Unbowed, unbent, unbroken…but slightly deflated


A beautiful morning, washing away the disappointment.

A beautiful morning, washing away the disappointment.

The title comes from the words of House Martell of The Song of Ice and Fire books. They have a nice ring to them, and it was a nerdy way to console myself when last weekend I arrived to the buoy of my plastic sampling system, just to find the set of cages gone.

Of course this is not new for me. Experiments have a way to go wrong for many reasons besides human error. I was warned by several of my friends who have done environmental sampling that there was always a risk for people tampering with them. My other concern were the surf and the waves, but after one week the system looked robust, so I stopped worrying. Big mistake.

So we paddled back after I dipped my tubes in the water to at least have a set of water samples. Calls and visits to lifeguard and water authorities did not brought any information, so I had to accept that my cages (and several weeks of preparation) were gone.

Life goes on. New cages have been ordered, and I am in the lookout of other, less visible location. To be honest, I prefer to tackle this problem to cell lines contaminated with Mycoplasma. But still…


Yes it has been a busy year! Some updates.

Leave a comment


Me on the boat deploying the plastic samples in Doheny State Beach.

What happened after February? Well, a bunch of things. Some of them I mentioned in my older blog postings, and it is nice to know that they have been moving forward over the past months.

  • In a past posting I mentioned number crunching regarding a general biology class redesign’s evaluation. The manuscript was submitted to a minor journal a couple of weeks ago. It is not a Nature level paper, but it has numbers and statistics and some interesting results.
  • I also mentioned applying for a program. I was accepted to ASM’s 2015 Biology Scholar Research Residency, and spent some  days in July at the ASM headquarters in DC with a group of like-minded amazing education researchers.
  • What I brought to the Residency was a flipped classroom project I have been working on with a colleague. She and I recorded lectures, played with Camtasia and Doceri, and did some numbercrunching too. After the residency, we added qualitative methods to the mix.
  • The Small World Initiative is going strong. In June I coordinated the yearly training at our campus, and had both amazing training companions as well as a group of enthusiastic new partners. In July, changes took place in their leadership, and now we are moving towards a broader implementation both geographically and educationally, while setting up the stage to follow up on all those antibiotic producers.
  • I dived heads-on into using metagenomics. At the end of last year I received a small internal grant for a collaborative project to study what kind of microbes attach to plastic bags in the ocean. The experiments using a homemade setup yielded reproducible quality DNA and metagenomic data, and now we are in the process of evaluating the system in the open ocean. The project has taken me to metal shops, lobster trap companies, marine supply stores, and harbor police officers, as well as to fruitful discussions with Scripps Oceanography scientists and metagenomic experts. Just last week I held a small talk about the project. It is fun. I just wish I knew more bioinformatics.
  • I attended the GCAT-SEEK workshop in the summer as the wingman for our bioinformatics expert. While she was on page 30 of the tutorial creating some amazing 3D graphs I was still struggling with the Linux commands. I still learned tons! It is a great opportunity.

So yes, seems like we are getting to the reaping the harvest part, finally. Of course nothing is really ever completed, but it is nice to see results, and also some sort of conclusions.

Three posters presented at AAAS2015

Leave a comment

Here are the three posters I am presenting at AAAS2015, or better said, I am presenting the first GEP poster, and the two others are student posters. Whew! It was a bit stressful last week, but it is nice that it is done. Poster session this afternoon, 2/14. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Three posters presented at AAAS2015.

Few takes from the other side of a search committee

Leave a comment

So many colors…which one to choose?

A while ago I had the service chore of being part of a couple of search committees. After many years of being on the applicant side of the equation and reading about the process from experts, I would like to share some of the insights I gained about the first round. This is about science positions at a primarily teaching institution with a majority of non-traditional students.

  1. Please follow instructions. If we are asking for X documents and they are not provided, that application is immediately discarded (with rare exceptions, see points 5&6).
  2. in teaching institutions, “proof of teaching effectiveness” means student evaluations and/or peer observations. Being chosen for a “best instructor” or similar award, or getting a grant for innovative teaching practices is obviously great.
  3. Yes, we read your teaching philosophy carefully . What most of us are looking for is thoughtfulness (are you REALLY thinking about your teaching) and how knowledgeable you are about innovative teaching practices.
  4. Having experience with online teaching is a bonus.
  5. Doing your homework about the institution you apply to is a huge bonus. One applicant was brought back from the discard pile (due to not providing student evaluations) because of a sentence in the cover letter that clearly indicated the person had read more than just the start page on our website. The Mission statement of the institution is a great place for clues.
  6. Yes, we read your cover letter. Very carefully, in fact. This is the place where we look for the “why” of your application, especially if you have an established position. If for some reason you were unable to provide something we asked for, this is the place to explain why.
  7. Be authentic but try not to sound naive. This is particularly important for younger applicants, for whom “being too green” is a real possibility, and you do not want to compound it by sounding silly.
  8. Sometimes you are absolutely wonderful, but not what we are looking for. Nothing personal: it may be that your expertise already exists in the department, or does not fit to our specific needs.
  9. Sometimes you are really wonderful, but too new and unexperienced. For those from a research background, consider teaching a course or two on your own at a community college or similar. Being a TA and supervising other grad students is nice, but may not be enough. Especially when competing with folks who have been teaching for quite a while.
  10. Related to #9, can you handle diversity? Are you aware that your students may be older than you? Or that you will have war veterans in class? In many teaching institutions, the norm is having a huge variety of students, both academically, culturally, demographically, etc. If you have not had that experience, at least we want to know that you are aware of it.
  11. Different aspects will appeal to different members of the committee. Nothing to do about it. That’s why it is a committee.
  12. Because of #11, the more we learn about you the better. At the beginning stage, the committee is looking for ways to narrow down the field for phone interviews. One piece of information may move your application to the next step. It may have to do with a side project that connects with a new budding initiative. Or some skill or expertise we really need. It is better to err on the side of too much information.
  13. Putting your name on the upper right corner of each page of your application or having it in big bold letters at the front of your package makes life easier.

As a final thought- after being on the other side, I felt much better for the many unsuccessful applications in my past. Really, the only times we got personal were with applicants who were not paying attention to instructions or clearly did not qualify. Not being chosen for a phone interview simply means that one was not considered to be the right fit for the particular institution. And probably that is a good thing for both parties.

Update: I just realized that I did not say anything about research. And indeed, research was not a critical aspect in this phase. We noticed when applicants wrote something really weak or something completely unrealistic in a teaching institution. However, if the teaching qualities are good, research expectations and possibilities can be still discussed over the phone.

Number crunching is exhausting but oh so good

1 Comment

The power of numbers

As I am plowing ahead with the analysis of a course design change in a general biology course, things changed for the best when a colleague who loves numbers agreed to help me out with the statistics.

Statistics is a beast I know slightly, but not enough to be confident in my analysis. To have somebody with the knowledge work the numbers is priceless.

Over the past few days I learned two things:

  • Have a biostatistician buddy. They will make all the difference between despondence and hopefulness. Not to mention saving time. If I get a not significant result, there is always the little voice in the back of my head that thinks I might have just done the wrong analysis.
  • Get numbers and use them. The data table gathered (all IRB approved and anonymized) of the time period studied has 1738 students! Meaning, grades and demographics of 1738 human beings that took that course.
    • For one, it is staggering to see the reality behind the numbers. For example, the age range went from 19 to 69! This is a GE course. I feel immensely proud of the 69 old female who took this course. These are the famous “non-traditional” students we hear so much about.
    • Numbers have powers. Right now I am in the middle of writing an application to a competitive residency program. Do not know what to expect, but am applying because a) it would be great, and b) the application process itself is a learning experience.  In one of the essays where I have to describe my projects and plans I am using those numbers, including demographic data to show the potential.

The bottom line is, if you are faculty who is interested in education research and wants to apply for grants, collaborations, etc., you will be asked for numbers (enrollment,demographics). Have them collected ahead and use them to your favor. Right now, showing that your teaching serve non-traditional students, minorities, females, and veterans will be in your favor.

Update: I will be writing a separate post about the importance of IRB approvals for education research, but this is something I learned the hard way- you NEED IRB approval for any human subject research, and that includes student surveys and especially collection of demographic data.

Once I am done with the applications and posters…

1 Comment

Barral allGEP AAAS poster draft

The state of my AAAS poster, January 24 6.27 AM.

I cannot wait to be done with the three essays, three posters, and one merit letter. They are all due during the first two weeks of February, and as a good procrastinator, I have left them all to the last minute (and because I had a bunch of other deadlines before). In fact, things are better than usual! I already started working on one essay, two posters, and the letter.

And, things are better also because the only one that requires creativity is the merit letter. And by creativity I mean, in the literature sense. A merit letter has to be in a beautifully written and convincing prose. Obviously, content is essential, but presentation matters. In a way, beauty reflects content, I believe Hegel said, and in this case it reflects craftsmanship, attention to detail, and also how important this particular item is for us. While I don’t consider myself a good writer, over my lifetimeI I have created some decent pieces of writing. The exosome review I published in a relatively obscure journal ten years ago is still being downloaded, and it is one I am very proud of. It took forever to get started, but once I came to the first sentence (it was sitting in silence looking at one of San Diego’s canyons), all went quickly. For the merit letter, I already have the thread that will string together my accomplishments, so the “only” thing that I need is to sit down and write it.

The other essays are not really literary essays- I just need to show that I have the background and experience to be successful for that particular training program. As I mentioned in one of my previous postings, my administration has been asking for monthly lists of activities, providing us with an effective and detailed log of scholarly and outreach achievements.

Posters are a different beast. Two of them are student posters, but I started them so the students can putz around with the results. For mine, the challenge is to adapt a number of very scientifically oriented verbiage to AAAS’s (I expect) more general audience. My poster is about the Genomics Education Partnership, of which I have blogged extensively. The structure and modus operandi of GEP allows sharing of presentations so we are not really starting from scratch, but I would like to lighten up the informative load to make the poster stand out and make it more attractive. Here is a problem, though…I do not want to look too “flashy.” So I am struggling with the background. I really like the one I have now, but I may need to step back and change it to a more conservative color. I tried putting Drosophila flies as a background, but that was too busy. Dear Readers, what do you think? I am open to suggestions. Of course, my coauthors will have the last say, but it would be nice to have feedback.

Now, I started saying “once I am done.” Yes. There is an exciting completely new research project I am involved with now, that has to do with microbes, plastic, and the ocean. I can’t wait to get started in earnest.

But I need to be done with three essays, three posters, and one merit letter first…

Surrounded by geniuses?

Leave a comment

Obi wan Kenobi

Readers may have noted my absence for a week- I was out of town for a workshop last weekend, and when I returned there was a big pile of reports to grade, plus a number of pressing deadlines. I had to hunker down and plow through them- not yet done, but feeling better now.

Most people, and particularly academics, are familiar with this ebb and flow of work load. How many times we shake our heads and mutter, “Why am I doing this to myself?” Answers are of course manyfold, and luckily most of us do enjoy what we do. Then of course, there are some bonuses.

Yesterday was one of those days that my brain did not seem to work right. I overslept, causing some stress in the morning heading to a meeting, and as the day advanced, I was aware that my mental processes were sluggish.

On the other hand…

  • I was in a meeting discussing the possibility to host a Small World Initiative training at our campus. It was a pure logistics meeting (cost of lodging, catering, possible dates, transportation). I was stuck in the model of previous training workshops. The facilities director asked: “Can we make it a regional workshop to cater to instructors who live close-by and can drive?” Funnily enough, this was an option that had come up before, but somehow got lost in later email threads. As an option, it would be for sure simpler to arrange.
  • Another colleague and I are going through some serious number crunching to look at the effect of an intervention in a non-majors biology class. As it was my original idea, I had a set of parameters I wanted to look at. She suggested to look also at the number of W students (withdrawals) as a proxy of retention.
  • Thanks to a small internal grant, I am now in practice the administrator of resources, a fact that makes me nervous. Have been looking at ways to make it as transparent and clear as possible to prevent any doubts of what is the $ used for. As the project involves the use of a consultant, I have been thinking of some kind of document to reflect expectations, deliverables, and deadlines. My faculty mentor, whom I jokingly call Obi wan Kenobi, pointed out to me that there is indeed an official form for contracts at the university and explained the instructions to its use.

The common denominator of these three examples was my reaction: “Genius!” I exclaimed all three times, as the simple solutions just moved the process along. And yes, I may have arrived to the same solution by myself…but on a day like yesterday, it was wonderful to feel the power of teamwork.

Happy weekend to you all!

Older Entries

WordPress.com VIP: Enterprise content management platform

Our fully managed cloud platform, expert guidance and support, and diverse partner ecosystem free you to focus on your business objectives.


An Online Microbiology Journal Club Broadcast on YouTube


Teaching and learning reflections around science education

Disrupted Physician

The Physician Wellness Movement and Illegitimate Authority: The Need for Revolt and Reconstruction

Tanya's Blog

Tanya's ramblings on science, education, and other miscellanea ...

The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss's 4-Hour Workweek and Lifestyle Design Blog

Here is Havana

A blog written by the gringa next door


A blog full of humorous and poignant observations.

Small World Initiative:

Crowdsourcing the Discovery of Antibiotics

Jung's Biology Blog

Teaching biology; bioinformatics; PSMs; academia, openteaching, openlearning


Reflexiones sobre asuntos variados, desde criminologia hasta artes ocultas.

Humanitarian Cafe

Think Outside the Box

Small Pond Science

Research, teaching, and mentorship in the sciences

Small Things Considered

Teaching and learning reflections around science education

The Loom

Teaching and learning reflections around science education

LightCentric Photography Blog

Musings on Photography and Life

Teaching Without Walls: Life Beyond the Lecture

Teaching and learning reflections around science education

1 Year and a 100 Books

No two people read the same book