Career development initiatives, curriculum design, & building networks discussed at Sackler Community Meeting

This past June, around seventy-five graduate students and faculty members joined Dean Dan Jay and Associate Dean Dan Volchok in the DeBlois Auditorium to reflect on the previous year’s progress and endeavors at the Sacker School. Various community leaders briefly presented on topics that reflect the Deans’ new mission of training to career excellence followed by open discussion between all attendees. Following the larger meeting, attendees continued to engage in these topics in smaller groups over lunch to continue pushing these goals forward in the coming year.

Jay opened the meeting by reviewing the results of career development “trial balloons” that the new administration worked towards last year. He celebrated the high interest and positive reactions from trainees for the new short courses, including Introduction to Drug Development (50 attendees), Navigating the Corporate Environment (22 attendees), and the R Programming Workshop (34 attendees). Building on this positive momentum, additional short courses will be offered in the coming year. A ‘science storytelling’ workshop and an entrepreneurship short course have been developed for the fall semester, with a teaching short course planned for the spring. There are also plans to develop the Introduction to Drug Development course into an official Sackler-wide elective for the spring semester. In addition, two career counseling workshops by Sarah Cardozo Duncan will again be offered in the 2018-2019 for students and post-docs who are interested in industry-related careers.

Not all career development endeavours in Sackler last year had such immediate success, however. The initiative to place students who have completed Year 1, Year 2, or their thesis requirements in summer industry internships encountered several difficulties, including reluctance from potential partner companies. That reluctance mainly stemmed from aversion to such a short internship time period (3 months), as several companies in conversation with Sackler administration requested at least a 6-month full-time commitment from students. Meeting attendees generally agreed that this length of time would be difficult for both PIs and students to commit to without serious disruption to research progress. However, there was at least one successful internship negotiation and placement, suggesting that the program may still be developed but not in as broad a manner as originally intended. A case-by-case determination was concluded to be the best approach moving forward, with the requirement for extensive conversations and mutual agreement between student, PI, and hosting company on timeline and degree of commitment being emphasized.

In reiterating his desire to see Sackler become a leader in career training for biomedical graduate students, Jay described his aspiration to develop a tuition-bearing, two-year master’s program in Biomedical Leadership. Matriculating students would have the opportunity to train for various career tracks related to biomedical research, and their curriculum would include current and future career development short courses or electives offered within Sackler. During the group-wide discussion session, the possibility of offering a 4+1-style master’s program in collaboration with the undergraduate branch of Tufts University was put forward and positively received.

Another main topic of the community meeting was the state of graduate research training at Sackler. Opening discussions involved debating the merits of switching from the current program-specific curriculum design to a single core curriculum that all first-year graduate trainees–regardless of program–would take. Across programs, students generally were opposed to a core curriculum in regards to scientific content, emphasizing that most seek a graduate education specifically to specialize in a particular area. They did support the suggestion that any core courses in scientific content should be ‘nanocourses’, instead of full required or elective courses. In contrast, developing a skills-focused core curriculum that included classes such as research methods, quantitative biology & bioinformatics, and statistics seemed to have wide support from both students and faculty.  In addition to curriculum content, the possibility of expanding the MERGE (Medically-Oriented Research in Graduate Education) beyond the Immunology and Molecular Microbiology programs was discussed. The MERGE program trains participants in clinical aspects of their research area during the summer prior to their first graduate year at Sackler. During this time, they are also paired with a clinical mentor who provides them direct contact with patients and clinicians and serves as a thesis committee member during their research training. Given the proximity of Tufts Medical Center, it was advocated for the Sackler School to take advantage of the opportunity to give more PhD students training in regards to the clinical impact of their research. Genetics and Neuroscience were considered as programs which MERGE could expand to, but no specific plans for that expansion were discussed.

Strengthening the Sackler community was also a significant theme of the meeting. During a discussion about building diversity and inclusion at Sackler, students expressed the need for more structured support from the school. They expressed that while student-led initiatives such as SPINES (Students Promoting Inclusive Excellence at Sackler) provide excellent resources and opportunities for underrepresented minority (URM) students, the responsibility of delivering such support should not fall so heavily on the trainees themselves. Through this discussion, it was emphasized that bringing more URM junior faculty–from Tufts or other institutions–to speak at graduate seminars could help build networks for students to rely on. In addition, hosting a greater number of Sackler-wide events during the year, especially during recruitment, could foster a greater sense of community and provide more school-directed opportunities for URM individuals to connect across programs. Another discussion about community building focused on developing stronger alumni networks. The career development short courses were one way in which the Dean’s Office started on this initiative already. Various alumni contributed their expertise and their time to the courses’ development and operation, which was key to their success; this arrangement also provided a structured environment in which students could take the opportunity to develop professional connections with alumni in their career areas of interest. Given the positive outcomes from this year using this approach, there are plans to build on this foundation for similar endeavours in the future. Dean Jay also discussed his efforts over the last year in reaching out to Sackler alumni for fundraising, which he had done in collaboration with Roxanne Beal from the School of Medicine’s Office of Advancement and Alumni Relations. To broaden this effort, faculty were encouraged to reach out to their former trainees, and the group supported the idea of current students reaching out to alumni for an annual fund.

Overall, the morning and lunchtime discussions provided great insight into the past year’s success as well as highlighted what aspects of graduate training at Sackler still need to be strengthened, and the dialogue between students, faculty, and staff generated actionable items for the administration to take on in the coming academic year.

Relays Re-Play

On June 8th, Graduate students, postdocs, and faculty from all programs and departments flooded from the lab to the Medford campus for the 23rd Annual Sackler Relays, our yearly day of fun-in-the-sun and fundraising for the Student Activity Fund.

With cooler weather than last year, speed-inclined scientists competed in a 100 m dash, a 1 mile race, and the annual event’s namesake, the 4 x 200 relay. A few especially spirited labrats were spotted warming up prior to these events, but competition between the programs remained good-spirited and  friendly throughout the day. Contenders and attendees alike relaxed and enjoyed a buffet of delicious food and drink between the footraces and the team events.

Dodgeball made a triumphant return with new dodgeballs this year, which were a sturdy candlepin size rather than full kickball-size. Simultaneous brackets for dodgeball, volleyball, and tug-of-war ensured maximum participation from each team. In a great show of teamwork, the MD/PhDs stole back tug-of-war victory from CMDB, last year’s tug-of-war champions. The day’s events ended with an obstacle course consisting of a potato sack race, three-legged race, dizzy bat, and an egg-and-spoon race.

With race times recorded and sporting points tallied, Microbiology emerged at the front of the pack. Congratulations, Micro!

Last of all came the presentation of the raffle prizes, including gift cards to Boston Burger Company, tickets to the Somerville Theatre, and from the Celtics, two drinking glasses and a piece of the parquet floor! A full list of raffle prize donors can be found below.

As always, Sackler Relays would not be possible without help from the Dean’s office and the numerous faculty and alumni donors. Thank you to Claudette Gardel and Yusuf Mal for team and event photos, and a big thank you to everyone who participated. Let’s make it even better next year!

Thank you to our local and corporate donors:

Boston Burger Company

Fajitas and ‘Ritas

Slumbrew

Roche Bros.

Sweetgreen

Subway

Boston Celtics

Museum of Science

Somerville Theatre

Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery

Institute of Contemporary Art

Tufts University Bookstore

Marathon Sports

Boston Kitchen Pizza

Corner Pub

Al’s South Street Café

Aeronaut Brewing Company

Flour Bakers and Café

Brew Café Boston

MJ O’Connor’s

Bao Bao Bakery

Double Chin

Chicken & Rice Guys

Dunkin’ Donuts

Novelty is in the eye of the beholder: The process of writing an F award application

The image used here is released under Creative Commons CC0.

Writing an F award application is kind of like a jigsaw puzzle. There are lots of pieces, they all need to fit together just so, and it feels like it will never be complete. But writing – whether it be manuscripts, reports, or grant proposals – is a huge part of any scientist’s career, and it shouldn’t be an unpleasant process. F awards, which provide a stipend, health fees, tuition, and travel, are a great first step into the world of scientific writing.

There are a few oft-repeated adages that are thrown around when it comes to grant proposals, such as “Make your aims related, but independent” and “You need to study a little bit of a mechanism.”  While these are helpful in their own way, here are some other tips to make applying for your first F award a bit smoother:

  1. Take advantage of info sessions

Sackler offers two information sessions every year for potential F30 (M.D./Ph.D.) and F31 (Ph.D.) applicants. If you have questions about when to apply, writing, or anything else, this is the place to ask them. An additional day-long workshop is being held for the first time this year, hosted by Dean Dan Jay.

The Application – June 5th, 2 – 3:30 PM

Demystifying the Review Process – June 7th, 2 – 3:30 PM

*Writing Your Specific Aims – June 15th

*Attendance at the first two session is required for this workshop. Attendance will be limited to 20 participants.

  1. Make a list

There are several pieces to this application – so many that it’s possible for some of them to fall through the cracks. A checklist is a simple way to ensure you won’t need to rush to complete a document (or worse, start writing it!) minutes before the deadline. The following list is accurate as of Spring 2018:

  • Abstract/Project SummaryApplicant’s Background and Goals for Fellowship Training
  • Bibliography and References Cited
  • BioSketch
  • Cover Letter
  • Equipment
  • Facilities and Other Resources
  • Institutional Commitment
  • Letters of Support
  • Project Narrative
  • Research Strategy
  • Resource Sharing Plan
  • Respective Contributions
  • Responsible Conduct of Research
  • Selection of Sponsor and Institution
  • Specific Aims
  • Sponsor Information
  • Sponsor’s BioSketch
  • Vertebrate Animals

If you’re resubmitting your application, you’ll also need to include an “Introduction,” a one-page document where you respond to the criticisms of each reviewer.

  1. Gather preliminary data

To the bench! With data in hand, you can work with your advisor to determine what kind of story you want to tell. Your goal here will be to gather data that will demonstrate the feasibility of your proposal. Starting early is key, as this process can take several months. The more data you have, the better. It shows the reviewers that you can work hard and be productive.

  1. A picture is worth a thousand words

Begin crafting your figures before writing. Figures are a visual representation of your story; having it effectively “storyboarded” out makes it easy to see where there are holes in your data. Patching these now makes for a much stronger initial application.

  1. Make your Aims into an outline

Your Specific Aims page functions as an overall summary of your proposal. While your reviewers must read the whole proposal, you should assume that most other panel members will only scan this section. All of the critical aspects of your proposal should be clearly stated here, including the impact and novelty of your research.

  1. Stagger writing with editing

Once you write your initial aims, send it to your advisor for comments and get started on the next piece of your application. As your advisor returns documents with comments, you can edit and send them back. A continuous cycle of writing, editing, and rewriting keeps the process moving and keeps you from working on the same document for too long. You’re more likely to catch typos and other errors by looking every so often with fresh eyes.

  1. Play the matching game

Consistency is huge in any F award application. You will reference your aims multiple times in the Research Strategy section. As you craft your proposal, make sure that the methods listed under each aim match in the Research Strategy and Specific Aims sections.

  1. Ctrl-F for key words

There are certain core concepts that, when missing, are easy for reviewers to point out as a flaw. Your application should not only comment on the novelty and innovation of your proposed research, but also include key phrases such as “sex as a biological variable.” Reviewers may simply search for these terms to see if you address them, so you should do it, too. Talk to your advisor for some examples. As someone who writes and reviews grants, they will know exactly what they would look for in a proposal.

  1. Skip the jargon

Not every reviewer you have will be an expert in your field. In fact, it’s likely that none of them will be familiar with your precise topic of interest. If a simple word will do the job, use the simple word. The less reviewers have to think about what you’re trying to say, the better they will feel about your proposal.

 

Easier said than done, right? Don’t be discouraged if your proposal isn’t funded in its initial submission. Only about 13% of applications are at Sackler. However, making the strongest proposal you can initially will make it easier to edit for resubmission, and much more likely to be funded the second time around. Over the last five years, Sackler applicants have had a 30% success rate (this number includes both proposals funded initially and those funded after resubmission). For a breakdown of success rates by NIH institute, check out the following link: https://report.nih.gov/success_rates/. The F30/F31 spreadsheet is #3 under “Training and Research Career Development Programs.”

Finally, take a break once you’ve submitted the proposal! Rest and recharge before returning to the bench so you can get ahead on your next project.

 

Sources and Related Reading:

  1. NIH. Write Your Application. Last updated: 2016 Jan 28 [cited 2018 May 17]. Available from: https://grants.nih.gov/grants/how-to-apply-application-guide/format-and-write/write-your-application.htm
  1. Chasan-Taber L. 10 Tips for Successful Grant Writing. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 2018 Feb [cited 2018 May 17]. Available from: https://www.chronicle.com/article/10-Tips-for-Successful-Grant/242535
  1. McCollum, L. To Resubmit or Not To Resubmit? GradHacker. 2015 Feb [cited 2018 May 17]. Available from: https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/gradhacker/resubmit-or-not-resubmit
  1. Hollenbach, AD. A Practical Guide to Writing a Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA Grant. 1st ed. Oxford: Academic Press; 2014.

• This resource is available from Hirsh Health Sciences Library.

The March for Science is Futile & Performative

On April 14, the March for Science 2018 took place in the Christopher Columbus park at the waterfront. This year’s march was definitely smaller than last year, with a small crowd braving the cold winds on a cloudy day to attend a rally that focused largely on climate change. Despite my reservations of the possible outcomes of the march based on last year’s march and its complications, I attended the rally in support of what I believed to be an effective organizational method. However, I was bitterly disappointed. The March for Science, once again, proved itself to be futile and performative.

Much has been said and written, memes have been made and shared widely across social media in support of evidence-based policy and Science, and scientists have braved the ballot boxes in recent political races. All of this has been built around the mantras of “Stand Up for Science”, “I believe in Science”, and “What do we want? Peer-reviewed Evidence”. However, the core problem with these slogans is that they are effectively apolitical. And this is not even a new problem – last year’s March organizers were plagued by questions of why they had a diversity statement and public arguments that “Science” should not be politicized. Incidentally, at this year’s march, there were a few people gathered around a sign about Republicans supporting Science, enforcing the false dichotomy that Democrats as a political party are more likely to believe in scientific evidence. Furthermore, the rally seemed to have canvassers for liberal candidates running for various political offices, almost all on the Democratic party ticket, and some speakers openly advocating rally-goers to vote for specific candidates. But what was absent in the rally was a core political agenda, or any agenda for that matter, besides how bad Climate Change is getting and how the Trump administration is so evil.

Nowhere was there any mention of the environmental problems that the locale are facing, e.g. – Governor Charlie Baker’s bill that would privatize water bodies in MA, or the clean water crisis in the Norfolk state correctional facility where inmates have not had clean water for several months now. While MA is often lauded as a progressive state that promises carbon neutral buildings and other environmental regulations, in reality, that is not the case. For example, the city of Boston recently approved a pipeline that will bring in fracked natural gas from Pennsylvania to a luxury condominium complex in back bay. While there has been resistance from the MA administration against the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s plan to open up offshore drilling in a million acres in the Outer Continental Shelf, the language around the protest was framed in a NIMBY manner specifically for MA, as if oil spills anywhere else in the East Coast won’t be affecting the MA coast.

Without a coherent political agenda, it doesn’t mean anything to “Stand Up for Science” or to “Believe in Science.” This is mostly because while data itself can be neutral, study designs and interpretations/analysis of said data are not. As science historian Naomi Oreskes details in her book “Merchants of Doubt”, the same data has been manipulated by climate change deniers, who were scientists themselves. And the raison d’etre for these people were their political beliefs. Similarly, “peer-reviewed evidence” has been historically manipulated for profit motives, political gains and social beliefs that have resulted in the detriment of the human condition, in particular, those of the marginalized communities. In fact, the very idea of “Believing in Science” or considering that Science is apolitical elevates Science to an infallible and monolithic level, which undermines the very basis of the Scientific Method. Unfortunately, the consequences of such actions are already evident in the corruption of scientific research with a capitalist competitive model driving a rise in fraudulent publications of so-called “peer-reviewed evidence”. This capitalist motive further enhances the alienation between scientific fields, with certain fields that have direct output towards driving an imperialist capitalist machinery gaining more funding than some other fields.

In the last year or so, multiple scientists have come forward and braved the ballot boxes and continue doing so (the most recent example being Valerie Horsley from Yale who just gave a talk at Sackler to the CMDB program). And some of them seem to be winning as well. But it should take more than just being a scientist to win an election – the implicit assumption of being a scientist is that you will do the best for people. However, this utopian idea regarding scientists as only acting in the best interest of the people is quite frankly a naïve one. Yes, we should be electing more scientists into office, but we shouldn’t let that identity just be our standard. We should also be critically reviewing their political platforms and see if they are indeed, backed up by evidence and would act in the best interest of ALL people.

On April 14, the same day as the March for Science, David Buckel, a prominent LGBT rights lawyer and an environmental activist, committed suicide by self-immolation in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY. It was an act of resistance to convey the urgency of the impending doom of climate change, and an act of anguish that conveyed the pettiness surrounding the nuanced haggling of carbon tax and trading, strategies that are insufficient to bring forth the changes we need to reverse the tide of climate change. In order to do so, as scientists and individuals, and as part of a collective community, we need to acknowledge that Science, like any other human process, is vulnerable to political and economic motivations. Furthermore, any organized efforts to curb climate change or create evidence-based policy, should strive to have a coherent political agenda, to avoid being futile and performative.

Book Review: The Scientist’s Guide to Writing

It’s not uncommon to hear young, aspiring scientists say, “I hate writing. That’s why I’m going into science!” Plot twist: we do a lot of writing as scientists. Writing is pervasive in this field. We write to disseminate our research to the wider scientific community, to get funding, to get hired. It’s surprising that, as a community, we don’t devote much time to formally training students in the writing process.

Enter Stephen Heard, an evolutionary ecologist, who wrote “The Scientist’s Guide to Writing” to help address this gap in training. He draws from the scientific study of scientific writing, filling in the gaps with his own experiences with the writing process. The result is a book that not only advises readers on what to include in different written works, but also provides exercises that can be used to improve their use of the craft.

When scientists write about their research, the goal is mainly to convince other scientists that the body of work is important, and completely necessary, to the advancement of a particular scientific field. To do this, any arguments made need to be clear and well-founded, easily transferable from the page to the reader’s brain. Heard addresses this by offering his reader details about what writing actually is, beginning with the history of scientific writing and its unique evolution.

Throughout the book, Heard draws his reader to several conclusions, including three crucial tips: first, that any body of work must be crystal clear (in his words, it should “seem telepathic”); second that making note of things you like when you are reading can bolster your own writing; and third, that every word should be considered and removed if unnecessary. These conclusions apply across the board—not just to manuscripts, but also to grants and other types of scientific communication.

While a book on writing may not seem especially interesting, Heard’s advice is invaluable to the developing writer. Reading this, or a similar book, should be considered critical training for every student of the sciences.

Rosie’s Place Donation Drive Sheds Light on Pervasive Gender Bias

Last December, the newly formed student organization, Tufts Graduate Women in Science & Engineering (GWiSE, Tufts chapter of New England GWiSE), participated in a city-wide philanthropic effort. A donation drive was organized for Rosie’s Place, a shelter focused on helping poor and homeless women; founded in 1974, it is the first women’s shelter in the US. The drive was meant to run from Dec 11-15, and collect tampons, pads and any other menstrual hygiene products.

However, when Siobhan McRee, a Genetics grad student who co-founded Tufts GWiSE, went to place a donation box in the Jaharis lobby, she was informed that she wasn’t allowed to do it, as there is already a “Toys for Tots” box in the lobby. Additionally, the security personnel informed her that she would need approval from the Friedman nutrition school to place a box in the lobby. McRee had already obtained permission from Associate Dean Dan Volchok, following precedence of other donation drives (e.g. – GSC winter clothing drive 2015). Dan V was quick to solve the problem, according to McRee, but she didn’t feel comfortable putting the bin in the lobby anymore. Instead, she decided to try the program offices in M&V 5th floor.

McRee was surprised to find that there was resistance from the administrators too. “You don’t expect pushback from certain groups of people”, McRee explained (most of the office admin are female). The general consensus among the admins, led by one strong proponent, seem to be that the donation bins and the flyer for the drive (approved by the dean’s office) were inappropriate and would make men uncomfortable. She was told to post the flyers and put the bin in the women’s bathroom. A supporting admin later offered their office space to host the bin and collect the donations. Tufts GWiSE informed the student body accordingly and donations were effectively collected from Dec 13-15.

Despite the pushback, McRee believes that the drive was successful, “we filled up the back of a car”. She added that the pushbacks might have actually helped the drive in some way. But, she was dismayed to find that people at Tufts would harbor such old-fashioned views that women’s reproductive issues should not be discussed in public, especially on the biomedical campus of a liberal institution. She believes that this is an indication that sexist attitudes towards women’s health, that are rooted in patriarchal ideology, need to be addressed to create a safe working environment for women and to fight against discrimination and sexual violence. When asked for his comments, Dan V stated that the events that transpired are not representative of the greater Tufts community, and Dean Dan Jay mentioned that he had not heard of the pushback from department admins. Contrary to expressed opinions as to how the drive might offend men, male community members actively participated in the drive, further supporting Dan V’s convictions re: the Tufts community. 

While the Dean’s office at Sackler was very helpful, the response from Tufts university administration seemed lukewarm in comparison. McRee’s husband, after learning of the incident, tweeted to the university and the president. Patrick Collins, executive director of the Tufts PR department, reached out to McRee to take note of what happened. However, as McRee described, there was no followup afterward and she felt that they weren’t proactive about the matter and didn’t offer an apology that a Tufts employee would pose such roadblocks in holding a donation drive for women’s health.

This kerfuffle may seem an isolated incident in a largely liberal institution which has vowed a fight against sexual harassment and violence against women. However, from a broader picture, this doesn’t seem so isolated. It is true that Massachusetts sets a higher standard for women’s rights compared to other states across the nation – from popular support for Planned Parenthood to not having any taxes on feminine hygiene products (otherwise known as “tampon tax”, a discriminatory legislature considering that Viagra enjoys a tax-free status). However, just as racial inequality in the city of Boston exists in a hidden but structural manner, the same is true for violence against women. This violence takes the shape of entrenched patriarchal views that still seem to be pervasive in a liberal community, besides the ubiquitous, more overt forms of violence such as domestic abuse & rape. These views and barriers impede the improvement of women’s health, as McRee’s experience shows, in a manner that is hard to fight against (re-routing, administrative bureaucracy). “I was told to just do it and ask for forgiveness later, but I’m a non-confrontational person, and, this shouldn’t be the norm” McRee explained as to how she felt discouraged regarding putting a donation bin in the lobby.

Such structural barriers to women’s health issues have disproportionate effects along the racial line – the city of Boston reported in 2015 that 69.7% women living in poverty are non-white. Additionally, these barriers affect an even more marginalized community, that of the transgender population, who are routinely turned away from homeless shelters and therefore are at greater risks of harm to their health especially since a significant portion of them turn towards sex work to meet basic needs. The need for menstrual hygiene products are even greater in this community, considering the myths surrounding their bodies and the taboo regarding their identities. In recent years, Boston’s aid to the homeless has grown scarce, especially after the closure of Long Island shelter and with a sizeable portion of this population yet to be rehabilitated. This drive probably could have been more effective and served the needs of a greater portion of the homeless population, if not for such roadblocks.

In the wake of the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements, agency and ownership of a woman’s body has come into the limelight once again. The belief that women’s health should not be discussed in public is rooted in patriarchy, and that menstruation can cause discomfort to men serves to solidify its ideological grasps on men and women alike. These ideas also rob a woman of her agency and ownership of her body, while adding stigma and shame. These methods of structural violence are more subtle and harder to disavow compared to assault and rape, as the Aziz Ansari case has shown, but they need to be faced and dismantled as well if gender equality is to be achieved at Tufts, Boston or any other community for that matter. McRee believes that both men and women should be part of the conversation surrounding such issues and that men, just as they helped with the donation drive, can play an important supporting role in advocating for better policies to improve women’s health. 

A step towards addressing such issues is already being organized by Tufts GWiSE, in partnership with New England GWiSE – “Beyond breaking the silence, building a collective”, a gender-inclusive forum focusing on sexual harassment in academia will be taking place on March 3rd, 12-6 pm in the Sackler building. The forum intends to discuss sexual harassment issues in the STEM fields, explore current policies at local graduate schools that address such issues and develop a plan of action to collectively advocate for improved policy action. If interested, please RSVP here.  Additionally, events by other groups on campus are also being organized to discuss the state of women in biomedical science. For future events and more information, keep a lookout on the weekly Goods and social media outlets – you can follow @TuftsGWiSE on Twitter and Facebook

Notes from the North – Collaboration and Communication

March is just around the corner, so there are just a couple of weeks before the CMDB and Genetics program students and faculty will be joining me for a weekend in Portland! As much as I want to advertise for the retreat and mention that it is student driven in that talks will be on topics selected by students, the day is structured based on student feedback, and the Saturday night social trivia session was voted in by students, I don’t want readers from other programs to feel left out of my article’s audience. Note on image: lobster coloration really can display Tufts support, the pattern occurs in bilateral gynandromorphs (half male, half female) where one side has normal black/brown color and the other side has a rare color mutation causing a blue carapace. The chance of a half blue/half brown lobster may be as little as 1 in 100 million.

Now, the real reason I mention the retreat is that over the last three months I have been collaborating with student and faculty colleagues at three separate campuses along the New England coast to help bring this retreat together. It has required learning and practicing organizational skills, shared decision-making skills, delegation, and diplomacy. These are all skills worth cultivating for anyone who may participate in scientific collaboration, so it is helpful to seek out collaborative experiences early in a scientific career. Here is how helping to plan a retreat becomes practice for collaboration and communication:

Integration of multiple viewpoints. One of the great advantages of working as a group toward a common goal is that collectively the group has abundant experience to draw from in order to propose ideas and predict where problems may arise. While planning the CMDB/Genetics retreat we felt it was important to be respectful of all organizer opinions and concerns and at the same time try to incorporate as many ideas from the retreat participants as possible. This of course meant instances when compromise and diplomacy were necessary. Delegation of point people for specific tasks also helped mitigate conflict because one person has had primary responsibility while others advise.

Faculty as peers as well as advisors. Speaking of advising, I have found that a benefit of helping to organize such a large event for the CMDB and Genetics programs has been the need to interact with many faculty and staff in a capacity slightly different from that of my usual student role. Over the course of our academic careers our view of academic mentors shifts from their being “sages on the stage” in high school, undergrad, and early graduate school, to being approachable human beings with advice that ranges far beyond the scholarly later in graduate school, post-doctoral fellowships, and early career. The increase in responsibility that comes with becoming a peer as well as an advisee is not something I think consciously about very often, so this has been a valuable exercise in examining the evolution of these relationships. Recognition of this changing role can facilitate collaborative scientific work because it gives you confidence in your value to a project.

Interaction at a distance. The CMDB/Genetics retreat brings together students and faculty from four campuses in two states, making it imperative that we utilize methods of communication that are speedy and reliable. Now imagine if we were on different continents! For the most part this has meant heavy reliance on email, but we have also found it helpful to setup online video conferencing for regular face-to-face interaction. Meetings can be tricky to schedule for groups comprised of very busy individuals, and it is easy to fall into the trap of holding too many, however they are important for quickly refocusing the group after a period of productivity. Another tool we have made extensive use of that is suitable for both near and far collaborative efforts are online workspace platforms such a Google Drive that allow multiple users to work and edit simultaneously. This is especially helpful in generating a living record of how the group’s ideas and priorities change over time. I think one of the greatest lessons I have learned from helping to organize the retreat has been realizing the importance of keeping a centralized record of decisions. It has allowed the retreat planning committee to understand the logic that got us to a particular point, and then guided us as we moved forward on a number of occasions.

The best way to improve any set of skills is to go out and practice them, so look for those collaborative opportunities!

“The Prize” by Geoffrey M. Cooper, PhD is a thriller for the dramatic scientist in all of us

I was excited to learn a few months ago that my former PI from BU, Dr. Geoffrey Cooper, was publishing a fictional novel about the competitive world of scientific discovery and competition. I’m sharing a short review for you guys to hopefully inspire you to pick up a copy of your own to enjoy this entertaining and relatable thriller!

A fictional novel that tells the story of two professors racing to discover the first successful Alzheimer’s drug, written by Geoffrey Cooper PhD., a professor of Biology at BU. The story follows a chronological timeline to detail how the insatiable need to achieve a novel discovery can drive scientists to perform inconceivable acts. Pam Weller acts as the protagonist, a young assistant professor studying Alzheimer’s, vying for tenure at the fictional Boston-based research institute, the Langmere. Opposing Pam is Eric Prescott, a well-established and older professor at the Institute for Advanced Neuroscience in Cambridge, also a fictional and supposedly more established institute, compared to the Langmere. Whereas Eric is credited with the establishment of an Alzheimer’s mouse, Pam is building her budding career on a novel cell culture model of Alzheimer’s in which primary mouse brain cells grow plaques and die in vitro. Pam’s lab’s efforts are directed towards screening tens of thousands of compounds in her cell culture model in hopes of identifying a drug that can stop or reverse the formation of plaques to rescue the cells—a much speedier technique, compared to the screening of compounds in Alzheimer’s mice. With Pam’s tenure review coming up quickly, the pressure is on for her to make a truly groundbreaking discovery. When Pam’s postdoc Holly happens to identify the right compound, she greedily decides to keep the data to herself in hopes of advancing her own career. In an exciting and dreadful twist, Holly uses her discovery to team up with Eric to steal the drug, destroy Pam’s credibility, and walk away with all the glory and a Nobel Prize to boot.

This book is a true thriller as Pam works to uncover the truth and gain credit where it is truly due. The Prize is an easy-to-read page-turner. It’s an exciting and relatable story that is sure to entertain, especially for us, as we are deep in the trenches of scientific discovery!

That being said, hopefully none of us are resorting to tactics as evil and dramatic as Eric and Holly. It’s just a Nature paper and full tenure and the Nobel Prize… nothing worth murdering anyone over, right?

The Prize is available for purchase on Amazon.com

Humans of Sackler: Becca Silver, “Enthusiasm was contagious (no pun intended)”

 

I’m Ila Anand, a fifth-year student in the Microbiology program. I’ve recently taken over the “Humans of Sackler” portion of the Newsletter, which was originally pioneered by Andrew Hooper. In this issue I had the honor of getting to know our GSC president, Rebecca Silver, better known as “Becca.” It was a delight sitting down with this die-hard Bruins fan and discussing a variety of topics—from finding out she loves butter pecan ice cream and Figaro’s to discovering how she first broke into science. I hope you enjoy our conversation and are better acquainted with our GSC president!

IA: Hi Becca! Let’s start with what were you doing before you started graduate school?

RS: I was having a good time in college at the University of Maine in Orono! Besides the academics, my favorite part of college was having my friends nearby and being able to spend time with them whenever I wanted. I had a pretty diverse group of friends in college and I still keep in touch with them. I’m originally from Portland, Maine and spending time with close friends was also a big part of my childhood. My favorite memories are from Fourth of July when my friends and I would hang out at a lake house. The lifestyle in Maine is generally much more slow-paced. That is actually one of the biggest differences I noticed when I started grad school—there’s much more of a “rush” in Boston compared to Portland, where the people are more laid-back.

IA: Sounds like there are definitely some cultural differences between the cities. Where else have you traveled to in the past?

RS: I’ve mostly traveled on the East coast. I’ve visited the majority of the North East and I’ve also visited Georgia and Florida. I’ve actually never traveled to the West Coast but if I had the opportunity to attend a conference I would totally go. I also really want to ski in the mountains of Colorado at some point in the future. Outside of the U.S. I’ve traveled to Canada and Bermuda. I visited Bermuda when I was fairly young (ten years old) and I vividly remember that time period because two weeks before the vacation I had pneumonia. At the time it was awful because I missed school and was trying to recover (I had a lot of Pediasure!), but in the end, because I also went on vacation, I ultimately took a month off of school and my teachers didn’t assign me any extra homework. You could say that was my first introduction to the infectious disease field!

 

IA: That does sound awful! So when did you actually become interested in pursuing research and studying science?

RS: Well, I was a bioengineer back in college and honestly pursuing research was a decision I made on the whim. I took an immunology elective class my junior year of college and quickly realized I really like immunology. The class was much more interesting than any of my bioengineering classes- the lectures were awe-inspiring! The professor really emphasized infectious disease clinical examples like super gross rashes all over the body, etc. The professor was so excited and his enthusiasm was contagious (no pun intended). After taking the class, that summer I took the GRE and applied for grad school the fall of my senior year. It was literally a 6-month turnaround from being a bioengineer to wanting to be an immunologist!

 

IA: What was your first experience working in a lab?

RS: My first experience doing lab work was during a Co-Op internship at Idexx, which is a veterinary biotech in Portland, ME. I interned at Idexx during the summer going into my junior year of college. I was involved in developing a lateral flow assay that is similar to an ELISA and this rapid immunoassay detected digging worms in infested dog feces. It was a triple detection assay so it was able to detect whipworm, roundworm, and hookworm. My internship involved developing positive and negative controls for the assay. My boss at Idexx played on the same recreational hockey team that I did in Maine and she was a Tufts alumnus. Later, when I decided I wanted to go to grad school, I reached out to her for a reference and she’s the one who influenced me to apply to and attend Tufts Sackler.

IA: That’s really neat that you play rec-hockey. How did you get into that? What else do you like to do outside of bench research?

RS: I picked up hockey in high school when I was fourteen. My friend asked me to try out for the school team because they needed more people and now it’s one my favorite activities to do. I currently play on a Greater Boston rec-team called South Shore Women’s Hockey League. We have a lot of fun! In addition to hockey, I like to run. I run with a group in Jamaica Plains called the Forest Hill Runners and my favorite spot to run is in Peters Hill in the Harvard Arboretum. It has the best view of the whole city, in my opinion. I also like to cook and play video games—specifically strategy games, like Civilization 6. As GSC president, I’ve also been heavily involved in planning the Sackler relays. Our plans are kind of top secret but I can tell you that this year we’re going to have relays in June rather than July and we’re going to have an awesome raffle. Of course, my favorite part about relays is winning- go Immunogenetics!

Notes from the Library…LabArchives

LabArchives

Notes from the Library…LabArchives

Tufts has an institutional license for LabArchives, an electronic lab notebook.  Your lab may already be using this tool, but if not, read on for information on what LabArchives is, and how you can use it in your work.

What is LabArchives?

LabArchives is a web-based electronic lab notebook, designed to replicate and enhance the features of a traditional paper notebook.  LabArchives allows you to electronically document your experiments, store files, search content, manage version history, and collaborate with others.

How do I access to LabArchives?

While LabArchives is designed as a collaborative tool for research labs, anyone at Tufts can contact Tufts Technology Services to request access: tts-research@tufts.edu.

Once a LabArchives account has been created for you, then access the login page from your preferred browser (Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, or Safari): https://shib.labarchives.com/select_institution.  Select ‘Tufts University’ from the dropdown menu (if you are on campus, then this option will already be selected), click ‘Go to Your Institution’s Login’, and enter your Tufts username and password.

LabArchives is also accessible via a mobile app for Android and iOS devices.

Tell me a little more about what I can do in LabArchives.

Like any tool, LabArchives is what you make of it.  Here are a few things you can do in LabArchives:

  • Create multiple notebooks
  • Organize information into folders, pages, and entries
  • Enter text, structures, or calculations, and upload files, to a page
  • Develop templates for common protocols and methods
  • Tag content to facilitate searching in your notebook
  • View changes made to, and revert to old versions of, your notebook

What types of files can I store LabArchives?

Any type of file can be stored in LabArchives.  Files up to 15 GB can be uploaded to a notebook page.  If you need to reference a file that exceeds this limit, then you can store the file elsewhere (e.g. Box, research storage drive) and link the location path to your notebook.  Your LabArchives at Tufts account has unlimited storage.

Can I view and edit files in LabArchives?

LabArchives is integrated with Office Online and GraphPad Prism, which allows you to view and edit Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Prism documents from within your notebook.

In addition, an Office plugin enables you to save documents to LabArchives while working in Word, Excel or PowerPoint on your desktop.

Most image files can be viewed and edited in LabArchives.  PDF documents can also be viewed in LabArchives.

Can LabArchives be used to store personally identifiable and/or medical data?

No.  LabArchives does not meet the standards necessary to comply with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) or Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) standards.

How does LabArchives allow me to collaborate with others?

You can share an entire LabArchives notebook or an individual folder, page or entry with other LabArchives users, at Tufts or other institutions.

As a notebook owner, you can choose whether you provide read/write or read-only access to your content.  Permissions can be changed at any time.

How can I access my LabArchives notebooks when I leave Tufts?

Prior to leaving Tufts, you should confer with your PI about transferring ownership of your LabArchives notebooks to another LabArchives user in your lab.  In order to continue to have access to your notebooks, you will need to create a free individual LabArchives account or, if you are going to another institution with LabArchives, an account at that institution.

You can also download either an HTML or PDF version of your notebooks, for offline reading and storage.

What are the next steps if I want to start using LabArchives?

To request access to LabArchives, contact Tufts Technology Services: tts-research@tufts.edu.

For quick start guides, frequently asked questions and troubleshooting, go to the LabArchives help page: http://labarchives.kayako.com/.

For help with data management best practices, such as file structure, naming and metadata, contact me: laura.pavlech@tufts.eduLabArchives