Saturday, January 30, 2021

Susan Foster - Memories

Susan Foster of Clark University passed away recently. Here we collate and compile memories of some Susan's contributions to science, education, and collegiality. She will be sorely missed. This is a living document - please add your own thoughts in the comments.

1. In Remembrance of Susan Adlai Foster (1953 – 2021), ABS Fellow and Past President. Written by Matthew A. Wund, with input from John Baker, Christine Boake, Zuleyma Martinez, and Dale Stevens. This obituary is modified from text that will be published in the March newsletter of the Animal Behavior Society.

Dr. Susan Foster passed away at her home in Petersham, MA from complications associated with cancer on January 16, 2021. She was in the company of her loving husband, John Baker, and their two children, Patrick and Dylan. Susan devoted her career to the study of behavioral plasticity and evolution, and is best known for her extensive work using threespine stickleback fish as a model to understand these processes.

Susan earned her B.S. in Botany and Zoology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and in 1984, earned her Ph.D. in Zoology from the University of Washington under the mentorship of Robert T. Paine. Her graduate work investigated group foraging behavior in coral reef fish of Panama. She is most well-known for her extensive research on the plasticity and evolution of behavior in threespine stickleback fish. She began her stickleback research as a postdoctoral fellow working with Michael A. Bell at Stony Brook University. From 1990-1995, she continued this work as an Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Arkansas. In 1995, she moved with her husband and collaborator, Dr. John Baker, to Clark University in Worcester, MA, where she spent the remainder of her career until her retirement in 2020. She continued mentoring her students and conducting research until her final days. Susan served Clark University with as much dedication and enthusiasm as she served the ABS, including in her position as the Warren Litsky Endowed Chair in Biology, and in her leadership on a variety of institution-wide committees and councils. She was also instrumental in establishing Clark University’s very successful Environmental Science Program, in which she served in several capacities.

Susan served the scientific community in many capacities throughout her career. She was exceptionally fond of the Animal Behavior Society, which spanned her nearly four decades of membership. The highlights of her service to the ABS include multiple terms as Secretary (1993-1999), Second President Elect (08-09), First President Elect (09-10), President (10-11), and Past-President (11-12). Susan was elected an ABS Fellow in 2004. More recently, she served as Executive Editor of Animal Behaviour, and served for more than a decade as the North American Editor of Ethology. Susan also served on numerous NSF review panels, and participated in several working groups sponsored by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NEScent).

Susan’s body of work is exceptional for its breadth and depth. In more than sixty peer reviewed articles and book chapters, as well as four edited volumes, her research beautifully married natural history, extensive field observations, exquisite laboratory experiments, and evolutionary theory. She did not view herself as either a field biologist, or as an animal behaviorist, or as an evolutionary biologist, but rather as all of these things simultaneously. She had a wonderful ability to comprehend the interplay among multiple scales of biological organization: appreciating how the nuances of individual behavior related to complex evolutionary processes. She was fascinated by threespine stickleback fish as an individual species, while simultaneously leveraging their value as a model system for studying general processes of behavioral evolution and adaptive diversification.

In addition to her brilliant mind, Susan was a loving wife and mother, an exceptional cook, an avid gardener, and had a wonderful, dry sense of humor. She also had a lifelong interest in the conservation of natural landscapes, and while at Clark University taught a course on the topic nearly every year. She was an unwavering advocate for the many students and postdocs she mentored throughout her career, many of whom came to know her as not only a mentor and friend, but as a member of their family. Susan was perhaps most in her element in her 250-year-old farmhouse in Petersham, MA, where, with her husband John, she would effortlessly move between writing research papers and grants, reviewing manuscripts for Animal Behaviour and Ethology, gardening, cooking, and entertaining guests. While home was her happiest place, Susan also enjoyed traveling, spending many field seasons studying stickleback fish behavior in Alaska and British Columbia, and traveling to conferences around the world. Her life was enriched by the many friendships she formed in her travels and through her research; indeed, news of her passing has resulted in an outpouring of love and respect from friends across the globe.

To commemorate Susan’s life and legacy, and the impact she had on her friends and colleagues, her dear friend and fellow ABS Fellow Dr. Christine Boake shared these sentiments:

“Susan and I first met due to our mutual interests in behavioral divergence between animal populations, which we recognized could lead to speciation. Her generous hospitality made it easy for us to become close friends. Our visits always combined our shared interests in science, cooking, and gardening. She had boundless energy; even after surgery imposed physical limitations, she kept up a strenuous pace both in research and at home. Her energy and enthusiasm allowed her to have her noteworthy professional success as well as having a multifaceted and rewarding life with family and friends. She had a full life.”

Susan’s professional and personal legacy includes the dozens of postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduate student researchers she mentored, as well as the hundreds of undergraduates she taught in her Evolution and Animal Behavior courses. The students and postdocs whose lives she touched were helped to be better scientists, but more importantly were inspired to be better people. She will be dearly missed by the many students and colleagues who will remember her as not only an exceptional scientist, but more importantly as a true friend.

2. From David Hibbett, Chair of the Biology Department at Clark University.

Professor Susan Adlai Foster and Research Professor John Allen Baker, Biology Department

Memorial Minute

October 27, 2021

Susan Foster passed away in January, 2021, followed less than five months later by her husband and collaborator, John Baker. Both were larger-than-life figures on the campus of Clark University, outgoing, engaging, and wildly popular with students. Their professional achievements were significant. Susan was an evolutionary biologist and ethologist. Her pioneering research using the threespine stickleback helped establish this diminutive fish as a premier model system for vertebrate biology. Among other accomplishments, Susan was President of the Animal Behavior Society, Landry University Professor of Clark University, and a National Science Foundation Presidential Faculty Fellow. She served as Chair of the Biology Department from 2006 to 2016.

John worked closely with Susan on stickleback research, including numerous field trips to Alaska with their students and postdoctoral fellows, but he had his own interests in ichthyology, conservation, and biodiversity of streams and rivers. For example, one of his last publications was on population genetics of the freshwater pearl mussel in New England. John was one of Clark’s most beloved teachers. His most popular classes included BIOL 101 - Introductory Biology and BIOL 084 – Biodiversity. Both routinely enrolled far above their caps. The last time John taught BIOL 101, in Fall 2019, there were 202 students. In 2013 John received the Teacher of the Year Award.

Susan and John came to Clark from the University of Arkansas in 1995. Over the next 25 years, they helped to revitalize the graduate and undergraduate programs in Biology, and they were central to the establishment and growth of the Environmental Science Program. But Susan and John did far more than teach classes and run programs; they created a community. The Foster-Baker universe had two centers, one in their laboratory in the Lasry Bioscience building and the other in their 250-year-old farmhouse in Petersham, where Susan died. Both were gathering places for students, family, friends, and colleagues, although the boundaries between those groups were often vague. Susan and John created possibilities, for learning, discovery, and second chances. They represented the best of Clark’s ideals, inspired fierce loyalty, and will be sorely missed

3. From Bill Cresko to his lab members

Susan Foster passed away yesterday due a rapidly progressing cancer that was only diagnosed early in 2020. She was able to be at home in Petersham MA with her husband and lifetime research partner John Baker, as well as her children Dylan and Patrick. Susan loved her colonial-era home and garden with the snow and the fireplace and the after seminar parties and the pickling of vegetables. Susan was my and Cristin’s Ph.D. advisor. She has been a professor of biology and the chair of the Biology Department at Clark University for much of the past decade, and retired in early 2020 at the first diagnosis. Susan advised numerous postdoctoral scholars, graduate students, and undergraduates over the years.

Susan was a pioneer. After her Ph.D. on Wrasse behavior at the University of Washington with Bob Paine, she did her postdoctoral work with Mike Bell at SUNY Stony Brook. In fact, I came to work with Susan after contacting Bob and telling him about my interests and he said ‘you should work with Susan instead on this amazing system’. At Stony Brook Susan helped develop the stickleback systems in British Columbia and Alaska, and through many publications helped biologists appreciate that behavior - like morphological and life history traits - could exhibit significant geographic variation that was influenced by both environmental and genetic variation. In addition to her many journal articles, Susan published two books with Mike Bell and John Endler that are now classics in the field.

Susan was a leader and role model in the fields of ethology and behavior. She help several leadership positions in the Animal Behavior Society, and she was part of an early wave of women in biology fighting for gender equity in the life sciences. Susan was a fierce advocate throughout her career for achieving the goal of having people judged by their abilities, not their chromosomal composition, skin color, or socioeconomic background. She matched these professional efforts at equity and inclusion in her private life in ways that were truly inspiring. The impacts that Susan has had on the field through her students from these diverse backgrounds (including me) is deep and broad.

In December of 2020 David Hibbett and others from Clark University and I began making plans for a virtual conference to honor the work of Susan and John. Unfortunately Susan’s cancer returned quickly at the beginning of the new year. We will continue our work to highlight Susan’s and John’s life work and educational legacy. All of you who are or have been in my lab working on stickleback have Susan to thank, and I hope that you will be able to attend.

Sincerely, Bill

4. From Jun Kitano - email to Andrew Hendry

This sad news reminds me of my old days in Kyoto, when I came to know a series of Susan Foster’s excellent works on behavioral variation in natural populations of the threespine stickleback. When I almost finished my PhD thesis on molecular neuroscience in mice, I was wondering what to do next as a postdoc. I read several papers and books and finally found that I want to study wild animals rather than laboratory mouse. One day, I came across a paper by Katie Peichel, David Kingsley and their colleagues (Peichel et al. 2001 Nature). In that paper, they investigated the genetic architecture underlying morphological variation in the threespine stickleback. I thought that I could apply the same genetic method to behavioral variation. 

Then, I started to read many papers on the behavioral variation in sticklebacks, including those by Dr. Susan Foster. She has conducted extensive field observations and characterized behavioral variation in natural populations of the threespine stickleback. A series of her papers were so exciting that I perhaps spent more time reading her papers than reading papers directly related to my thesis. Reading her papers, I was convinced that behavioral genetics in sticklebacks would be an exciting direction of research. As I decided to work on Japanese populations in collaboration with Dr. Seiichi Mori (my long-term collaborator), I had no chance to work with Susan. But, Susan is definitely one of the persons who guided me into the stickleback research.

I met Susan at a stickleback conference in Alaska, and she kindly encouraged me. She invited me to her research fields in Alaska, although it did not happen due to several reasons. It is sad that we can no longer meet her, but her works will continue to encourage not only me but also many present and future young researchers. This would be a good timing to appreciate that our recent cutting edge genomic studies are based on the extensive works done by old researchers who spent a lot of time observing nature like Susan.


5. From Jeff McKinnon - email to Andrew Hendry

I ran into Susan at various times over the years. My fondest memory was visiting her and John at their beautiful old house in Mass, probably in the early 2000’s. I remember their generous hospitality and lively conversations about stickleback biology, as well as about hockey. Susan was a great fan of Steve Yzerman, if memory serves.

6. From Tom Reimchen - email to Andrew Hendry

Gone before her time. As well as her obvious contributions to behavioural evolution in stickleback,  another substantial contribution of Susan was her novel observations on coral reef fishes , particularly the importance of  cleaning stations for the repair of wounds in coral reef fish  (Foster 1985,  Copeia 875-880). I have used this in my Ichthyology courses for many years as an example of co-evolution at a community level and as one of the first examples of self-medication in fishes.

7. #SusanFosterMemories

Friday, January 22, 2021

Conferences in the After-Times

What will conferences be like when COVID is in the rear-view mirror*?

Just over a year ago, the three co-editors of this blog, Kiyoko Gotanda, Andrew Hendry, and Dan Bolnick, were chatting around a bonfire at the American Society of Naturalists' conference in Asilomar CA. Afterward, we added on a brief outing to see elephant seals, and then reconvened at the Hendry Winery in Napa for a wine tour, wine tasting, and brainstorming a grant proposal. It was scientifically productive, and an utter blast culminating in Rowan Barrett and I pretending to be elephant seals engaging in a contest.

A year later, this kind of social / scientific gathering seems far off. Conferences have been cancelled, like the Evolution 2020 meeting, or delayed a year or more (like the Gordon Research Conference on Speciation that Katie Peichel and Dan Bolnick were organizing for Feb 2021, now put off till 2023). Other conferences have emerged to fill the void, giving graduate students and postdocs a platform to disseminate their work and connect with peers via Zoom or other platforms. The American Society of Naturalists (which normally meets every other year) held an off-schedule Virtual Asilomar via Zoom in early January 2021, specifically to give PhD students and postdocs a platform to speak (the talks are now posted here). Unlike the usual Asilomar meeting, which is capped at 200 people due to the size of the venue and a desire to maintain a smaller scale where more drawn-out conversations are easier, Virtual Asilomar was open to all viewers. It drew 710 registered participants from around the world: 569 from North America, 66 from Europe, 27 from Asia (mostly India), 40 from South America, 9 from Australia and New Zealand. Some sessions had presenters sitting on 4 different continents - and this under-counts participation because many talks are continuing to accrue views on the ASN Youtube Virtual Asilomar video playlist.  A quick perusal of these videos suggest that many have accumulated 50 - 200 views in the 2 weeks after the conference. This highlights the fact that the virtual meeting broadened participation in ways that we will be loathe to abandon when COVID (hopefully) recedes into a mythical past. All of these contrasts led us (all slightly skeptical of Virtual Conferences before trying them) to ask:

What aspects of virtual conferences worked well?

What aspects didn't?

And, most importantly, what features of COVID-era virtual conferences should be folded into meetings in the After-Times when we are free to travel again? (artists' rendering below)

Frenzy on Fury Road: Mad Max faces a post-digital apocalypse

The following is a summary of our own thoughts on this issue, drawing also on responses to a Twitter query of Dan's, where this conversation may continue to unfold. Be aware when reading the thoughts below that there's no one-size-fits-all answer. For some people the weekend meetings were better, for some people they were worse, for example.

1. What aspects of virtual conferences worked well?

* Price Tag. (Most) virtual conferences are much cheaper than the in-person conferences from the Before-Times, although there were exceptions. The Ecological Society of America conference in summer 2020 was expensive enough to deter many people from engaging (hundreds of dollars to view pre-recorded videos). But even when registration is not free, virtual meetings don't require airplane/train tickets, hotel rooms, catered food, and ground transportation - and so will still be far cheaper than in-person meetings. If you have research funds, you save enough to pay your research staff a bit more, or do an extra lane of Illumina sequencing or whatever.

* Inclusivity. Virtual meetings can be attended from far away without travel, enabling participation by people from around the globe, including in places from which travel would be prohibitively expensive. Virtual meetings enable participation by undergraduates or graduate students who lack travel funds, and faculty at smaller institutions who lack conference support grants.

* Convenience. You can participate from the comfort of your own home in your pajamas. Dan left his laptop on to watch videos while baking, and the next day enjoyed the fruit of those labors with muffins and coffee while watching talks. You can knit, craft (Dan rewove the seats on a couple of ladderback chairs while watching talks), enter data (Andrew extracted data from his camera trap videos), clean up your references (Kiyoko cleaned up citations in her reference manager as she downloaded the cool papers mentioned in talks), and otherwise multitask while paying attention to the scientific content.

* Carbon savings from reduced travel. Admittedly, spinning the drives at Google or Zoom does generate substantial carbon - but much less than in the case of travel, or - at least - airline travel.

* New modes of speaker feedback and discussion. Many people commented that Slack channels, chat rooms, twitter, and other online tools gave opportunities for viewers to give speakers live feedback and questions during and after the talk in drawn-out conversations that were often more effective than might happen when you must rush off to the next talk. One good suggestion is that chat room tools should forward questions to speaker's emails so they don't have to keep checking for days afterwards to see if there are any questions arriving later. Caveat: although it could be distracting to viewers watching a talk to see ongoing conversations about previous talks. Commonly used online tools mentioned included: Zoom, Teams, Gathertown, Twitter, Slack, and Remo

* Concurrent sessions All conferences have to make a choice to either artificially limit who can speak, or else have so many speakers that there must be concurrent sessions. Viewers must then choose which talks to view, and which to miss. Most virtual conferences record the talks and post them for people to view after the fact, so you can see both of those simultaneously scheduled talks you were excited to learn from! Caveat: Many people said this is a great benefit but many also noted that they didn't actually avail themselves of the opportunities it affords.

* Relaxed format. Some online twitter respondents noted that virtual presentations feel more casual and relaxed, causing less anxiety, which in turn improves self confidence and speaking quality and clarity. And some speakers can further reduce anxiety by pre-recording talks that are then played during the relevant session.

* Pause and rewind. Want to linger on a detail? Need to take a call? Cat walking across your keyboard? Kid vomiting carrots all over the floor? Its okay, you can pause that recorded video, or rewind, and catch up or revisit a point. 

* Come one come all. Most meetings need to book a certain number of rooms and days, which constrains the number of presenters due to building constraints. And the audience size is capped by fire code limits on seats in a room. Neither apply to virtual meetings. As Mark McPeek wrote "The stated goal of ASN and the other societies during discussion last summer was to provide opportunities for early career researchers. Limiting the number of contributed paper slots is antithetical to that goal."

* Shorter day.  At physical meetings, senior folks often duck out for a half day at a time to catch up on emails, editorial decisions, grant writing, and so on; putting out the dozens of proverbial fires that seem to crop up every day. We always feel guilty about this because we traveled so far, and are paying good money, and should be meeting colleagues and students. Some virtual meetings just build this constraint into the schedule via half-day time lines. And its okay, because its not like you are paying for a hotel room. More generally, these meetings can achieve flexible schedules: one day per week for a month, three half days in a row, or 24 consecutive hours to serve all time zones around the globe.

* Posters by any other name.  For some, live poster sessions can be awful: crowded, hard to navigate, hard to hear, hard to read. And that's all the more true for people with disabilities affecting mobility: hearing in over-loud echo chamber rooms, navigating tight spaces with few places to sit, and seeing small font posters. Virtual poster sessions can fix these, but are the target of both strong positive and negative feelings. It seems there are some ways to do this well, and some ways to do this poorly. Many people complained that poster sessions are useless online, and should be replaced by 3-minute lightening talks. There were complaints of small font size, lack of interaction, and inability to see who if anyone is viewing your hard-work posters. Other people clearly had great experiences. The software likely makes a big difference. Some conferences used Slack and each poster had a channel in which attendees could ask questions asynchronously. For more synchronous experiences, "GatherTown is best for poster presentations" - Caitlyn Foster. 

* Networking in small interest groups /breakout rooms /chat windows came up a lot as a positive in people's comments.

* Good moderators matter, both to keep everything exactly on time (especially with concurrent sessions) and for managing Q&A sessions. For many conferences, the arrangement seems to be that people type in questions into a chat window which are then picked and read by the moderators. This encourages some shy people to ask questions, and lets a good moderator ensure more age/gender balanced sources of questions. 

Here's a review of a virtual conference that went well:

2. What aspects didn't work - things that future virtual meetings should avoid?

A number of people on twitter commented that they just can't stick with a virtual meeting. For example: "Tried virtual conference twice, it just does not work for me" - Misha Matz.  This is a fairly common sentiment. 

* Lack of in person encounters. The number one sentiment seems to be that virtual conferences have their advantages, but are utterly lacking in the primary value conferences deliver to many of us: impromptu networking, accidental conversations that lead to collaborations, chance meetings, and so on. Then there's the cameraderie. Viewing the Virtual Asilomar meeting made many of us feel deeply sad at all the good friends we missed. The wine tours missed with old friends. The elephant seals not seen. We miss you folks!

* Zoom fatigue. Oh boy! Many of us just spent the last 3 months teaching on zoom and meeting with students and colleagues on zoom. Now you get to have more zoom! You know exactly what we mean. Zoom fatigue can be way worse than lecture hall fatigue.

* Distractions. It is too easy to get up and walk away from your laptop and get distracted at home; whereas, when you travel to a conference, and are in a room with other people, there's a helpful element of peer pressure to keep you focused. 

* Work/life time balance. Without travel away from home, it is harder for many of us to step away from our daily obligations. When we travel to a meeting, we miss our kids, our partner, but they understand we are away. When we watch a zoom meeting from home, we are right there in their midst, available for interruption. For some people, this means weekends are an absolutely impossible time to participate because kids aren't in school or day care. Further, weekends are sacred family time for many people when they are home. For others, by contrast, a partner can watch the kids during the weekend, but must be away at work during the weekday. There's no universally successful option here. Steve Cooke: "When conferencing from home, weekends are a hard NO."

* Participation drop-off.  Based on the Genetics Society of America conference in summer of 2020, which strung out talks over a longer time, we are told that participation trailed off over successive days, so stringing a meeting out over many days may be a disservice to the later presentations.

* Pre-recording loses 'live' feel. Mark McPeek writes:  "The idea of having all talks pre-recorded will undercut the feeling of actually being “at” a meeting, and make you feel like you are sitting on a youtube channel all day.  I think having live talks (and certainly with the option for a person to choose to pre-record) made Virtual Asilomar feel much more like a real meeting and human."

* Lack of social events. Virtual meetings that lack social events aren't really meetings, some feel. Virtual Asilomar had a few social events, most notably the natural history trivia night organized by heroic graduate students, but some comments on twitter expressed a desire for far more events. A few spur-of-the-moment Zoom Beer offshoot meetings were also held - and were great fun (although less so than in person).

* Time zones are rough. As one tweeter noted, when you travel to a destination in another time zone, you have the local sunrise/sunset to get you on track. Sure there's jet lag, but you adjust, especially if you go a day or two early. But when you are at home, an afternoon talk in the US is the middle of the night in India and there's no sunlight to help someone there adjust and stay awake. Andrew: Even people on the opposite coast of North America found the 3 hour time shift awkward - especially in relation to normal evening family activities. Better time zone accommodations are needed. Perhaps rolling 24-hour long meetings so everyone around the world has something at a reasonable time for them (and can view the youtube videos after for the talks in the middle of their night). In February, Kiyoko will be giving a keynote at 4am local time because of time zones. She might break her no-caffeine rule for this....

* No napkins to scribble notes on. Some of us think by drawing on chalk or dry erase boards, which should be present scattered around any conference venue. We need virtual dry erase boards to write on when conversing with far-distant peers in chat groups. These exist on a number of online meeting platforms.

* Technology problems. Many people complained that switching between different sessions can be difficult: you have to sign out of your zoom session, find the url for the other, sign in all over again, for instance. This may be one point where free cheap conferences versus expensive conferences that pay for fancier software may make a difference. 

* Where is everyone? When the audience all have the camera off, there's no feedback, no expressions of enthusiasm or puzzlement, no sense of community. If you can possibly manage, keep your camera on and smile and nod for the presenters. Of course, this makes some of the above "at-home" freedom disappear as you feel you can't just get up and walk away during a talk - perhaps listening still from the kitchen. The verdict is still very much out on this one.

* Lack of closed captioning. This is a tough one because the cost can be really high to do professional closed captioning. The cheap automated versions are junk for technical talks (although they might still be helpful for people struggling with the language), and the cost for professional ones gets passed on to the attendees. There are surely ways to do better.

* Internet accessibility. Virtual meetings are bad for people with poor/unreliable internet (e.g., rural area residents)

Bernie attending a virtual meeting

3. What features of virtual conferences should be folded into meetings in the After-Times when we are free to travel again?

It is abundantly clear that most of us want to resume in-person meetings for the networking and the personal conversations; but that we also want to see the low cost, inclusivity, and accessibility of virtual meetings persist in some form. Many people suggested they might go to one live conference per year, and attend a few virtual ones. (And it might be easier to engage more in a virtual conference when we are no longer on Zoom all day long for months on end.) It remains to be seen whether the future holds a mix of some all-in-person and some all-virtual meetings, or whether we see hybrid meetings that are in-person for people who can attend, and virtual for those who cannot. Such hybrid meetings have the negative implication that not everyone has equal access and equal participation; yet there's just no way to have the virtual participants have 100% the same experience as the in person attendees. But this means that those with funds and proximity can get benefits that the less-well-funded and farther-afield colleagues cannot afford or access. Really, that's always been the case with live meetings. But the virtual experience lately brings that fact into sharper focus for those of us privileged enough to be in the conference-attending crowd. Hybrid conferences seem likely to be the best available option that retains the possibility of in person experiences while doing our utmost to bring others into the experience as best we can. Conferences will not be the same in the After-Times: and the opportunity is there to make them better.

A few overarching rules seem to stand out for future in-person meetings:

* Record talks for non-attendees to view, and for people with concurrent session conflicts. Doing so improves access for people from far away, and for under-funded researchers that can't afford in-person meetings.

* Consider having talks pre-recorded, but the speaker active at answering questions live during the talk.

* Permit pre-recorded or live virtual presentations in in-person meetings, to enable people from the other side of the world to present. Live is generally better, it seems; but pre-recorded needs to be an option for someone 12 hours of time zone away. Sure, it isn't the same but it is still better than nothing.

* Create chat rooms with in-person and remote participants for scientific conversation, debate, Q&A sessions.

* Create social events that merge virtual and in person attendees

* Have discussion panels with both in person and remote discussants.

* Get a cadre of senior faculty / established scientists to circulate among chat rooms and find talks that don't have comments/questions, and post something to start an engagement with the neglected material to help build network and community.

* Conferences typically provide help with child care (at least, when they are big enough to provide economy of scale). Can societies do something to facilitate child care for at-home participants? No doubt this will take a lot of discussion and consideration as it clearly won't be simple and must be fair.

* Do better on accessibility

Co-authored paper accepted for publication!!🍾🥂🙌

* Jet lag is tough. Jet lag when you haven't gone to a new time zone is even tougher. If you want an international meeting, schedule it to work for people in all target time zones. Again, this won't be simple and will deserve careful consideration about how it will be done. 

More recommendations for future virtual conferences:

* To achieve separation from your distracting home life, consider getting an Air BnB to get away and focus on virtual meeting.  

* Spread out the meeting to reduce fatigue. Plan for a half day on same day every week for multiple weeks. It becomes easier to participate and less exhausting.

* There was widespread (but not universal) support for shorter talks (3 + 2 or 5+2 for a talk + questions). Or, to let the questions go entirely online.

* As a participant at home, make a coffee break experience (or have a beer!).

* Many twitter respondents argued for an end to concurrent sessions. The difficulty is that you must either extend a meeting over many weeks, or restrict the number of presenters which defeats the purpose of giving students and postdocs and junior faculty a platform to disseminate their work. The typical ASN Asilomar meeting for example had 5 concurrent sessions for 3 full days, so to accommodate the same number of presenters you'd need 15 full days of meeting - half a month! And that's with only 200 total attendees, some of whom aren't presenting. Personally, we don't think that creating artificial scarcity of talk slots is the solution.

Some other resources on networking and conferencing online:

Andrew's Favorite Idea: Regional Clusters

Create small regional groups that gather at an AirBnB or a local conference center or field station to view and present and participate in a big international meeting. Along with virtual connections to a larger group, these distributed regional "clusters" would have many of the best in-person networking, exchange, and debate opportunities. This regional cluster option also creates some separation from the distractions of a home setting, thus allowing better focus, without the cost and carbon emissions of long-distance travel. 

Dan's Favorite Idea

The most valuable element of in-person meetings for many people is the bit that cannot be compressed into bits and bytes. It is the opportunities for personal interaction and chance meeting and networking. Yet conferences are not usually designed to promote these, they emphasize sitting and listening, punctuated by 15 minute coffee breaks in which most people are focused on getting in the coffee line. So, what if we tried to promote the uniquely in-person elements of in-person meetings? Specifically, take the passive part of the conference (sitting and listening to talks), and make that more compressed and more virtual. Meetings should be a half day of talks with many concurrent sessions (yes, I know that's an unpopular opinion), with everything streamed online for far-away attendees, and recorded for those concurrent session complaints and people in distant time zones. Permit presentations by people from off-site as well, streamed into the conference center and online. Use the other half of each day for the real business of an in-person live meeting: talking with people. The things that can happen online, should be on line. The things that cannot happen as well on line should be enhanced and kept.

Kiyoko's Favourite Idea 

Virtual Reality conferences. Of course accessibility will be a problem as VR headsets are not that cheap, but it would come about as close as you could get to recreating that conference atmosphere of walking around and 'bumping' into people, standing in virtual lines while waiting for 'coffee', and running to make the next session (just don't run into your wall at home).

See y'all virtually and in person at a next meeting!

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Finding a Job in a Pandemic

Hello Eco-Evo Evo-Eco Blog readers! 

I've been a contributor for this blog since it started, and I'm excited to say that I'll be another co-host of the blog along with Andrew (@ecoevoevoeco) and Dan (@danielbolnick). Consider this my first official blog post as a co-host. I (@photopidge) look forward to contributing to the blog. Also, a reminder we happily take guest posts! Published a paper you are super excited about? Have an issue that you think needs addressing? Have advice? Any and all contributions are welcome so please tell us!

So who am I? My name is Kiyoko and I'm currently a postdoc with Dr. Fanie Pelletier at the Université de Sherbrooke. Previously I was at the University of Cambridge and somehow, I've managed to find a job in the middle of a global pandemic. I'll be starting as an assistant professor at Brock University in Ontario, Canada in August of this year. Who would have thunk that would be possible? I certainly didn't. So here, I'll recount my job search chronicles. This isn't really a job advice post, more just a look back at my personal path to finding a job. We have many posts about finding a job (though I know many disagree with some of the advice!) such as:

How to Get a Faculty Position 1

How to Get a Faculty Position 2

Resolution: I Will Get a Faculty Position

So what was my path to getting a job in a pandemic? I finished my PhD in 2016, and then spent five years as a postdoc at the University of Cambridge. I know that academia isn't for everyone, and for those of you who want to pursue a non academic career, DO IT. but I knew I wanted to aim for becoming a prof. I limited myself geographically to Europe and North America because I have strong, personal ties to Montreal, so I wanted to be as close to Montreal as possible. I set myself a six hour flight limit (which is what Montreal-England was essentially). So, pretty much right out of grad school, I started applying for a few jobs. Job applications initially take a LOT of time. I figured this was my first foray into the job market, so I applied to just a few places. Didn't hear from them. After the first few applications, I realized I wasn't happy with my application because I was pushing a research program that didn't feel like it was MY research program.

So, I had to sit down and think about what exactly is MY research program. I work in multiple systems and ask multiple questions, so what was the link between everything? I mapped things out visually on a whiteboard (I miss my whiteboard. It's still in Cambridge and I wish I had it with me in Montreal/Sherbrooke), I looked at word clouds of my abstracts, and I asked lots of people for advice. I eventually convened on a job application package I was (relatively) happy with and felt represented me, my research program, and my teaching philosophy. I was also happy with my diversity statement as I am a big proponent of equality and diversity in STEM. With my re-vamped application package, I got my first interview about two years out of grad school. It was in North America so it was the full two-day in-person interview. I was SO nervous. I spent hours and hours on my presentation, practicing it with multiple people and thought through my answers for interview questions. The experience was fantastic. Though I didn't get an offer, it did instill in me a little tiny voice that said, 'you know what. Maybe, just maybe you can do this!' Don't worry, that voice quickly disappeared.

I continued my postdoc and fully launched myself on the job market for the 2018-2019 season. My first big season applying for lots of positions, I got a few phone interviews in North America, a few in person interviews, primarily in Europe. But I didn't get anything beyond those phone interviews, nor beyond the in person interviews. OK, I thought. I knew I was still sorting out the best way to answer interview questions. I knew I was getting hung up on certain questions, so I worked on figuring out a way to answer them. I knew the positions in some cases were going to people with established research groups (still can't figure out why I landed an interview!). But I learned things. I learned tricks to streamline the job application process. I thought more (and sought feedback) on how to answer the questions I knew I was having a hard time answering. One thing I did not realize until much later was that having experience interviewing in both North America and Europe was helping me because I had to learn to communicate effectively and be concise. In North America, you have a two day in-person interview, where you give a research talk (one hour), often a chalk talk (at least one hour), and you meet everyone. Everyone! Profs, teaching faculty, research associated, admin, facilitators, grad students, etc. You also have so called 'informal' times where you go for lunch and dinner with members of faculty. In Europe, you have a very different process. My experience was you give a research talk, which can range from 12 minutes to 45 minutes, you meet the committee (maybe 90 minutes), and you might have a tour of the facilities. It is a much shorter process than North America. Often, you are there with the other candidates. And for those in North America, it might seem odd and uncomfortable at first, but it's actually a lot of fun and even inspiring! I got to meet researchers who I've been following on twitter, met people that could lead to collaborations, and actually found the process much less awkward and more rewarding than I expected. While we were all competing for one or a handful of positions, we're all in the same boat! These group interviews were extremely collegial and inspiring! But I didn't get any offers.


I did get good feedback (ask for feedback after interviews, both phone/skype interviews and in person if you didn't get to the next stage). So I plugged on, attended conferences, conducted field seasons, collaborated, wrote papers, etc. For the 2019-2020 season, I started sending applications out again.  The season started decently enough. I was getting Skype and in person interview invitations, lots of rejections, etc. The usual. And then news of a novel, devastating virus emerging started to appear. However, it wasn't found in North America or Europe yet, and I continued to go back and forth between Cambridge and Montreal. I got to go to the University of Glasgow as the Darwin Day graduate student invited speaker (so much fun!) and to Barcelona to give a talk to researchers at the Centre de Recerca Ecològica i Aplicacions Forestals (CREAF). I had an in person interview in the United States at the start of March. My colleagues and I then headed off to the Galapagos for our annual field season. 

And then the pandemic was declared. For adventures on how to get from the Galapagos back to North America, you can read about it here: Well, this completely changed the job interview process (as one would imagine). The primary thing was all interviews went completely virtual. This was fine as we were all getting more and more Zoom experience, However, some things remained the same. In the UK, all the interviews are usually scheduled on the same day, with no exceptions. So if you can't make the interview on the scheduled day, you don't get to do it at all (I had to change a flight once to make an interview!). As it turned out, one of my interviews was on a travel day, and so I did my interview from the airport while waiting for my flight (directional microphone was one of the best pandemic investments I made!). This type of scheduling has also meant I've done interviews at 10pm EST (which was 3am by my body clock) at night after walking off a flight from London to Montreal (I was interviewing for a position in New Zealand. I had applied on a whim) as well as from the Galapagos. Virtual interviews do make it extremely difficult to get a sense of the department, but you can still pick up information based on the questions you ask them. The pandemic also delayed the job searches themselves. I also found out that many job searches were suspended or cancelled, and I also heard a few cases where offers were actually rescinded. One place I interviewed at had their job search suspended, which puts the department in a difficult position because they can't notify applicants that they had made offers to other people and they were no longer under consideration. Yes, they were a department that would notify all applicants once the position was filled! Anyways, the delays were difficult. I'd apply for a position in the spring with a starting date of August 1st, and after a few months, it became quite clear the job search could not proceed on the timeline the committee would have liked and the position would not be starting on August 1! For my position at Brock, it was a one day virtual interview. I gave a research presentation and a teaching demo and then had meetings with members of the faculty. I couldn't tour the university, but they did take videos for me so I could get a sense of what facilities were available. To my great surprise, Brock made me an offer, which I accepted!

So, lucky me, I managed to find a job in the middle of a pandemic. You'd think that'd be the end of the story. It is, but I want to mention one more thing. As soon as I signed, the first thing I thought was, they really don't know what a huge mistake they just made, do they? Why do they think that I'm going to be qualified to be a prof? The impostor syndrome is alive, well, and incredibly active, and I'm still having trouble dealing with it.

So that's how I found a job in a pandemic. If you are curious, I applied to 56 positions/fellowships in 2018-2019 and 61 positions in 2019-2020. If I were to offer advice, it is to get lots of feedback on everything (application materials, presentations, answering interview questions, all of it!), have supporting colleagues and friends (rejections are hard. They can be really, really, really hard), and recognize your own imposter syndrome (and realize you DESERVE to be where you are and where you will go. I know easier said than done). Good luck to those pursuing jobs, no matter what sector. Also, wash your hands, wear a mask, and get vaccinated! 

Saturday, January 2, 2021

#TryHard Virtual Teaching. 2 - Place-based teaching

I have decided to release my online lectures from this fall as a "short" course on youtube HERE. This series of blog posts outlines how the lectures were developed.

#TryHard Virtual Teaching. 2 - Place-based teaching

 A critical part of my in-person teaching has always been generating a personal connection with the students - no matter how big the classroom. Underpinning those connections is a kind of "show-and-tell" conducted during and  after class. For instance, I always bring in exciting physical items to illustrate concepts discussed in the class. Highlights from my Introductory (Organismal) Biology classes over the year have been a real gorilla skeleton alongside a cast of a human skeleton, a meter tape stretched out across the room to illustrate the size of a whale shark, a (stuffed) platypus, and many more items, but especially my wife's pet ball pythons (see picture below). These physical items coupled with the lectures generated some of the most fun personal interactions with students. 

The shift to virtual online teaching was going to throw all of this out the window - the best parts of my lectures - gone. I spent months mulling how best to achieve some of this personal connection in the virtual lectures, and I settled on "place-based teaching." The idea was to pre-record a 10 min video for each lecture that showed me discussing content in a physical location where I was (or had been) present. My hope was that I could "take the students out with me" to particular locations, where I could embed concepts into a real setting with which I was intimately familiar.

I started this effort at my cabin in northern BC over the summer. I simply walked around and recorded myself making a variety of natural history observations in hopes that I would be able to inspire new content for my lectures - or illustrate existing content from past years. I did not have a pre-conceived notion of how these observations were going to fit together - I simply recorded as much as I could in hopes that I could piece together useful narratives.

When I got back to Montreal, I sifted through the various recordings to find useful aggregations - and  the first one to emerge was a group of observations involved organisms consuming other organisms: bears eating salmon, skunk cabbage, and red osier dogwood berries (from camera traps); leaf miners eating aspen popular and willows; bark beetles eating spruce trees; parasitoid wasps ovipositing in bark beetle larvae; mice eating nuts that we put out for them; wolves following moose (again from camera traps); and so on. Thus, my "introduction to ecology" lecture became centered on food webs. Here is the introductory video that I released in advance of the lecture as a way of generating a place-based connection between the students, myself, and the content. 

A lot of the footage from my cabin also related to various effects of climate change, and so the next lecture became "Ecology and Evolution Under Global Change." Here is the introductory video for that lecture assembled from recordings at my cabin combined with additional recordings from my home in Montreal.

A third place-based introductory video from my cabin centered on mammal behavior as seen through the lens of camera traps that we have deployed there.

Of course, I couldn't use my cabin for all of the "place-based" introductory videos (e.g., amphibians, reptiles, and primates) - and so I also used footage recorded in previous years from various field sites around the world. I won't show them all here - but below is the one for Galapagos (Evolution!), which was the very first one I recorded and released to the students. 

Overall, I think this "place-based teaching" approach was useful for generating a bit of a connection with the students. The next step was combining that approach with a call for "lecture collaborations" with the students. I will detail these collaborations in the next post but - in essence - at the end of each introductory video I asked the students to provide examples or pictures or videos from their local areas - and then I wove those into the remaining segments of the lecture. 

Stay tuned.


Here is the developing series of #TryHard Virtual Teaching

1. Promotion

2. Place-based teaching

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