Friday, May 29, 2020

Zoom zoom zoom: Some do's and don'ts of virtual lectures

Posted by Dan Bolnick, May 29 2020

(Note to reader: if you want to skip to the do's and don'ts, just skim down to the bold subheading)

Early in the spread of Sars-Cov-2, which causes COVID, a colleague pointed me to an article in Science from May 1919, looking back on the previous two years of influenza pandemic (screenshot below). It is worth reading, to highlight the parallels with our winter and spring 2020 and, I fear, our coming year(s).  It is also worth reading to highlight the profound differences. How far we have come in our understanding of the spread of the disease, and what to do about it (even if the social and political will to act on that knowledge is... weak).  But one thing keeps jumping out as me as I read and re-read the article:  how much the internet makes a difference to our daily lives and response to the pandemic. The spread of information and misinformation.  Daily updates to case counts from around the world. Rumors and conspiracies. Ordering groceries or hand sanitizer or a good book from the internet without having to break social distancing to go to a bricks-and-mortar store. And, of course, the (fragile) ability of (some) academics to continue doing (some of) our jobs as teachers and researchers. In particular, many of us continued to teach, hold lab meetings, individual meetings with mentors or mentees.  Its not been easy, to be sure, and many of us also are caught between the conflicting demands of work and home, wrangling young kids, homeschooling other kids, caring for the sick, and battling the emotional and psychological distress of the pandemic.

As our spring semesters wrap up, we look forward with a mix of relief and dread to the summer: reduced teaching demands (for some of us), limited or no field work or lab work, kids without structured time. And, the cancellation of in-person academic conferences, a core part of the traditional academic summer experience.  Many academic societies are engaging in discussions about whether, and how, to hold online conferences. These meetings serve many purposes: networking with prospective mentors, or possible future lab members. Presenting and learning the latest science. Brainstorming new collaborations. Meeting face to face with colleagues to hash out next steps of long-established collaborations. Conducting journal or society business, such as council meetings or Meet The Editor events. And building a sense of community that integrates new students.  It is hard to imagine many of these functions being effective in a virtual setting. But one of the core functions is still perfectly viable:  presenting, and learning about, great new science. Internet tools such as Zoom, WebEx, Facebook live, and others, make it simple to present live research talks, whether for conferences or for departmental seminars, or for impromptu new global seminar series such as @EcoEvoSeminars .  Talks can be interactive (though sadly one needs to control attendee access to prevent 'Zoom bombing' or equivalents where racist trolls sometimes interrupt proceedings). Talks can be live, then a recording uploaded to Youtube for viewers to watch at their leisure.

In many ways, these web presentations are a great thing. Conferences used to be limited to those who could afford to pay to travel and have lodging and registration (covered by travel grants, research grants, or personal resources).  Now, anyone can participate (though prices of conference registration vary immensely, some are free, others curiously expensive). Then there was travel time, and carbon footprint considerations that limited attendance from far-flung continents. People with disabilities may have a harder time with travel and navigating conference settings as well. With virtual meetings, anyone can present, anyone can attend, from anywhere in the world, when it suits you. You can even attend two or more conferences simultaneously that might have otherwise happened on different continents. Now, as a parent with two young-ish kids I do realize that our time is constrained. It isn't easy for many of us to find a spare few minutes to shower or do dishes right now, let alone write and present a talk, or view others' talks. So even virtual conferences have elements of inequality of access (e.g., shifting barriers from those with limited funds, to those with kids at home). But I'll wager that the net benefits to the community are actually fairly large. And, at least the talks are there to watch at your leisure, even if a year from now, in theory.

So, with these considerations in mind there are a number of academic conferences that have moved to an entirely virtual format. Reviews have been generally positive. Of course we lack many of the in-person networking benefits. But, at least students and postdocs get to present their latest and greatest work that helps them advance their careers. And, it seems, attendance is high. I'll admit I was surprised by how many people tune in to virtual conference talks, with all the other work and family tasks pulling at my own time.  But it is clear there is a hunger for this service.

Some aspects of a conference can't be duplicated online. Here, a picnic at the chateau Air BnB some of us stayed in at the ESEB 2018 meeting

So let's say your favorite scientific society decides to proceed with a virtual conference (or, you get invited to give a seminar somewhere this fall, remotely). You want that presentation to be a success, and that means more than the usual tricks of seminar preparation.  Normally when I am preparing to give a talk somewhere, I focus on the intellectual content of the slides: order of ideas is clear, I pose a good opening question that I can answer by the end of the talk. Are my visuals appealing? Not much text on the slides? Then I stand up and practice my talk a few times, at least the first 5 minutes I practice several times. And I run through all the way to make sure it is the right total length. These are all standard how-to-prepare-a-good-seminar things. There are already blog posts about seminar prep and delivery do's and don'ts (e.g., make eye contact, move around the room but not too much, modulate your voice, don't speak too fast, minimize verbal tics). But now there are new considerations also. What is different about giving a virtual conference or seminar talk? What should you do differently, uniquely for this format?

Homeschool:  think about the possibly much wider audience who might view your talks online!

To address this, I did a quick query on Twitter for feedback, and I summarize that and my own thoughts here. I will update the following with new material if you email or otherwise contact me with suggestions.

So with no further ado:

What should you do to ensure a successful virtual presentation? (above and beyond the usual rules for any good seminar).

1. Your audience should be able to hear you well.  Get  a decent external microphone, if you can. Test it out by recording yourself giving a talk, even just a few minutes, as you would do for the real thing. Does your audio fade if you turn your head? Do you stand and pace and become inadudible? Check these things in advance.  Find a place (if you can) with minimal background noise.  Teaching a class this spring I thought it would be nice to teach from my porch with a fire in the wood stove, but I soon realized the traffic noise was too much and retreated to the back of my house thereafter. Once you actually are giving your talk, speak more slowly than you normally would. I am a too-quick speaker, I know. Its a problem in the best of times. But audio gets garbled far more in virtual talks, and fast speaking will be far far harder to understand even than usual. When you actually start your talk, check that the audio is working.

2. Do you want your audience to see you? Some presenters do, some don't. My own opinion is that a speaker's facial expression, movements, do a great deal to convey excitement and attract attention. So I strongly strongly encourage it. But, some speakers wrestle with stage fright or anxiety that can be alleviated by hiding yourself. In zoom, right click and choose "hide myself". Now, if you do want to be seen, that means a few things. First, think about lighting and background. Zoom fake backgrounds are entertaining, but ultimately prove to be a distraction if they are too kinetic or colorful or busy. That said, if you have an unmade bed with laundry in the background, either clean up or use a fake background.  Next, think about lighting. Something I never thought about for a regular talk. Have a light in front of you, facing you, rather than being backlit. If your background is darker than you are, that's good. Record a bit of video of yourself and check if it is too bright, with highlights you don't like such as reflections off your glasses.  You can dim your computer screen also to reduce reflection from your glasses. When you actually start your talk, check that the video is working. Then as you talk, look at the camera, more than your screen. That's where you make 'eye contact' with your audience. One suggestion was to tape an image of a friend's face just above your camera lens to draw your attention back to the lens.

3. Slide layout: text.  Some of us opt for sparse slides with just a single image and a tiny bit of text. That's always my preference. But your viewer's audio might be poor.    So, it seems wise to put a little bit more text on than you normally might on the assumption that some viewers can't hear you well. At a minimum, each slide should have some heading that concisely conveys the core point of that slide. Unlike a real talk, viewers CAN pause a pre-recorded lecture to read fine-print (though don't expect them to).

4. Slide layout: space for your face. If you show a video of you talking, viewers will see a little square of you, inset somewhere on your talk. So, leave enough open space that this square does not block key content of your slide(s). Keep the open space in a consistent spot (e.g., always the top right corner), so that square can stay put. Figure out, if possible, for pre-recorded lectures, where that square is (viewers won't have control over that).   More generally, have larger margins than you normally might because your viewers' screen and the recording process may crop things more than you realize.

5. Slide layout: dimensions. Widescreen format is better on your viewers' screens. Your viewers will be using screens that are usually wide-screen rather than the more traditional 3*4 format.

6. Slide layout: Text size. Assume your viewer is sitting an arms length from their laptop screen watching your talk. How big will your text appear to them? This might actually be better than at some conferences. At SMBE a couple years ago in Austin Texas, the talks were in long thin rooms. At the back of the room, I held up my (small) iPhone at arms length. The screen I was watching a talk on, was smaller than my view of my phone screen. Any small text was illegible. Might be better on a virtual talk, in comparison. This means that you *can* fit more small text on a slide. This does not mean you *should*.

7. Dynamic material: Beware playing video / audio via zoom. GIFs might work better. A number of people have reported that videos embedded in their talks and especially audio fails to transmit well.

8. Talk structure:  Assume your audience is multitasking. They will miss material because their kid walks in with a homework question, or they get an important email, or get up to make coffee. This means your talk will benefit from more sign-posting (here's where we've been, here's what's next) and more regular summaries of what you've shown,  than would be the case for a regular talk.

9. Talk structure: More important than ever, animate: add information sequentially to keep their attention focused only on what you are talking about. Start with a sparse slide and layer on information bit by bit. The visual changes as you add content help keep your audience's attention

10. Delivering the talk:
Introduce yourself a bit more than you normally would. This is being recorded for posterity.

Plan in advance what you will use for a laser pointer. Your mouse can serve this purpose (there's an option in powerpoint for this). Some people report that keynote has trouble with this feature.

When you see "unstable / poor connection",  pause and wait for it to disappear, then restart the sentence

Here's a cool one I didn't know about: Use Powerpoint Pen option to draw on your slides as you talk or answer questions:  Choose Pointer Options -> Pen  to scribble.  Jason Londo added: "But use the shortcut keys so it doesn’t cause a break in the flow. Ctrl P to activate/deactivate instead of clicking through the menu. Shift E to erase what you’ve drawn. Only drawback is when the pen is active, it’s hard to find"

Have a moderator handling questions (e.g., via a slack channel). They can choose which questions to convey to you (there may be far more than at a regular talk). Advantages include their ability to merge multiple questions' themes,  avoid rambling questions ("this is more of a comment"), and most importantly avoid zoom bombing by trolls that can happen with live questions. The moderator can also convey a question to you mid-talk (if you agree in advance to do it that way), which is hard for you to do yourself as you will not be reading comments as you speak.

11.  Do you want people to tweet about your talk? Do you want to provide contact information for people to reach out to you after your talk?

12.  Think of virtual seminars as an outreach opportunity also. Who else might be watching, who normally wouldn't tune in? Your family? My kids? Donald Trump? (okay, not really)

13. Take some time to listen to and watch people who do podcasts and videos professionally. Think about how they are packaging and arranging their content. These folks are professionals who have learned a lot of tricks for catching and keeping an audience's attention.

14. You might be tempted to invoke pop culture references. Those are fun, engage your audience. But if your visuals draw from copyrighted material, Youtube or other platforms may block your presentation. So be extra-sure for virtual, recorded talks, to avoid copyrighted material especially from commercial sources and attribute attribute attribute.

I am happy to continue adding to this list. Please email me (Dan Bolnick) with suggestions or even text to add (I'll credit you).

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

New Profs in the Age of COVID19 - @swannegordon


New Profs in the age of COVID19 - the series:

    - by Swanne Gordon @swannegordon

    - by Yoel Stuart @yestuart

    - by Amy Parachnowitsch @EcoEvoAmy

    - by Jaime Chaves @chavechito76


When Andrew (Hendry) invited me to contribute to a blog series showcasing how new PI’s were handling their COVID-19 experiences and worries, he also attached a few examples. I struggled initially to think about what else I could add that hadn’t already been eloquently said and was about to decline. I soon realized that even with all the similarities between the previous posts and anything I would write, I could still bring forward a viewpoint that is often not shared. Frankly, because it is a viewpoint that is so rare, and in many ways quite dissimilar from the majority of my peers. The viewpoint I refer to is that of an underrepresented minority in STEM or, specifically, a new Black female PI in the field of ecology and evolution.

First, let’s start with the commonalities; where I have similar woes and anxieties as my peers, especially in my field. We should start here because how better to remember this crazy time than with a multitude of examples and representations all reinforcing the same things.

My lab focuses on variation in nature, why it exists and how it is maintained. Under that scope, we use a variety of techniques to examine topics such as color polymorphisms, rapid evolution, and the interaction between sex linkage and adaptation. Our pre-Covid plans for this spring and summer were to expand this research experimentally into three new topics: urban ecology and evolution, the role of behavior in eco-evo dynamics, and a more integrative approach to understanding animal behavior via neurobiology.

The current pandemic started interrupting these plans during what was the end of the big planning phase of our lab’s first field season to Trinidad in March. Our plans were to intensively collect Trinidadian guppies from freshwater streams all across the Northern Range Mountains of Trinidad between two collaborating labs that would become the main foundation of our upcoming experiments. We began hearing more and more about the threat of the virus, and so we adjusted our plans in case we were either not allowed to travel, or got stuck in Trinidad after we had traveled. One of the plan adjustments meant changing our pre-bought tickets so that we staggered the inbound and outbound flights of our four-person team.

I was the last person scheduled to leave; the day before my flight, my University canceled the trip and all international travel for its faculty and staff. The following week was one of mass confusion, anxiety, and long days. I had to shut down my lab including our undergraduate research students who also helped maintain the fish stocks we already had. (Sidebar: I have no graduate students or postdocs yet but will be recruiting into next year if anyone knows of any good candidates). The only other three people who could help with the lab were in the field. This meant I had to care for the stock by myself while trying to get the hard-working field crew back home as safely and as soon as possible. We ended up playing it safe and buying new tickets for the field crew to return early before they closed the borders; they eventually all made it home safely (including the fish populations they had managed to collect).

My current day to day life consists of mainly juggling the following things: 1) trying to motivate myself to write up the many papers I have outstanding from my postdoc ( so much to do, and so little motivation); 2) work and mentoring meetings (so much Zoom); 3) taking care of our rapidly growing stocks in our fish rooms between the four of us who were given special essential status from the University; and 4) the massive amount of work homeschooling two very bored, yet completely resilient and amazing kids (teachers really should be paid more!). All research is currently on hold although the University is now preparing research ramp-up plans across the Departments from 0 to a 30 percent opening in the near future. However, as far as I know, my summer plans to co-build outdoor stream mesocosms (especially needed for my new postdoc starting in August), run some cool experiments, and host six additional summer research students at our University field station are all canceled or postponed until way into the future.

Ok, what I have written above may seem like a lot of complaining. However, I am more than cognizant that my position during this pandemic is actually more privileged that many other people. This is why, in spite of everything, I try to focus on the many reasons I have to be grateful, even during a pandemic. I am fortunate to even be a New PI, to have a good academic job at an institution that has shown itself during this time to truly value its students and staff, when so many of my equally qualified peers are still searching. I am fortunate to have been given a start-up fund from Washington University in St Louis that should cover my research plans for the next couple of years should the funding environment crash post-Covid. I am also fortunate, so far, to be healthy (my family as well), whilst so many are not. I am fortunate to still have a healthy fish population, students eager to return to work with them, and for being given a year and a half off from teaching at the University so that I had the time during the early days of the pandemic to focus solely on my lab and my family. I am also fortunate to have some good colleagues, a supportive co-parent/research partner, and the best and most hard-working lab group. We are small, but mighty (come join us!).

Now that we have covered the viewpoint that any researcher or field biologist can see themselves in, let’s go over two places or points where my viewpoint or experience may be different. I think one thing the virus has also accomplished is to shine further light on inequality in America and around the world; in all regions, the virus has continued to disproportionately affect communities of color and the economically disadvantaged.

Even with my privilege of job security during the pandemic, as a Black person living in America with two young kids, I live and breathe with anxiety. Threats of racism, police brutality, and inequalities in education, the justice system, health, income, and housing (among other things) plague our communities with no real end in sight. These issues are also worldwide, represented in every single facet of our lives, and will only get worse after this pandemic has weakened. When my husband and I were deciding which Universities to apply, and then which job offer to choose, we had to consider many more important factors than the average scientist. While others focused on the Departmental fit or job offer, we also had to focus on what were the repercussions of this choice for our Black children. Would they be welcomed in their schools, in their neighborhood? Could they find representation of other people, or teachers, that looked like them? We were also moving them from Finland, so this was a big priority. Other than just the academic accomplishments of my colleagues (and Department) for future collaborations, I needed to also focus on where on the ‘racism or bias in academia’ scale did my potential colleagues average, and if high, could I handle it for a few years?

Table courtesy of the book, Presumed Incompetent, edited by Gabriella GutiĆ©rrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. Gonzalez and Angela P. Harris. This book highlights the ‘intersecting roles of race, gender, and class in the working lives of women faculty of color’. However, a quick search on the US Department of Education website for the updated numbers show me the percentages of black faculty across the US has remained quite constant since then (e.g. still only total 3 percent for black women faculty).

With these thoughts in mind and having remained in academia all of these years as someone at the intersection of biases across both gender and race, I also knew my struggles in the time of Covid and post-Covid would look different than my peers’. Seeing all of the past mental and physical extra hoops and obstacles I had to go through throughout my career that my close colleagues did not have to make me worried about the future. I worry about how much more of a struggle it will be after the pandemic when resource limitations in funding, hiring, promotions, publishing, and collaboration will get worse and likely expand the flourishing biases in academia. Historically, underrepresented groups always suffer more of the consequences during these times. Academia, let us band together to change the cycle of this narrative and protect those around us that are most at risk; but, excuse me if I don’t hold my breath.

Finally, I want to mention that although we are all going through a pandemic, there are some among us that are dealing with larger mental loads related to it. I see some colleagues on Twitter who are quick to mention how they are taking this time to catch up on manuscripts and grants that are lagging, and that’s great. However, unlike these colleagues, this pandemic has also seemed to paralyze me. In my case, in the early weeks of the shutdown in St Louis, I had been bombarded by statistics including: 1) that the first few deaths in St Louis and the majority of deaths in big cities involved Black people, and, 2) that 38% of people who have died from Coronavirus in Missouri are Black, but Black people make up only 12% of that population (numbers not recently updated). Although much of these facts are because black representation in the work force is disproportionately tipped towards frontline, essential, and/or lower income jobs, there are also enough cases I have seen on my Twitter feed that cross socio-economic lines. Given that I need to leave my house many times a week to go into the University to care for the fish populations, it is always such a mental hurdle for me when I get home. A mental battle to quell my fears of a disproportionate risk (whether perceived or actually epidemiological) of myself or family members dying from the virus in order to work relatively care-free on my papers or discuss science with my lab members. On top of this, our four-year-old son has an immune deficiency. I am thinking people with any immune deficiencies or other illnesses have similar if not worse fears. 

Where do I go from here? Where do we all go from here? Hopefully toward a better, more open and inclusive academia, with understanding and respect for all of our relative struggles and experiences during this unprecedented time. I for one am excited to eventually get back to some semblance of the new normal, but with a renewed appreciation and gratitude for the aspects in my life I used to take for granted.

Update: I just got done watching the viral video of the murder of George Floyd by cops in Minneapolis and it has made me so angry. It is damn time all of us rise up and say enough is enough. It is time for those of you in academia who are absolutely cloaked in privilege to start feeling the same anger Black people feel when these deaths occur time and time again. This is because it is a human problem, and not just a Black problem. It is time for you to imagine your brothers, fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles struggling to breathe and dying without mercy under the glare of cowards (and the justice system). This issue goes beyond simply academia, but it is so much more important!

Sunday, May 10, 2020

New Profs in the age of COVID19 - @yestuart


New Profs in the age of COVID19 - the series:

    - by Swanne Gordon @swannegordon

    - by Yoel Stuart @yestuart

    - by Amy Parachnowitsch @EcoEvoAmy

    - by Jaime Chaves @chavechito76


Yoel Stuart

I started my position at Loyola University Chicago in Fall of 2019 but didn't start teaching undergraduate classes until January 2020. I remember hearing about COVID-19 (then just called a coronavirus, in an unknown-to-me place called Wuhan) during the first week of Spring classes. We discussed it that week. We were primed to pay attention because I had assigned Spillover, by David Quammen, as course reading, and therefore had a stroke of pedagogical (bad) luck to be teaching about emerging infectious diseases during an emerging pandemic. Needless to say, I wish my material wasn't quite so relevant to current events. We read the SARS chapter the week I took my class online. 

Looking for lizards in Florida. You'll see I was into face masks before they were vogue.

The Serenity Prayer:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

Things I cannot change

I cannot change being locked out of my lab and office.

I cannot change cessation of lab data collection.

I cannot change that my technicians are quickly running out of work they can do at home (though see below).

I cannot change that classes are online.

I cannot change the absence of undergraduate students in my lab.

I cannot change daycare being closed.

I cannot change so many things.

I am trying not to worry about them.

Just me and my shadow in Nevada, looking for fossil stickleback. Socially distanced, right?

Things I can change, or rather, control:

I can control my writing. There are revisions and manuscripts to write. I can write for at least 30 minutes per day (and probably more, now that the semester is done).

I can control my grants. I have grants that would benefit from 30 minutes of writing a day.

I can control my data analysis. I have several projects that would benefit from 30 minutes of analysis per day.

I can train my technicians. Now is an opportunity develop their project design and writing skills. I can have them do literature searches for new project ideas and writing for completed projects. I can also help them apply to graduate school.

I can improve my courses. I had many ideas throughout the semester to make my classes better. I improve 30 minutes per day, starting by reaching out to my office of online learning.

I can keep a realistic calendar of things I want to accomplish each week. And then I can set about making those things happen.

I can change the way I approach my day, to reduce my stress levels and make me both a better worker and a better father and husband. COVID-19 means there is time for introspection. I’ve realized that my stress level is lowest if I get 30-60 minutes of writing done first thing in the morning. With two small kids at home, this means waking up at 6am (and forswearing that extra hour of faffing around at night). When I do this, I can be more present with my kids and spouse—a silver lining of the stay at home order. It also makes it easier to steal a few minutes here and there for administration and email later in the day.

I can donate to causes that need help and are important to me. This is a way to keep from feeling completely helpless.

I can count my blessings and acknowledge all the positive things in my life. I have a patient spouse with whom navigating this mess has been more or less smooth. I have two kids that play well together and give us enough time to stay sane. I have amazing co-workers at LUC and have received support at all levels here. Me and mine are safe, healthy, employed. I had great students; I’ll miss our tri-weekly meetings which provided landmarks during days that tend to blend together.

I can be gentle with myself and forgive myself for all the times that I fall short in my work, my parenting, my interactions, my gratitude. As much as one aims for serenity, false serenity is not helpful (Costanza, G., pers. comm.). We all lose it sometimes. That’s okay.


My son Lev, after playing "Windstorm" in the basement during COVID. Thank goodness for basements.

The wisdom to tell the difference

Can I safely conduct field work this summer? Can my graduate student safely conduct field work this summer? Can collaborative projects happen safely this summer? I ask the EEEE community for wisdom.

On the one hand, an argument could be made that solo travel to remote field sites is the social distancing. As long as I sleep in the truck, use gloves and masks at gas stations, minimize trips to gather food and supplies, quarantine for the 14 days before I leave, and otherwise, not interact with anyone, the risk of community spread is small. Right?

The counterargument is: the only way to minimize community spread is to stay at home. Full stop. Even gas station stops could be enough to contract and spread. And, were something to happen in the field: flat tire, broken arm, etc., I’d be creating a network of interactions that wasn’t necessary. And possibly taxing to a tired health care system. And, leaving my spouse with two toddlers, no daycare, and her working a fulltime job is not tenable. This means bringing a grandparent into our social circle. Risks there too.

How does one weigh the relative risks? How much responsibility do I have to granting agencies and taxpayers to conduct the research? Do I know the answer in my gut (stay home!) while my head tries to rationalize a field trip? I certainly recognize my conflict of interest. Preliminary data, personal advancement, and tenure are powerful motivators to build an argument that I could travel safely despite COVID having an R0 around 3. And yet… just because I have a conflict of interest doesn’t make safe travel impossible, does it?

What about post-doc collaborators and graduate students? They have careers and futures to secure in a way that I don’t. Does their field work warrant the relatively low risk of community spread in exchange for the very high personal cost of staying home—years of lost work, the end of grant funding with nothing to show for it, a year’s delay in receiving a degree, blank spots on the CV? Can one cap and trade risk? I’ll stay home but facilitate others?

More questions than answers. If there were a running header for COVID-19 during the first six months of 2020, I think ‘more questions than answers’ would be it.

A 25-year quest for the Holy Grail of evolutionary biology

When I started my postdoc in 1998, I think it is safe to say that the Holy Grail (or maybe Rosetta Stone) for many evolutionary biologists w...