Category Archives: Research

Spring Break!

Written by Amanda Franklin, Biology Ph.D. Candidate

Last week was spring break. And it is actually starting to feel like spring! The crocuses are coming up, the weather is getting warmer–slowly)–and the days are getting longer. It’s my favorite time of year. I love seeing the flowers everywhere and it’s nice to know winter is as far away as possible (I am not a fan of the cold!).

This spring break I did not leave Boston. Instead I used the break to catch up on work. I’m a grad student in the Biology department at Tufts and I research communication in stomatopods (mantis shrimp—pods for short). If you don’t already know, stomatopods are the coolest animals ever! They have the most complex vision that we know of and they punch so hard that they can break glass! Seriously, you should google them.

Anyway, back to spring break. I needed to get new pods in the lab. This means I spent my spring break cleaning up The ‘Pod (yes, I do call my lab that). I realise this doesn’t sound enthralling, but it was a nice change from all the writing I’ve been doing recently. In a way, it was therapeutic. I just tuned into my favourite radio station, Triple J – it’s an Aussie station, I highly recommend it–and cleaned until the room was fit for 24 pods to live in.

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Me, cleaning my heart out.

This took a long time. You won’t believe how dirty a saltwater room can get. I hadn’t properly cleaned The ‘Pod since November – the last time I got new pods in. There was salt coating everything and a thin layer of algal growth on anything that was within a tank. I don’t use any bleach or soaps because this could harm the next animals I put in the tank. So it was all grunt work.

I also had to repair some tanks. Each tank is divided into three compartments. This is so I can have three pods in each tank. Without the dividers, the pods would fight each other. But I also need water to flow throughout the entire tank for filtration and aeration. So there are holes cut into the dividers which are covered with flyscreen. Unfortunately pods enjoy breaking through these. So I had to stick many of these back on. I also had to put dividers in two new tanks because two old tanks had a leak.

Me, cleaning my heart out.

There are eight of these fly screen coverings in each of eight tanks. Lucky I didn’t have to repair every one!

After all this, I refilled all the tanks, checked all the filters and heaters were working and voila! I had a clean pod room. It did take me the entire week, but it’s worth the effort to keep the stomatopods happy!

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Sparkling clean! I didn’t take a ‘before’ photo so you’ll have to trust me, it’s MUCH better.

And this week I got a delivery of new pods! I have an excellent supplier, Keith, in Florida. He catches as many pods as I need and ships them overnight to Tufts. I have never had one die during transit when ordering from Keith. I am now a proud mum of dozens of stomatopods!

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Two new pods in the lab! The left is a female and the right is a male.

Even though I didn’t travel for my spring break. I made excellent progress on my research. It is nice to use the time when I don’t have teaching or mentoring commitments to get a lot of work done. Also, it means I can take some time off in the summer to explore national parks with my family when they visit from Australia!

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Dean Cook pic

Written by Robert Cook

Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Professor of Psychology


As we look toward wrapping up another school year here at Tufts, we also celebrate some new beginnings. The newly admitted students to our graduate programs are weighing their options, checking out websites, and visiting with professors and current students to decide which program is THE program.

There are many factors to consider when deciding which school to choose. Among the questions you might be asking with respect to Tufts are:

“Will I be challenged in my field?”

Absolutely. Our first-class faculty are experts in their fields, recognized for their commitment to excellence. As a research-intensive university with excellent resources, our size allows us to provide students with personal experiences and individualized mentoring.

“Will I have the opportunity to hone my skills?

Yes. Our extensive professional development program lets students practice their presentation skills, dig deeper into how to secure funding, and hone their ability to teach undergraduates. Our goal is to make sure you are prepared for the next step in your career.

“Is Boston the right place for me?”

The answer for most students is a clear “yes”. The greater Boston area provides countless educational, social and cultural opportunities. Our students find that their time at Tufts is enhanced by our proximity to the city. Some people ask about the ability to find affordable housing close by – it is definitely possible, and our current students are a great source for information about what to look for and when to begin your search. The “Starting at Tufts” link in your admissions letter is also a valuable source of information.

“Will I be happy there”?

This is perhaps the most important question. Implicit in that question is whether you will form personal relationships with mentors and classmates. The answer for our students is a resounding YES! We pride ourselves on working closely with students, supporting them as they work toward their goals and celebrating accomplishments along the way. In my job as dean, it’s important to me that our students feel a sense of personal connection to their work and to the larger Tufts community. Only then do I know we’re doing our job of nurturing the next generation of scholars and teachers and setting them up for success.

So, as you ponder your choices for advanced study, I hope that you’ll find a good match for your academic and personal goals. As someone who has spent the past 30 years at the university, my belief is that that you will discover that perfect fit here at Tufts.

#GSRS2016

Written by Rachael Bonoan, Biology Ph.D. Candidate

Graduate Student Council (GSC) Academic Chair, Cassandra Donatelli, did a great job soliciting presentations for this year’s Tufts University Graduate Student Research Symposium (GSRS). Throughout the day, there were over 40 different graduate student presentations, representing 20 different departments, from 3 different Tufts schools—Arts, Sciences & Engineering, Sackler, and Fletcher!

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Emma Schneider

Of the 15-minute talks I saw (we had so many presenters, there were two sessions going on at once!), one of my favorites was Emma Schneider’s presentation on listening. Emma (pictured right) is a graduate student in the English department who is interested in environmental policy. Emma began her presentation by pointing out that when it comes to environmental policy, there is no lack of people speaking out, there is no lack of data, but there is a lack of listening. Emma then discussed how she analyzes texts about listening to nature, the silence around us, and of course, other people!

Of the shorter, 5-minute talks, the one that stuck out to me most was “MacGyver Robots” given by Vasanth Sarathy (below) of the Computer Science and Cognitive Science Departments. Vasanth is interested in teaching robots how to change how they react to an object based on context. The example Vasanth used was a knife. When picking up the knife to cut something, the robot should pick it up by the handle. When picking up the knife to give it to someone (or something?), the robot should pick it up (carefully!) by the blade. If the robot wants to spin the knife (for what Vasanth called a dangerous game of Truth or Dare), the robot should then grab the knife in the middle. But—asked Dr. Kelly McLaughlin from Biology—why a knife? Why not a pen? Unlike a pen, explained Vasanth, the knife also has a moral context. During the 5-minute presentations, we also learned about the microbes in kimchi, factors affecting conditional probability judgements, facial recognition systems, tail regeneration in tadpoles, and silica nanoparticles (among other things!)

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Vasanth Sarathy, a fellow blogger!

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Dr. Benjamin Wolfe

Following the 5-minute talks was the keynote by Dr. Benjamin Wolfe from the Biology Department. Ben studies microbes in…cheese (and other fermented foods but cheese is currently his main study system). During his talk, Ben briefly discussed his research (which you should check out!), and then focused on the importance of communication and gave the audience some tips on how to be good communicators.

So—why should we communicate our academic research and how do we do it? In communicating our research, we can understand it better. Ben started with an anecdote—the person who motivates him to communicate his science is his mom. A first generation college student, Ben had to explain his research to his mom in a way that was accessible. Being able to explain his research to his mom—and now cheesemakers—has made Ben understand his research on a deeper level. Also, communicating to the general public can help us to find unexpected things in unlikely places. The picture that Ben is pointing to is a piece of trach (specifically, a cigarette butt) that he picked up off the sidewalk and then put on a nutrient plate to let the microbes grow. This was part of a pop science piece that Ben wrote for a magazine (Lucky Peach).

Which brings me to the “how.” Basically, just do it. Sign up to present at symposia that aren’t specific to your discipline (like the Tufts Graduate Student Research Symposium!), write for magazines that are for the general public, start a blog. Ben also stressed two points that are important for successful communication: visuals and respect. Take pictures of your study system, make infographics, have fun with it! Who doesn’t like a good visual? And importantly, respect your audience and their beliefs. Don’t talk down to them, don’t belittle them; instead, excite them by showing them what they don’t expect (like microbes growing on a cigarette)!

Following the successful keynote was the poster session and reception with wine, cheese, and other refreshments. I presented a poster and found it was a great way to meet other graduate students from other departments and other Tufts schools. (All poster session and reception photos are courtesy of Psychology graduate student Clint Perry.)

If you are interested in checking out some of the other topics covered during the symposium, check out @TuftsGSC on twitter (we live tweeted all day!) and #GSRS2016! Hope to see you there next year!  Rachael Bonoan 3-4-16 blog pic 10

Winter Break as a Grad Student

Written by Rachael Bonoan, Biology Ph.D. Candidate

As a graduate student, winter break is a “break” in that you don’t have to TA and you have more time to write, analyze data, and do research—not the break you become accustomed to as an undergrad. I suppose it’s a bit of a transition to adulthood. But, by the time this post is published, I will be roughly 4,000 miles south of Tufts. This winter break, I am going to Costa Rica! As part of a class I am taking here at Tufts! We will be doing research so it still isn’t a “break,” but I am looking forward to it all the same.

Every other year, Biology professor Dr. Colin Orians teaches a class called “Tropical Ecology and Conservation.” We spend the semester learning about the rainforest (via readings, presentations, and interactive discussions) and designing an experiment. THEN, we spend two weeks—in Costa Rica!—actually doing that experiment! The class is open to both graduate and undergraduate students so it is a good way to meet undergrads that are especially driven and interested in research (you have to apply to get into the class).

It is also a great way to do science in a new location! Since I work with honey bees, I don’t have to travel far to do my field work (one field site is about a 10-minute walk from my lab, the other is about a 40-minute drive). This coming winter break, I am excited to experience a new field site, a new culture, and a new country (I have never left the U.S.)!

My partner and I have designed an experiment to look at salt foraging behavior in stingless bees. While stingless bees get most of their nutrients from pollen and nectar, they also visit nonfloral sources (such as sweat, dung, and even carrion). We hypothesize that foraging for nonfloral resources is a way for stingless bees to get salts that their floral diet is lacking (plants tend to be low in sodium). Like Gatorade for bees!

In addition to research, we will go snorkeling, visit an avocado plantation, tour a coffee farm, and of course, hike in the jungle!

This blog post doesn’t have photos but I am hoping that my next blog post will have some awesome pictures from Costa Rica.

Until then, happy holidays!

How to get into the graduate school of your dreams and navigating the application process

Written by Karen Panetta

Associate Dean of the School of Engineering, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering


It’s application time and thousands of students are scrambling to figure out what to do with their lives. For those that decide to apply to graduate school, the race is on to find schools, decipher mounds of program information and determine where to spend your money applying too. This blog is to give you the inside scoop on how to apply, the most common mistakes and strategies for getting funding and aid.

What do I know? Well, I do review every application that comes in to the graduate engineering program at Tufts and get to see the spectrum of amazing candidates. Then again, I also see applications and requests from really good students who simply don’t know how to put their best foot forward and develop a strong and compelling application. This really makes me sad because if students just had a stronger understanding ofthe application process, they would be successful.   It is the latter students that inspired me to write this blog to help prevent the many faux pas that doom an application.

Making Contact and Researching Programs:

First of all, when searching on programs to apply too, it really does help to make contact with professor you wish to do research with. Please do this with sincerity and no fishing!  This means do not send email blasts of the same form letter to every faculty member in a department at tons of institutions. This “throw your resume at the wall to see what sticks” is a sure fire way to get your resume thrown into the spam folder. Also, please take the time to know who you are writing too. For example, consider the following example.

Dear Sir/Madam, I want to do research under your advisement.

Please use the professor’s name and take the time to figure out if who you are writing too is a “sir” or a “madam”. When I receive a “Dear Sir, I want to do research in your area of….” and then the letter lists the incorrect research area, I know that I am not really that special and that the student isn’t really aware of my lab’s research. The “Dear Sir” greeting also makes me review my online photos to see if I look so bad, that people confuse me with being a guy. Joking aside, this is another indicator that the student really didn’t spend anytime investigating who I am or what I do.

The best approach is to get connected to a professor from a conference you attended and/or spoke too, or a colleague of your current professors. Getting in contact with a current graduate student in a lab is also a good way to see if you would be a good match for that professor’s research.

When I get a call from one of my colleagues saying, “This student is awesome.” I go out of my way to look out for that application and share that knowledge with my nice colleagues. If I see a student present at a conference and I like their work or simply like the way the student presents themselves, I will approach them. I am just as happy when I am making a presentation and students approach me. The fact that students attend professional conferences in their discipline and have their work presented there, even if it’s a poster presentation, makes these students stand out above from even all the competing perfect grade point average(GPA),  standardized test scoring students.

This brings up another issue, what do you do if your GPA is not stellar?  Is this a death sentence? No!  So, you puked in math your freshman year, so what?  We all know that the life transitions from high school to college can be a punch in the face for many students. We look for growth and improvement and so should you! You should strive for this, rather than wasting your time on useless professor rating websites venting your frustrations or dwelling on that one lousy grade. It’s not a life!

The personal statement essay and application process:

Your application essay should take on issues like this head on and tell us how you have grown and learned about yourself. We review the official transcripts and want to see students take accountability for all aspects of their lives. This shows us you are open and willing to present an honest accounting of your past, which makes us think that the future aspirations you discuss in your essay are true and from the heart.

We ask, “why you want to go to graduate school?”

One response I have seen said, “I don’t like making deadlines, so I prefer not to get a real job.”

Yipes! Students in graduate school have plenty of deadlines and need to be adept at multitasking. We choose teaching assistants who exhibit a genuine desire to teach and mentor students and those who will know that timely feedback on graded assignments and laboratory reports is essential.

We look for students that aren’t afraid to try different research approaches, students who don’t give up and know trial and error is part of research and most importantly, students who manage their time well. Doing things last minute or spending a few minutes doing an assignment right before meeting with the Professor is not cool. Professors have eyes in the back of our heads. We know how much time and effort someone put into a task. This also applies to completing your applications. If you wait until the last minute to submit your application and expect letters of recommendation, you are stressing out your letter writers. How can they tell a story of how organized and professional you are, if you don’t even provide them enough notice to write a letter? Furthermore, your application will not make it to the reviewing department for the program you selected, until all your application materials are received by the admissions office. This means that your incomplete application sits idle, while the competition is running ahead and having their applications reach the hands of the faculty reviewers. No school will hold up the review process for a few applications sitting incomplete in a holding pattern.

Let’s talk about choosing letter writers. Having a professor write that you got an “A” in their class is not really useful. We can see that on the student’s transcript. Try to get people you worked for during internships, professors you have worked for, or professors that know you from your advanced coursework or senior capstone design. We want to hear about your interactions with others, your accomplishments, your ability to conduct independent tasks and your ability to seek out and utilize resources.

In your essay, tell us about what project, class or task sparked your interest to pursue graduate studies. Tell us about your personal interests and show us that you are more than just the classes you took. Tell us what new skills and competencies you gained throughout your adventures in academia and/or travels or volunteerism.  Give letter writers plenty of time to write their letters and supply them with both your CV and a copy of your research statement so they know what your plans are. This helps your letter writer focus on things that strengthen your case. Make sure when you fill in the letter writer’s information in the online reference forms that you try to supply as much information as possible, such as their title and contact information. Get their title correct! For instance, I am Dr., Professor, or Dean Panetta.  “Mrs. Panetta” is not me, she is my mother.

Filling in as much information for your letter writer saves her/him quite a bit of time filling in the online review forms. Make sure you don’t bombard the same letter writer with too many application reference requests. Ask the individual up front how many letters she/he will be willing to do. Remember, different schools may ask different questions for the reference writer, so it’s not as simple as uploading the same letter repeatedly. Please don’t forget to thank your letter writers. We don’t expect your first born, but it is nice to know that you appreciated us spending our holiday breaks sitting at a computer writing and submitting letters on your behalf.

Funding and Financial aid and Assistantship positions

Finally, there’s always the question of financial aid and support. Please be honest about your financial needs. Stating in the application that no funding or aid is required and then gambling on the chance that once on campus, the student can find funding is not a strategy!

There are three types of ways to be funded, a teaching assistantship(TA), usually paid by the department or school and a research assistantship(RA), paid by the faculty member out offer/his grant funding or a tuition scholarship. TA and RA positions come with full tuition scholarships and a stipend. If you receive a research assistantship, know that you are committing to work with the faculty member funding you. This means if a student really doesn’t want to work in that area or work with the faculty member giving them the offer, the student can not simply decide to change topics or advisers and keep the research position. It’s the faculty member’s money to support their research initiatives. They decide who receives it. Teaching assistant positions may be more flexible, so be sure to highlight courses you feel comfortable teaching in your essay. There are also tuition scholarships. These defer the costs of some portion of the tuition and may not necessarily include a stipend. If you have other funding awards like external fellowships or grants and scholarships for graduate studies, make sure you proudly convey this.

Finally, tell us your thoughts about your research directions and aspirations. Be honest about your accomplishments and learning experiences.  We don’t expect you to be experts, so go ahead and dream big. It’s our job to get you to become experts and help you make those big dreams a reality!

I look forward to seeing your application!

Dean Panetta

Ghana 2015, Week One: Nketia Festschrift & Akwasidae Festival

**Guest Blogger**

This blog post was originally posted on Ben Paulding’s personal website on July 8, 2015. Ben is pursuing his M.A. in Ethnomusicology and can be reached at benpaulding@gmail.com.  

Greetings from Ghana! After a great year in Boston teaching at Brandeis University, working as a T.A. to Professor Attah Poku at Tufts, and studying ethnomusicology under David Locke, I have finally returned to Kumasi. This summer, I am spending seven weeks with Prof. Poku conducting research on Kete, including interviews, recording sessions, and field trips to visit Kete groups in remote parts of the Ashanti Region. Big thanks to the Tufts University Graduate Student Research Competition for funding a portion of my summer research.

Presenting a gift to the Queen Mother of the Ashanti King’s Fontomfrom drum ensemble.

I arrived in Accra late on Monday, June 29th, exhausted after a four day stopover to visit my friends Elana and Francis in the Netherlands. I spent some time sifting through the Nketia Archives at Legon, then on Thursday, July 2nd, I visited the University of Ghana again to attend the book launch for Discourses in African Musicology: J.H. Kwabena Nketia Festschrift, edited by Kwasi Ampene, the book in which my article “Kete for the International Percussion Community” was recently published. The event, hosted by the Institute of African Studies, featured a performance by the Ghana Dance Ensemble and a speech from the 94-year-old titan of African ethnomusicology, Prof. J.H. Kwabena Nketia.

The day after the book launch, I caught a bus to Kumasi, where I was greeted by many old friends who I’d missed over the past year. On Saturday, we met at the Centre for National Culture to give a private performance to visiting dignitaries from a diverse group of nations including Germany, Japan, and Angola. I enjoyed catching up and playing together with my old teacher royal hartigan, who has been in Kumasi this past year on a Fulbright. On Sunday, Attah and I joined the Cultural Centre to perform at the Akwasidae Festival at Manhyia Palace. Continuing my tradition of bringing custom clothes for the groups I play with, this year, I presented “Manhyia Palace Fontomfrom” shorts to the King’s Fontomfrom group to wear underneath their traditional Ashanti cloth.

 

What are we ready to risk? Academia, advocacy, and activism

**Guest Blogger**

This blog post was originally posted on Mimi Arbeit’s personal blog on May 18, 2015. Mimi recently earned her Ph.D. in Child Study and Human Development and can be reached at mimi.arbeit@gmail.com.

I graduated from Tufts University this weekend, with a Ph.D. in Child Study and Human Development. I was honored to be the student speaker for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Doctoral Hooding Ceremony. Here is what I said.

As the non-indictment verdict arrived, I was working on my dissertation. Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, will have no trial. The people of Ferguson protest: Black Lives MatterThey call for an end to business as usual, but my business as usual was just getting good. I wanted to write my dissertation and I really, really wanted this degree.

And I was tired. Business as usual is exhausting and there’s no energy left for protests and movement building and solidarity.

Abigail Ortiz taught me that solidarity means sharing risk. I ask myself what risks I am willing to share as a white person in solidarity with people of color: Am I willing to risk arrest? Injury? Reputation? Career?

The system is built to maintain itself.

In the first month of 2015, four black trans women were murdered. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia. The intersectionality of oppression is life and death.

Alicia Garza writes:

“Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.

Morgan Collado writes:

Support for trans women dwindles when we are still alive… It points to who is valuable and who is disposable. If you’re not a trans woman… think long and hard about the ways that you’re supporting trans women in your community. Do you see trans women in public community spaces? How are your actions pushing them out? 

I learned to do academic work that could inform advocacy. I wrote a guide for youth development programs about queer-inclusivity, racial justice, and trauma-informed practice. What is life anyway but one giant youth development program? These principles can guide both the work we do and how we run our workplaces.

But these systems are built to maintain themselves.

As PhDs, we are pronounced producers of knowledge. We can use our position within the system – and the peer-reviewed knowledge that we produce – to advocate for change. That’s our professional work; activism is the personal work. But activism, solidarity, is risky. I want a job, tenure, grants, clout. I want those things for myself and for my advocacy – I am building power and building knowledge with hope that I can leverage my power and my knowledge to make a difference.

Can I continue working on that, while also working to break down the systems that grant me this power?

These systems are built to maintain themselves. And I am a part of that.

But these systems are not okay. We need an end to business as usual, and we all need to commit to that end, as knowledge-producers and as human beings, each situated at various sites of power, within White Capitalist Heteropatriarchy.

So now that our degrees are not on the line anymore, what are we ready to risk?