Category Archives: Around Tufts

Mentoring at Tufts

Jennifer Khirallah, Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. candidate

Often times as a graduate student you are tasked with mentoring undergraduate students. This may be a daunting task to some while others view it as an easy assignment. There is a lot of time and consideration that must go into mentoring other students. I think one of the biggest things overlooked is that the whole point of mentoring is to teach or inspire the student, and that goal needs to be constantly considered when you’re in this position.

I work in a research lab at Tufts where graduate students can mentor undergraduates on their projects. There is nothing official about the process, its more or less just finding students (or them finding you) that are interested in your research. They help with various aspects of the experiments including design, execution, and analyzing data. However, its beneficial to keep in mind that there is a learning curve, and they are there to learn and not necessarily to contribute right away. If they know that you want them to learn and practice instead of just being an extra set of hands, it takes a lot of pressure and expectations out of the relationship and keeps it purely educational. If they make a mistake in one of their experiments, they’ll be honest with you and you can solve the problem together.

To be a good mentor is to be human. You have to be empathetic and understanding. You have to want to teach them something they are interested in, and help them in all areas of their professional, academic, and personal development when asked. If you can be a good mentor to undergraduates, then you can learn something about yourself and develop your communication and teaching skills along the way.

I have found mentoring to be extremely rewarding. I have taught my students the value of research, and they have become better scientists and have learned about their own personal interests and dislikes. I have learned about myself as well, including how to act in a leadership position and how not to act. Relationships like these have the ability to shape both participants in various aspects and can be such a gratifying experience.

Tufts StAAR Center

Cyrus Karimy, Biomedical Engineering M.S. Candidate

Even before my master’s program officially started, I knew I would need to up my game. I have always worked hard in my academic career. However, I felt like I needed to work smarter to succeed. Success for me now is more than grades. It’s overall positive mental health (and having time to focus on it), having time for my loved ones, going to the gym multiple times a week, truly learning the material at hand, and succeeding in my laboratory work. I felt that working hard without the addition of working smart did not leave enough time in my schedule to do the other things that make me a complete person. 

In the second week of school, I decided to get ahead and schedule an appointment with the Student Accessibility and Academic Resources (StAAR) Center. The StAAR Center offers academic support through one-on-one academic coaching, writing consultations, tutoring, study groups, study strategies, and discipline-specific workshops. I went into my meeting knowing what I wanted, more time to do things that were important to me, but I didn’t really know how to get there. The StAAR center tutor was so kind and patient with me. In the first half of our session, we talked about who I was and what I was looking for. She quickly evaluated that I needed better time management, self-assessment, and breaking skills. 

Self-assessment was step one. What do I need to succeed and feel ready each day? Figuring these out and having them as non-negotiable activities would keep me in a place I needed to be. It’s important to know what you need in your life so that you don’t burn out while staying as happy and fulfilled as you can. For me, it was asking myself who are the people that take me out of the capitalistic matrix we live in? What are the activities that bring me forward toward my career, mental, physical, and spiritual goals?

The activities I came up with are:

  • Developing a proper morning routine to help me get in the best mindset I could for the day (stretching, journaling, etc.)
  • Going to the gym at least 5 times a week keeps my confidence and health in check
  • Making time for fun with friends and loved ones on the days when I don’t have classes brings me a lot of joy
  • Time to work on each course during the week so I don’t fall behind on my classes
  • Dedicating time to going to the laboratory for training
  • Developing a nighttime routine that would help me prepare for the next day, and having activities that calm my mind so I can fall asleep easier (meditation, staying off social media, writing my schedule for the next day, etc.)

Now that I have my activities set up it’s time for step 2. With time management, I now take all the activities I mentioned above and plug them into my new schedule. I had been carrying around a small calendar and trying to squeeze my agenda into every little box that represented a day in the month. The tutor saw that and actually gave me a new calendar book, that had the month laid out on one page, as well as additional pages that allow you to really dive into detail with what you want to accomplish that day.

The setup I chose for the overall calendar (image 1) was only to write the big due dates and events going on in my life. I’d go into detail about what I was going to do each day in the focused daily calendar (image 2). This helped me stay aware of what was coming in the future while allowing me to focus on what was happening day to day in an organized and visibly pleasing fashion.

Step 3 is breaking skills (how to take breaks efficiently). This one really got me. The first thing my StAAR Center mentor told me is “don’t go on your phone, especially using social media as a break.” This pointer has definitely helped me the most, I didn’t realize how draining absorbing content is. I’ve been trying to look outside my window, go on walks, or text my loved ones instead of going on Instagram, Youtube, etc., for my study breaks. This hasn’t been the easiest adjustment because I’m so used to going on these apps for my study breaks. I wish I knew beforehand that this was not actually resting my brain. 

Overall, I can see myself succeeding more in my classes and life in general. I’m getting good grades, I’m able to see the people that make me happy, my sleep has been better, and I’m going to the gym more than before! My planning skills allow me to get all the things done that I want to. It has taken some trial and error though. I’ve been learning how much time certain tasks are going to take. Sometimes things don’t go as planned, and that’s ok! That’s life really, because nothing is perfect, including us. But what I’ve learned in these past few weeks is if I try my best to generally prepare, I can’t ask more of myself, and that’s good enough for me. Thanks for reading, until next time!

Why Tufts?

Tiffany Wu, Environmental Policy & Planning M.S. Candidate

Hi there, my name is Tiffany and I am one of the new Graduate Bloggers this year. I’m a first year MS student in Environmental Policy and Planning and am excited to share a little about myself and my program! 

I am from coastal Los Angeles and graduated from Cornell University in 2018. I spent two years working at a climate research lab at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and knew I wanted to attend graduate school to strengthen my technical skillset in data science and econometrics. A yearlong internship with the Stockholm Environment Institute at their Tallinn, Estonia office cemented my burgeoning interest in GIS and smart cities, which I hope to pursue in depth at Tufts. 

During the graduate school application process, I looked into a variety of programs at different institutions, including MS, MPP (public policy) and MSEM (environmental management) programs. I ultimately chose Tufts UEP because I wanted an interdisciplinary program that was well-established and involved working on real-world projects as part of the curriculum. This program is fully accredited by the Planning Accreditation Board and has a unique focus on sustainability and social justice. 

Rainbow steps behing Carmichael Hall and the residential quad.

The Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning Department (UEP) offers an MA/MS in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, a mid-career Master of Public Policy, and an MS in Sustainability. While the core requirements for each program are different, students see each other in elective classes and at campus events. The Planning and Sustainability students also jointly participate in Field Projects during their first spring semester, where student groups partner with community organizations and agencies to come up with a proposal or solution. You can learn more about UEP’s programs from the Practical Visionaries blog (which is run by UEP faculty)! 

Getting to learn from professors, policy experts and practitioners in my classes has been a great feature, with some bringing their research and academic expertise, and others their decades of experience in consultancies and design firms. I also liked the smaller cohort sizes at Tufts that I knew would allow me to get to know people better — I would categorize the atmosphere of UEP as friendly, close-knit, and collaborative. 

97 Talbot Ave, Brown House. This is a central gathering space for students in the program and there are several common spaces, a classroom, and a kitchen. We also have snacks and a coffee machine 🙂

I have only been on campus for a month and a half, but it feels like longer as I already know my way around the buildings well and have gotten to know many of my classmates through our coursework, student organizations, and hanging out. I’m also starting to notice how UEP punches well above its weight and have met alumni in the Greater Boston area and beyond who are doing incredible work in the planning and policy fields. In fact, when I volunteered at the Southern New England Planning Conference in October — Professor Julian Agyeman was the keynote speaker — there were at least two dozen of us who were affiliated with UEP! 

I’m looking forward to what these next two years at Tufts may bring and am thrilled to be spending them in the Somerville / Medford / Cambridge area. Thanks for reading! 

A Week in the Life of a First-Year Tufts EL-OTD Student

By TJ Pinto, OTD ’24

Medford/Somerville, Mass. – A view of the Jumbo statue on the Academic Quad with students walking to and from class. (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)

            Prior to coming to Tufts, I was so curious to learn what life as a graduate student was like. For me personally, graduate school at Tufts is quite a bit different from my experience at my undergraduate institution. For starters, my undergraduate institution was larger than Tufts, with many of my lectures having anywhere from 100-300 students in it. At Tufts, my cohort consists of only 32 people, and this group is sometimes split into even smaller groups for certain courses. The purpose of the first year of the Entry-Level Occupational Therapy Doctoral program is to create a solid foundation, making very unfamiliar concepts feel like second nature by the end of the first year. This allows us to enter our practice classes with an understanding of a lot of the basics of the profession, like how to write SOAP notes, common health conditions we’ll see in practice, and general developmental themes and theoretical models throughout the lifespan for children, adolescents, and adults. While my overall schedule may change a bit each week, this is what a week in my life is like as a first-year OTD student at Tufts.

Tisch Library, Medford campus.

Monday

            On Monday mornings, I make my way up to the library for my Topics in Emerging Practice Areas class. As someone who has always been very focused on the idea of working in a more medical setting, like a hospital or an outpatient clinic, this class has opened my mind up to numerous practice areas that I did not know were possible for OTs to work in. Many weeks, we have speakers come in to share about the emerging practice area that they work in, such as working in homeless shelters, refugee health, transgender health, and more. Throughout the semester, we are also working in groups to come up with ideas for our own emerging practice areas, practicing how to create an effective elevator pitch for our practice area, how to present to stakeholders, and of course, considering how OT would be crucial to this emerging practice area. My group’s project is focused on the idea of a canine training program for adolescents in the inpatient mental health setting, working on various occupations, such as education, vocation, Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADLs), and social participation.

In the afternoon, I have my Occupation & Adaptation (O&A) class. Last semester we had an O&A class focused on children and adolescents while this semester is specifically focused on adults. Through this class, we are learning about the developmental themes and theoretical models of the adult life cycle, ranging from early to late adulthood while considering physical, psychological, and social changes and the influences of numerous factors on one’s life experience. This class has a service learning component in which we volunteer with an organization in the community with the adult population. This class also has a lab component, allowing us to take the lecture material from earlier in the class and to apply our knowledge in a more hands-on way, which I have found to be useful in really drilling concepts down in my head.

Following O&A, the last thing that I have in the day is meeting with my Project Connect group. Earlier in the semester, a professor reached out to me and some classmates about being facilitators for Project Connect, an initiative through Tufts Counseling & Mental Health Services that allows graduate and undergraduate students to form meaningful connections with other students on campus. Each week, my classmate and I meet with a small group of graduate students to have guided conversations about our lives and experiences, working towards forming connections with one another. It has been a fun and enjoyable opportunity for me to interact with students from other programs that I normally may not have had the opportunity to meet.

Tuesday

            Tuesdays begin with my service learning placement for my O&A class at an adult day habilitation program for adults with developmental disabilities. My co-leader happens to be the same person I facilitate Project Connect with, my classmate and friend, Chloe. We actually ran groups at our current site last semester too, though, at the time, it was for our Group Theory class, where we were learning how to run effective groups as future OTs. Last semester, Chloe and I focused our groups on mindfulness and arts and crafts. Moving into this semester, we wanted to change our focus to Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADLs), creating weekly cooking groups. Fortunately, our service learning site has an accessible kitchen, allowing us to run these groups with a number of participants. We’ve made everything from pasta to cookies to quesadillas. With each group, we must use our OT-lens to adapt the group so that each person is able to participate. These groups are a fun challenge for me and Chloe while also being very enjoyable for our fantastic group members, who always seem to enjoy the process from start to end–– though of course, eating is by far the best part.

Following our service learning placement, Chloe and I will head back to campus for our Clinical Research class. To be completely transparent, this course was one that I was pretty intimidated by as someone who has been awful at math since the first grade and is easily intimidated by statistics. Fortunately, this course is not just a lecture-heavy statistics refresher. We also have the opportunity to work on a group research project throughout the entire semester, using this to implement lecture material in a way that is more enjoyable. For example, at the beginning of the semester, we all stated our preferences for our research project prior to being grouped together, with the topics including perfectionism, sleep, mindfulness, and positive emotions. After being placed in the positive emotions group and taking a pre-test, my group and I found an evidence-based treatment intervention for increasing positive emotions in one’s life. We then implemented this intervention in our lives for one month, then we took a post-test to inform our research paper. Eventually, we will present our findings at the end of the semester.

Wednesday

            I only have one class on Wednesdays, my Health Conditions II class. This is the second of three required Health Conditions courses, which are courses that focus on different conditions each week that we will see as clinicians. We focus on the incidence and prevalence, etiology, occupational consequences, short and long-term impacts, and OT interventions associated with each condition. One really great aspect of this course is that we commonly will have speakers come in from the community to speak about different conditions or practice areas related to certain conditions. For example, we have had OTs come in to speak about working with individuals with spinal cord injuries/disorders and low vision, as well as professionals from other fields, like a certified prosthetist to teach us about limb deficiencies, amputations, and prosthetics. We have also had certain lectures in which we learn about a specific condition, like stroke or Parkinson’s Disease, then have a community member living with this condition speak about their experience and how OT could help.

Following Health Conditions II, I have a mandatory open block set from 12-1:20pm, which is a time that is set aside each week for the department (including students) to hold meetings, speakers, events, and more. Students in the OT program are automatically considered to be members of the Student Occupational Therapy Association (SOTA), which is an organization that will often bring in guest speakers for these open blocks and will hold social events.

After the open block, I walk back up to Bendetson Hall, as I am a student worker in the Office of Graduate Admissions. In this job, I do everything from administrative work, writing blogs, assisting with virtual open houses, and giving in-person or virtual tours to prospective and admitted graduate students. I loved my job working in undergraduate admissions as a campus tour guide at my undergraduate institution, so it has been great having the opportunity to continue this in graduate school.

Bendetson Hall, Medford campus.

Thursday

            My Thursday mornings begin with Clinical Reasoning II, a foundational course that is focused on the evaluation process, interviewing skills, documentation, and more. Prior to taking Clinical Reasoning I last semester, the idea of sitting in a course like this sounded like it would be so dry. However, these courses have turned out to be a favorite of mine. Throughout the semester, I can genuinely see the improvement that is being made. I feel more and more like an OT each week. Lately, we have been focusing a lot on documentation, which is a really important subject area, as documentation is necessary for insurance coverage, justification of treatments, and more. My class has been practicing documentation skills through simulation cases this semester, whether it be through a real patient that we can access through an online video simulation library, or written cases. Each week we practice a new skill, whether it be goal writing, SOAP notes, or getting comfortable with using codes for evaluations and interventions in our notes. These are all skills we will very likely use on a daily and even hourly basis as future practitioners. I’m looking forward to seeing how I will continue to strengthen my clinical reasoning skills throughout this course and in future courses.

            My second and final class of the day is my DEC Seminar I course. This course is the first of three courses that are aimed at preparing us for the Doctoral Experiential Component (DEC) portion of the curriculum. The DEC is a 14-week experience in our final year of the program where we’ll work on a specific DEC project. This semester, I am preparing materials that will be viewed when pairing me with my mentor for my future DEC project, such as an ePortfolio containing my resume, OT vision, clinical interests, and more. In this course, my class is often broken up into three smaller sections, allowing each student to receive feedback on ePortfolio materials and assignments in class from our professors and/or classmates, which is much less intimidating and doable with 8-12 people rather than the entire cohort. I have found this course to be very helpful for my professional development as a whole.

Friday

            I actually do not have any classes on Fridays this semester! This means that I am able to work in the Office of Graduate Admissions in the morning, push myself to be productive and do some schoolwork in the afternoon, and then enjoy the evening however I see fit, whether that means I’m hanging out with friends or laying in bed watching Netflix to unwind after a long week.

Credit: Alonso Nichols/Tufts University

Weekend

            My weekends vary from week to week, though this semester, my friends and I have been making a more active effort to have fun on the weekends. We will often take the Red Line on the T (the main subway system for the Boston area) from Davis to places like Cambridge or Boston to get food, explore the area, and more. There’s also a new Green Line stop that is being constructed directly on campus, known as the Medford/Tufts stop, which will be another great way to get into the city. My current favorite place in Boston would probably be the North End, as I am a huge fan of Italian food and this area is amazing for this. There are also so many great coffee shops, parks, and places to hang out with friends as well. Of course, I’m still very new to the area, so I have a lot of exploring left to do.

As someone who spent the past ten years living in a rural town in Delaware, the change of pace has been incredible. I remember getting to campus last summer and sitting on top of the Tisch library as I talked to my friend from home on the phone, watching the sun as it set over the city and the Boston skyline began to light up beneath the night sky. I remember being so excited about the fun and spontaneous experiences that were to come, like the Red Sox vs. Yankees game my friends and I attended last minute for just $9 last summer. Being at Tufts has allowed me to broaden my horizons, learning from faculty with incredible connections and experiences in the field I am pursuing while being able to gain valuable hands-on experiences from the very start of my program, both in and out of the classroom. While my weekly schedule is jam-packed with classes, service learning placements, and numerous extracurriculars, I am truly so thankful to be here at Tufts.

I spoke in GS3! Here’s what to expect.

By Abigail Epplett, M.A. student in Museum Education

If you’ve read one of my previous blogs on completing a practicum, you already know that I created an exhibit called “Abby Kelley Foster: Freedom, Faith, and Family” for the National Park Service. I decided to share this information with the Tufts community and signed up to participate in GS3.

What is GS3?

GS3 stands for “Graduate Student Speaker Series”. It’s open to any graduate student in the School of Arts and Sciences who wants to share their research with a general audience. I chose a topic in American history, but talks can be given in any area of study.

How to Prepare

Like any presentation, you will need to prepare ahead of time. Don’t try to “wing it”! I found the three most important steps to preparing for my GS3 talk were having a script, designing beautiful slides, and practicing my talk.

Have a Script

I had previously written a script for a short video documentary on the life of Abby Kelley Foster, which I created for the Abby’s House women’s shelter earlier this year. The runtime on the video was about 21 minutes, so I did not have to add much to the script. Because the talks are held over Zoom in their current format, I wasn’t worried about reading off the script; the attendees would watch my slides instead of my face. However, I wasn’t “married” to my script. Although I sometimes read verbatim what I had written, I also elaborated on different points depending on how much time I had left in the talk. Plus, having a script allows me to easily lengthen or shorten the talk depending on time constraints. I was able to give a longer version of the talk to volunteers at the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor using a lengthened script.

Slide Design

I had previously designed many of the slides as part of an online exhibit I created for the National Park Service in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote in local, state, and national elections. I had designed additional slides to use in the documentary for Abby’s House, a women’s shelter in Worcester, MA named after Abby Kelley Foster.

While my background in graphic design definitely helps me to create beautiful slides, anyone can create engaging slides by following a few basic rules.

  1. Use pictures. Your audience members already are hearing the information. Why not give them some interesting visuals as well? Good pictures are large enough to be easily recognizable but not so large that they overpower the entire slide.
  2. Use fewer words. Although I am definitely guilty of breaking this rule, using fewer words makes the slide more effective. A text-heavy slide can make your audience members to feel like they are reading a book instead of listening to a presentation.
  3. Keep the slides short. My rule of thumb is 60 to 90 seconds per slide. A 25-minute talk like GS3 should have 20 to 25 slides. Longer talks should have more slides. When I led a study group on the life of Abby Kelley Foster for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Tufts, I averaged 100 to 125 slides per class.

Practice!

Between presenting the pop-up poster exhibit, leading a study group, and creating a documentary, I had plenty of practice giving my talk on the life of Abby Kelley Foster. Even so, I still went over my slides a few times in the days leading up to the talk. This also allowed me to practice a component of the talk that you might not initially consider; be sure to drink enough water! Make sure to have water on hand during your talk, and practice drinking the water between slides. You will be talking almost non-stop for half an hour, and your throat will get dry.

The Moment of Truth

My presentation went great! I was not nervous at all, because I knew I was prepared. Several of my classmates from the Museum Studies program came to support me. Questions from knowledgeable audience members are a lot of fun to answer! As an added bonus, the video was recorded and will appear on the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences YouTube channel. It’s a great way to share your work with friends and relatives around the world.

You Can Do It, Too!

If you still have doubts about giving a talk with GS3, don’t forget these benefits:

  • The talk gives you a chance to present your newly acquired research knowledge to your peers, along with faculty and staff at Tufts.
  • Giving a talk at Tufts looks great on your resume and CV.
  • You will even receive an honorarium, a $50 gift card to Amazon.

If you are interested in participating in GS3, be sure to contact Angela Foss in the GSAS Dean’s Office. You won’t regret having this experience!

The Underrated Joy of Science Outreach

Written by Ebru Ece Gulsan, Ph.D. student in Chemical Engineering

As graduate students, we are lucky enough to have the opportunity to pursue what we are passionate about on a daily basis. The training we get at Tufts is beyond excellent. We learn to become independent and curious researchers. Our work is meaningful and intellectually challenging. The notion of seeking solutions for today’s global challenges is priceless, and many more questions arise from every single step we take. But in order to have the greatest impact on society, we must make our work accessible to general audiences. I think it is crucial to find ways to break down our findings, clearly communicate who we are, how scientific processes work, and how our research benefits the public. But why take these extra steps when we already have so much on our plates?

From a very selfish point of view, I believe scientists need that type of outreach as much as society does, if not more. Pursuing scientific research is a very isolated profession and limits non-scientist human interaction. Scientific outreach not only enlightens the society we live in, but also helps us see our work from a new set of eyes. We get to understand different perspectives and expand our horizons. But most importantly, we might receive deep appreciation from a wider community. Think about that way; the only place we share the details of our work is probably our research group meetings, where everybody is pretty much an expert in the field. Our labmates will not be as impressed by our results as a non-expert would be. We all need a reminder about how awesome we are doing, and science outreach is an excellent way to feel appreciated.  

Communicating our work in a research group meeting is easy; because those people often already understand the technical details, challenges, and findings. But in reality, breaking down and disseminating science is a muscle that we need to work on, especially when our audience is not familiar with us. Note to self: probably 99.9% of people do not care about the ring cleavage reaction of naringenin; but they would love to hear about why eating an orange is good for them. I find that scientific outreach significantly improved my communication and teaching skills. As I forced myself to look at my work from other perspectives in order to simplify, I gain a better understanding of all my findings, methods, goals, and next steps.

Another attractive aspect of science outreach is the feeling of accomplishment. It is an easy way to put a tick next to one of your tasks on your to-do list. It does not even feel like a chore. In fact, I would say it is actually pretty fun. This entire science communication thing is very rewarding and let’s be honest; our research is not ALWAYS rewarding. We have mastered celebrating micro-achievements among many failures in the lab, so we might as well benefit from feeling fully accomplished once in a while.

Now let’s get back to why science outreach is good for the society, aka the less selfish reasons to volunteer for science communication. As scientific work becomes more global and collaborative, it is important to build healthy relationships among scientists and general public. The ivory tower of academia creates an unnecessary gap between scientist and non-scientist communities. For our science to be well understood and accepted, first we need to find ways to demonstrate that scientists are also part of society. They should be approachable and represent someone with whom anyone would like to grab a drink with.

Think about what mesmerized you so much in the past, and inspired you to deep dive into a scientific career. It might be a combination of many different occasions, but I bet some experts and/or passionate people were involved in your decision-making process. Science outreach is your chance to do the same for the youth by being their inspiration. Communicating your work passionately and explaining where you came from is a great way to show that pursuing science is accessible to anyone and it is definitely something to love. You are the BEST person to explain what YOU are doing in the entire world. So do not let anyone else to do it for you.

So where do you start? Being located in the center of  a university is a fantastic opportunity when it comes to finding science outreach opportunities, even in the middle of a pandemic. Tufts is doing an excellent job in letting us know about possible outreach opportunities, so keep an eye on weekly newsletters or be proactive and try something on you own! There are so many local museums and schools that you can reach out to and offer help, even remotely. Currently, I am a part of the Science Coaches program, a joint American Chemical Society (ACS) and American Association of Chemistry Teachers (AACT) science outreach initiative, which pairs science students with chemistry teachers over the course of a school year. Despite the social distancing requirements, we have managed to use virtual tools to make it work for both sides. Massachusetts also hosts many science and engineering fairs, and they are always in search for experts to volunteer as judges. Tufts usually hosts or contributes to the Massachusetts Region IV Science Fair, so if you are looking to participate, watch out for an email about call for judges! There is also “Skype a Scientist,” a virtual science outreach initiative, which connects scientists with educators and students from all around the world. You can host Q&A sessions and find a remarkable audience to discuss your work with. Maybe you could start a science blog or join us at Tufts Graduate Blogs and let your voice be heard!

Science outreach is truly a gift for both the giver and receiver. It is a privilege and a responsibility to connect with society through our work, and we all should take the time to participate in scientific outreach as much as we can!

Life as a TA

By Abigail Epplett, M.A. student in Museum Education

As an undergraduate, you likely had classes that were taught in part by a teaching assistant or TA. They were most likely a graduate student who took courses at your university or from a nearby program. Maybe you thought you’d like to have that job someday. Now that you’re a grad student, you have the opportunity to fulfill that dream! I’m going to talk about my TA experience in the Civics Special Topics course, “Tweets, TikTok, and Talking Points: Modern Political Communications and Message Development.” I’ll also give you some tips on how to be a great TA, and to inspire undergrad students in the same way you were inspired years ago.

Getting the Job

Typically, TA jobs are referred to graduate students by their department to assist with undergraduate classes in that department. However, some departments and programs do not have undergraduate equivalents, as is the case for my branch of Museum Studies, Museum Education. Likewise, some interdisciplinary programs or departments do not have graduate programs. This is the case for Civics Studies classes at Tufts, as they are often cross-listed with courses in political science, philosophy, or history. Although I do have a wide breadth of knowledge on American civics and public policy due to my background in studying American history, my experience with Canvas, Zoom, and other online platforms makes me an ideal person for the job.

TAs may also be required to attend a TA orientation at the beginning of their job, typically at the beginning of the Fall semester. Because I was a last-minute hire in the Spring, I did not attend an orientation. However, I did attend a weeklong workshop called, “The Graduate Institute for Online Course Design.” This was an excellent bootcamp for learning how to lead a class and design lessons in a virtual environment. I highly recommend this type of workshop for any TA and anticipate that it will be offered again.

What does a TA do?

This brings us to the next important thing to note about being a TA. The job requirements vary widely depending on the class where you are assisting. However, many positions have the same characteristics. Here is a short list of things I do as a TA for the civics course:

  • Send emails to the professors, students, and guest speakers
  • Host and record classes via Zoom
  • Set up, organize, and maintain the Canvas website
  • Upload files, such as documents and videos, onto Canvas
  • Meet individually with students who need assistance on projects
  • Assist Civic Studies staff members as needed

TA Tips

Unless you were an education major or minor as an undergrad, you might not have any experience leading a class. Don’t worry about this! The professor or professors teaching the class have already shown confidence in your abilities by hiring you, and you will learn a lot as you work. Here are some tips to aid in your learning.

Communication is Key

You’ve heard this and you know this, but it is worth saying again that communication is extremely important. You need to make sure you stay in contact with the professors, students, and staff members. If you cannot be contacted for an extended period of time — you have the right to take the weekend off! — make sure to set this expectation ahead of time. My rule of thumb is to respond to emails, Canvas mail, calls, or any other method of communication within 24 hours to any email sent during the business week. Even if you cannot fully answer a question or complete an assignment within that time period, you are still acknowledging contact and reassuring the initial sender that you are working on the issue. Not every person that you work with will maintain this standard, but this level of prompt response will set you apart and lead to positive recommendations. If communication is not your strong suit, GSAS offers workshops throughout the year that will help you to improve these skills, along with aiding in personal development and leadership, among many other topics.

Canvas as an Instructor

Canvas is the platform Tufts uses to hold course information. Students can use Canvas to connect to Zoom classes, read the syllabus, post to discussions, download weekly readings, upload assignments, email classmates and professors, and complete a seemingly endless number of other tasks. Despite its many positive attributes, a Canvas course page can appear chaotic, with countless links and modules to explore. This chaos is exponentially increased on the instructor side of the program, and the system can be overwhelming.

However, Canvas does have an extensive online manual that explains how to use the many features and add-ons in the program as an instructor. Use this manual to better understand the function of different parts of Canvas. You should also consider “disabling” unused features to hide them from the student view. The large number of links on the left side of the page can be distracting and confusing for undergrads. Minimizing the number of options will allow them to have a more straightforward and relaxing experience.

Be Flexible and Willing to Help

The tasks of teaching and learning during a “regular year” are hard enough, but teaching and learning during social distancing restrictions are even harder. Changes to schedules, cancelled Zoom meetings, lost internet connections, and assignment extensions are all part of the new normal. As a TA and graduate student,, you’re in a great place to understand what both professors and students are going through. Make sure that the people associated with your class know when you are available to help, whether a professor needs assistance with grading, a student wants to go over an assignment, or department staff members have additional projects outside of class needs. If you are paid hourly as a TA, you are eligible for up to ten hours of work each week. If you have the time to help your department, you will also be able to maximize your payment.

Perks of Being a TA

Payment

As I mentioned before, TAs are paid for their time, whether they are assisting with a class or helping the department. You will need to complete paperwork and an online onboarding questionnaire before you can get paid. You will also need to submit your hours every week to a supervisor.

Audit a Class for Free!

While this may not be as exciting if you have already taken the class, I find the civics course to be a fun way to learn about modern political communication without the stress of assignments and grades.

Meeting Guest Speakers

Not all classes have guest speakers, but some have a weekly lineup. In the case of the civics course, I get to communicate with many guest speakers and their assistants in the weeks prior to the class, along with watching their presentation during the class. It’s exciting to meet people in a field that holds my interest.

Conclusion

Having a TA position is a great experience for a grad student. You’ll learn how to manage a class, help out your department, learn new things, meet amazing people, and get paid while doing it. As long as you remember to stay open to changes, maintain communication, and view the opportunity as an experience to grow, this job will have a positive impact on both your grad school experience and your career path.

Vacation in the Times of Corona

Written by Ebru Ece Gulsan, Ph.D. student in Chemical Engineering

I was born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey, and spent over 20 years there before moving to the states and becoming your favorite Mediterranean in the midst of lovely New England weather. My family owns a summer house, as many Istanbullu families do, in a small coastal town right by the Aegean Sea. The town is called Geyikli, which literally means “the place with deers,” yet no one has ever seen a single deer so far. We used to go there every summer since I was 5. It is a place where locals make their own olive oil and wine. Everybody knows each other. People grow their own food in their backyards, share their highest quality produce with their neighbors, make canned tomatoes and pickles for the upcoming winter. My family and I enjoy taking the ferry to Bozcaada (Tenedos in Greek), a charming little beautiful island with its old rustic homes and colorful windowpanes, spending the days in deserted sandy beaches; and nights in local vineyards and traditional meyhanes or tavernas.

Bozcaada, photo by Ebru Ece Gulsan

The older I became, the less time I spent in Geyikli. While I used to stay there for the duration of an entire summer in early 2000s, as I grew up, I had to prioritize summer internships and jobs over beach time. But I made sure to spend at least a few weeks to soak up the sun and reset my body before the next academic year, until 2020.

Due to some obvious reasons, I failed to visit home in the summer of 2020, the year when avoiding a visit to your family means love and respect, rather than hugging them. I missed out on not only connecting with my family members, but also the opportunity to reset myself and start fresh for the upcoming fall term. It would have been a much-needed break during this extra stressful academic year; writing my thesis proposal, battling with quals, cancelled conferences and meetings, then rewriting my thesis proposal, all peppered with the flavor of a global pandemic felt like they would never end.

I was desperate to have a beach vacation. I ended up dragging my poor boyfriend to the local beaches every single weekend, but it was not enough. It did not feel like a vacation with all the planning, remembering our masks, hand sanitizers, packing our food, and answering emails from my Principal Investigator and students.

I realized over time that what I needed was not the beach itself, but the “forced restfulness” that came from lying down under a beach umbrella with my loved ones, where my biggest concern is what to eat for my next meal, all day and every day. I needed to disconnect – whether it was on a Mediterranean beach or at my own porch in Medford.

It is especially difficult now to plan a trip to another city or get together with friends to blow off some steam. The places we can go and the people we can see are very limited, which is not what most of us expect when we need a break; so, I had to re-learn the idea of vacation and construct myself a 2020 version of it sponsored by COVID-19. Instead of thinking “what I can do in a very limited radius,” I switched my focus to the questions of “what would make me feel good about myself at this very moment” and “how I can do these things.”

Bozcaada, photo by Ebru Ece Gulsan

I started with planning a break. I know it sounds counterintuitive; you are seeking for ways to escape from this planned work/study life of yours in the first place. But planning your breaks helps you complete your tasks in a more timely manner. Once you have a set deadline, you are more likely to get things done and feel accomplished, which helps you perceive this upcoming break as well-deserved rather than feel guilty for taking some time off.

Then I took some time to structure my break and made sure it is purposeful and enriching. Think about what kind of a break you need. Are you sleep deprived or physically exhausted? You might need some extra days to sleep in and rest your body. If you are mentally tired, it might be a better idea to choose another fun activity that suits and benefits you. For example, you can attend online events of Tufts Art Galleries or follow virtual concerts organized by the Music Department. If being outdoors energizes you, plan a hike to a less traveled mountain to disconnect from your daily life. Watch the movies you have always wanted to binge on. Schedule virtual meetings with your friend who studies abroad. Check out AirBnB live experiences. Your favorite chef might be hosting an online cooking class. The point is that scrolling through social media does not count as a break. Choose something that is entertaining yet valuable and put that on your calendar as motivation.

I added some new activities to my routine to make that break count. As graduate students, we constantly deal with projects that do not even have a set end date, and sometimes (OK, maybe most of the time) they do not go as expected. That ambiguity can be frustrating and demotivating. Hence, it is important to have some other tiny achievements in our lives. Choose some minor activities that are different from your work, such as taking a dance class, volunteering for a cause you care about, learning another language or getting into painting to remind yourself the feeling of accomplishment. Share this idea with your friends and suggest starting together. It always increases your motivation to have a buddy right next to you, even though they are connecting with you via Zoom.

Taking a vacation (even now) is so crucial for our physical and mental health, but it is so easy to overlook. It is one of those things that we know it is good for us, but we fail to actually commit to it, just like eating celery (or collard greens, or okra, you name it). We all need to relax and it is not as hard as we thought. Taking that well-deserved break will make you more efficient and productive at whatever you are doing, so go ahead and plan your next vacation in the times of Corona!

The Side Hustle

Ways to earn extra money as a graduate student

By Abigail Epplett, M.A. student in Museum Education

Are you strapped for cash? Do you feel buried in debt? While these side gigs may not make you a millionaire, they will help with your monthly bills. Here are some ways I have made extra money — and you can, too!

Write Guest Blogs

Many organizations, including Tufts Graduate Admissions Blog and some programs and departments, have blogs where they disseminate information to their members or followers. There’s a wide range of pay for these blogs, and some don’t pay at all. If the blog is part of an organization that you admire — like the blog for your department (see my posts with the Tufts Museum Studies Blog here and here) or an association that has helped you on your career path (see my post at Personal Historians Network Northeast) — you may not mind working “for exposure,” especially because these are great pieces for your portfolio. However, if you need cash fast, it’s best to work with an organization that you trust, has good paths of communication, and is upfront about their rates. For example, the Tufts Graduate Admissions has a blog, and in connection to my main job as an Office Coordinator (i.e. layperson manager) for a church, I’ve also blogged for Back to God Ministries International (BTGMI), which pays $125 for a four post set. The work at BTGMI was much more technical and required several revisions, which accounts for the difference in price.

Teach a Class

You are learning so much in your grad school classes. Why not share it with other people? I currently lead Study Groups with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), which has a branch at Tufts. This program is for retirees who want to keep learning at a high level. It’s essentially a snippet of grad school level courses geared towards people ages 65+. These groups are typically hosted on campus, but due to COVID-19, they are currently held online.

So far, I have taught two study groups. I used research I conducted for the course “Exhibition Planning” in Spring 2020 and my Practicum in Summer 2020 to create a study group called “Abby Kelley Foster: Freedom, Faith, and Family” in November 2020. I also used my knowledge from my Practicum and a lifetime of living in a national heritage corridor to create “The Industrial Revolution and the Blackstone River Valley” in December 2020. In January and February 2021, I hope to “switch gears” and use my knowledge from competitive athletics to lead “Exercise: Theory & Practice,” a mix of gentle exercises and kinesiology geared towards senior citizens.

Sessions for these courses typically are 2 hours long and run once a week for four weeks, but they range between one week and eight weeks in length. Study Group leaders are paid $25 per hour. If you want to learn more about leading groups with OLLI, contact the director of OLLI at Tufts once you matriculate into your graduate program.

Transcribe Audio

Are you a fast typist and a good listener? Do you have a niche interest? Maybe you speak multiple languages? Audio transcription might be a good job for you. I work as an independent contractor with Audio Transcription Center in Boston (ATC). It’s easy to apply online, and you will receive a sample test within a few weeks. Once you are a contractor with ATC, you’ll receive emails about available transcription jobs and can email the office to request work. ATC pays $60 per audio hour. An hour-long job will take between 3 and 6 hours, depending on the worker’s experience and the material given. One learning curve in this job is that you need to use Express Scribe, a free program that allows users to play, stop, rewind, skip ahead, speed up, and slow down audio, just like on a cassette tape. Once you have gotten the hang of this program, transcribing will be faster and easier.

Sell Designs Online

While this method of work is not as reliable as being paid by an organization — like what happens as a guest blogger, teacher, or transcriptionist — if you are an artist, you can make extra money selling your art online. Although many online marketspaces exist, and I have tried several, I’ve personally had the most success with Society6. Once I upload my designs, I don’t have to worry about fulfilling orders; the company takes care of that for me, and payments are sent automatically to my PayPal account each month. The profit margins are small, but it’s a good way to test which of your designs are saleable if you’re interested in opening an independent business in the future.

Pet Sitting

If you love cats, dogs, birds, or any other of the many animals that people keep as pets, this is a pretty good gig. Pet sitting comes in many different forms. Dog walking might be a daily activity lasting over several months, while vacation sitting will last between five and ten days. The price of pet sitting varies depending on how much care an animal needs, and how long it needs to be watched. In my area, $17 for a walk and $20 for a day of mealtime drop-in visits is fairly standard. Although pet sitting apps exist, I do not use them and instead rely on word of mouth. That way, I already have a connection with the pet owners, which makes communication and negation easier, and they’re more likely to trust me with their “furbaby.”Make sure you know the pet’s needs ahead of time, including any directions for feeding or medications. Also, be careful not to bring animals to your house, as boarding spaces and kennels require special licenses.

As Always, Time Management

I’ve offered you five different ways to earn extra money while in grad school, great ways to pay the bills and keep from accruing (more) debt. One important thing to keep in mind while working multiple side hustles is to manage your time. Multi-tasking may seem like a great way to get many things done at once — Why not study for that final exam while walking your neighbor’s dog? There’s no way that could go wrong… — but ultimately, our brains can only handle one task at a time. Instead, if you like variety, try breaking up your jobs into smaller segments, and keep a calendar schedule of everything you need to accomplish. For example, in a given day, I might work my main job, take classes, prepare to teach a class, and pet sit. My workday might look like this:

9:15 a.m. – 9:30 a.m.Pet Sit
9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.Main Job
3:30 p.m. – 3:45 p.m.Pet Sit
3:45 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.Break
6:00 – 7:30 p.m.Take Class
7:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.Prep for Class
8:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.Pet Sit

That’s 7.5 hours of paid work, but it’s broken up into segments to be more manageable. Plus, there’s plenty of variety, so you won’t get bored from a single task.

Don’t be afraid to try new side jobs to earn extra money while in grad school! Your wallet will thank you, and you will learn new skills that will help further your career path.

Oh no, I have to do a practicum!

Written by Abigail Epplett, M.A. student in Museum Education

If you’re a newly minted grad student or looking to join a program, you’re probably aware that many master’s and certificate programs require students to complete a practicum. What does this mean? Think of a practicum as an independent work-study class where you gain experience in your chosen field. In some ways, it is similar to an internship, but practicums may require classwork, depending on the program. The method of placement varies between disciplines. Since my area of expertise is in Museum Studies, I’m going to focus on this model of practicum.

Looff Carousel, Slater’s Park in Pawtucket, RI – photo by Vicki Francesconi-Sullivan

What do you need? Who do you know? What can you do?

The first step to completing a practicum is finding an institution willing to host you. As I mentioned earlier, the method of placement varies between disciplines. Some departments place students in practicums. In Museum Studies, the student find their host institution on their own. As you can imagine, finding a host institution during the COVID-19 social distancing restrictions adds some challenges. Yikes! To make the process easier and less scary, try asking yourself these three questions: “What do I need?”, “Who do I know?”, and “What can I do?”.

Let’s start with the first question: What do you need? What is required for your practicum? Are there any limitations or deadlines to keep in mind? Each practicum lasts a certain number of hours and must be completed at a specific type of organization. For example, my practicum needed to last for at least 125 hours over the Summer 2020 session, and it needed to be held at a cultural institution. Due to the complications surrounding COVID-19, students in the Summer 2020 session could petition for extra time to complete their practicum. I did not need additional time, but it’s something to keep in mind if you are worried about getting your hours completed, especially if you already work a full-time job.

While the requirement to work at a cultural institution might initially seem pretty limiting, a wide range of organizations fall into this category. Working at a museum is an obvious choice, but during the Spring and Summer 2020, most museums were closing and furloughing staff. Visitors centers, university galleries, and museum-related businesses were likewise closed. What was I going to do?

This brings me to the second question: Who do you know? What are your connections to the industry? Who understands your potential? The idea of networking is frequently discussed in any academic setting, whether visiting a fair or workshop held by career services or learning from professors during class time and office hours. During COVID-19, I reached out to my network to find an organization to host my practicum and found a willing organization a few miles from my house: Blackstone Heritage Corridor, Inc. (BHC). This opportunity was so obvious that I nearly overlooked it. I had run or driven past the building that housed the BHC offices two or three times a day for most of my life, and had begun volunteering with BHC in January 2020, a mere four months before applying for a practicum there. This short amount of time was enough for them to see my potential and offer me a practicum opportunity.

Finally, we’ve come to the final question: What can I do? What talents make me stand out from other practicum-seeking students? How will I bring a unique skillset to the organization? If you are in the museum program, it’s a given that you know a lot about art, history, and education. Similarly, someone looking for a teaching practicum needs to know a lot about classroom management and pedagogy, while someone seeking a laboratory practicum understands scientific practices and research methods. But there are many skills outside of standard curriculum that are part of daily work and valuable to organizations. Do you design beautiful and engaging presentation slides? Are you great at troubleshooting problems with technology? Are you experienced in photography and video editing? These skills are important for any organization, especially cultural institutions with limited funding and small staffs, and will make you stand out to your potential host.

A Brief Note on Supervisors

A major component of the practicum is the onsite supervisor. This is an employee of the organization who will act as your mentor during your practicum. They make up your practicum “team”, which also includes you and your academic advisor. The supervisor has to fill out paperwork and attend at least one meeting with you and your advisor during your practicum. That being said, while it is not always possible to choose your supervisor, like when your department places you in a practicum, if you are required to find your own practicum, make sure your personality meshes with that of your supervisor. Try to meet them in person ahead of time before making a commitment. During my practicum at BHC, I worked with Suzanne, the Volunteer Coordinator, which was a great match. I had previously met Suzanne through volunteering at BHC, so I knew we would get along well.

Talk to Me, Baby

“Hunt House” – photo by Suzanne Buchanan

A less interesting title for this section might be, “Communication is key.” You’ve heard this throughout undergrad, high school, and even earlier, but this is still a difficult concept for some people, especially because there is such a range of communication methods and styles. On one end are people who view communication as a biweekly, five-minute phone call. On the other end are those who want frequent updates via email, text, and video chat. When these two people work together, chaos ensues.

Communicating with your supervisor is a major aspect of the practicum, especially when many practicums must happen remotely during COVID-19 restrictions. What helped me to communicate during my practicum was setting up a schedule of the entire practicum and sharing it with Suzanne. The schedule showed when we needed to have face-to-face meetings, whether they were over Zoom or in person, and what projects I needed to work on. I also sent regular updates on my projects and asked questions via email. Because we had agreed upon a schedule ahead of time, I never felt confused through lack of communication, even when the schedule inevitably changed.

Finally, Paperwork

The main difference that I found between a practicum and an internship was the classwork. The Museum Studies practicum comes with its own course on Tufts’ online course management site, Canvas, where students answer questions, complete self-evaluations, and submit a final paper. During my practicum, this component happened asynchronously, and I had no trouble completing the work, but it is one more thing to remember. Also, time spent completing classwork does not count toward your practicum hours, so you need to figure that into your schedule.

Your practicum supervisor also has to fill out a small amount of paperwork, mainly to verify that you are indeed working at the organization. This is where having a personality match with your supervisor is especially helpful: someone who enjoys working with you is much more likely to leave a glowing review than someone who dislikes you or is ambivalent about your existence.

Wrap It All Up

Ultimately, your practicum is intended to be an experience in the “real world” of your industry under the guidance of seasoned professionals and your academic advisor. It’s a great way to learn your likes and dislikes in the field, along with gaining new skills and making connections. Good luck finding the practicum that is perfect for you!