn’t looking for work, but employers found his website and contacted him offering a job. Wow.
  6. Write, write, write.  My mentor said that by writing things down, you will make them happen.  That makes sense to me. Write a business plan. Write a CV. Write a blog.  I also think that writing is a critical skill in all teaching, learning and academic jobs and I, for one, need practice, need to improve. 
Reflection on experience is one of the keys to becoming an effective learner and teacher.  In the coming months, I’ll write about my experiences in grad school, mentoring a summer undergraduate student in the lab, preparations for teaching a course, and coordinating a science outreach program (see About).  My hopes are that I can use this blog as a forum for connecting with people and as a way to develop and improve my writing and reflection skills.  

This is my first attempt at blogging and web publishing.  Things will be improving and changing over the next few days.