Data Management

Jen here – 

I started a job as a Research Museum Collection Manager in September and a large part of it is specimen based. I handle donations, reconcile loans, look for specimens for researchers, organize the collection, and manage other types of data. Now that my job has moved to largely remote I wanted to share some of the things my museum techs and I have been working on to keep our projects moving forward. 

When we think about museums we immediately think of the beautiful displays of mounted dinosaurs and ancient deep sea dioramas that transport you through time. However, there are many research museums that are essentially libraries of life (thanks, Adania for that phrasing). Similar to libraries with books, these institutions hold records of life on Earth and they are massive. At the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology we have over 2 million invertebrates, 100 thousand vertebrates, and 50 thousand plants. Each of those specimens is tied to other records and data!

Specimen Database

Digital databases allow for the storage of data related to the specimen including location, time period, taxonomy, rock formation, collectors, and much more! Depending on the type of database the structures are slightly different but the overall goal is the same: create an easy way to explore the specimens, see what is on loan, where they are located in the collection, and if they are on display!

Databases, like regular software, get updates over time. The database I’m working in was started ~10 years ago and there have been a lot of updates since then so we are working to upgrade the way the data are organized. For example, now there are different fields that didn’t exist before so we are making sure the data are appropriately entered and then fixing these fields. We are also digitizing our card catalog to verify that the specimen data in the database matches the physical records. We have three card catalogs: Type specimens, Alphabetical taxonomic groups, and Numerical. I spend time scanning in these cards and my museum techs help transcribe and verify the data with our other records. 

Example of a card from the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology invertebrate card catalog. Many are typed index cards with information on the specimen.

I have quite a few donations that have new specimens that need to be put into the database. To do this, I format the dataset and upload it to the database. Seems straightforward but it takes some time and isn’t the most fun task so I have a stockpile of them to get through while I continue my remote work.

Loan Invoices

One of the tasks we had started before the COVID-19 crisis was to digitize our loan documentation. We have documentation for specimens that we loan out to other institutions, for specimens we bring in to study, and any transfers that may occur. This information had not been digitized so our first step was to scan the paperwork and transcribe key information such as: Who were these specimens loaned to? How many specimens were loaned? Were specimen numbers listed? Where these specimens returned? 

We now have a large spreadsheet which now allows us to search this information rapidly. For example, when we are working in the collection sometimes we find specimens with paperwork or that are out of place. Now we can search the number, see if they were on loan, and make sure we close this loan as being returned. In some cases, we cannot find specimens so I have to reach out to colleagues at other institutions to see if they have a record that the loan was returned. Then it’s up to us to find the specimens in the collection and get them into their proper storage places.

Three-Dimensional Fossils

The last big project we are working on is to get new fossils ready for our online fossil repository: UM Online Repository of Fossils. This involves some on site work at the collection space and lots of post-processing of the fossils. We use a camera to image a fossil from many angles (photogrammetry) and then stitch the photos together to create a three-dimensional fossil. If you are interested in our protocol and set up please check out our website by clicking here. Most of this work has been done by me alone but I am working on ways to incorporate our museum techs into different aspects of the process that can be done at home, such as cleaning the output model and orienting the specimen for final display on the website. Check out our most recent invertebrate addition: Hexagonaria percarinatum.

Example of a species profile on UMORF! Click here to head to the page and explore the viewer.
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Advice for Nomadic Academics (or, Moving is Hard)

Jen, Adriane, and Sarah here-

Entering the academic world and starting graduate school often means moving away from your family and loved ones and starting a new adventure. Each program, position, or job often comes with an associated move. We hope to share our successes and failures navigating moves and the burdens that come with them.

Jen [Illinois > Ohio > Tennessee > Florida > Michigan]

I have had four major moves (to new states) and three minor moves (local moves). Each move presented different challenges and experiences. My first move was from my home in Illinois to Ohio University to start my MS. This was about 6 hours from my mom’s house and we simply packed her Highlander and that was it. I had found a furnished (shared) apartment so I didn’t need any furniture and was able to fit everything else into her vehicle. I did not have a car of my own at this time and she drove home the following day after helping me unload the vehicle. 

I did another move within Athens on my own to an unfurnished (shared) apartment. I took a few trips to bring a futon mattress but didn’t really have any other furniture items. A hiccup – probably an issue with most college towns – is that lease signing happens so early! So I had about a 1 month gap between leases and it just so happened I would be at field camp. So I moved all of my apartment into the lab for storage (thanks, Hannah and Alycia!) and then when I returned I moved into my new apartment. At this stage, I was borrowing my mom’s highlander and did the move(s) on my own. I had a small foldable dolly that I had gotten for ~20 bucks at Ace Hardware. Both of these moves were very inexpensive since I had essentially no furniture. I slept on a futon mattress on the floor of my second Athens apartment.

My move to Knoxville, Tennessee took more planning and was more costly. I was able to fill the Highlander (thanks mom!) with most of my belongings from Athens but I had obtained a futon mattress and a few extras like lamps and storage containers. Not everything fit into the Highlander, but Jeb (my partner) was willing to drive down separately with me and was able to fit the rest into his sedan. After we got situated in Knoxville, Jeb went back to Athens and I drove up to Chicago to get some furniture from my mom’s house since I now had an apartment but no furniture. My mom and I rented a cargo van from Enterprise and I drove the van and she drove the Highlander back down to Tennessee. We had the van for about a week so I could also buy a bed and bed frame (woo adult life) and then Nancy (mom) drove it back to Chicago. This totalled ~$700 for gas and van rental for the week. There are certainly cheaper ways to do this but this is what worked out for us at the time. After two years in the apartment, Jeb and I decided to move into a house in Knoxville. We found this house on Craigslist and for the in-town move, his mom drove up with their truck and helped us move everything.

Myself, our two cats, and Jeb on the way up to Michigan from Florida.

The next move was to Gainesville, Florida where I got a postdoc at the Florida Museum of Natural History. I also was accepted to participate in a month-long workshop just before the postdoc was set to begin. So Jeb and I moved a trailer full of our stuff to Gainesville when he dropped me off at the workshop (a ~8.5 hour drive but ~10 in with the trailer). Our Subaru’s battery died on the way down, which was a difficult adventure (thank you nice Georgia man). We then stayed around looking at some local apartments. I eventually got an email from a current grad student there with an available house for very cheap – rented out by old staff and faculty of UF. The house was about 10 miles outside of town (a bit of a hike on my bike) but we couldn’t beat the rental price. The day my workshop was ending, Jeb drove down another trailer and our cats to the house. He had to pack it on his own and it was difficult. He arrived ~2:30 am and we had to start unpacking because we needed an empty trailer to pick up our stored belongings the following morning. This can be summed up by Jeb saying: ‘watch out there’s a bag of knives in the back’. The 6×12 trailers were ~$50 for a few days so we did that for two trips. We used Uhaul for both the trailers and storage – when you rent from them you can get a month of free storage!!! Take advantage of this program!!

Now that I had made it all the way south, it was time to head back to the midwest. We moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan from Gainesville at the end of August 2019. This time we rented a 20 foot U Haul truck with a trailer to pull the Subaru. We got the U Haul 3 days in advance to pack it best we could – yes this was more money but we desperately needed the time to get everything situated. We drove 14 hours the first day with two cats in the cab of the truck and spent the night at a Super 8 that we had selected for the giant parking lot… that was full when we arrived at 11:30 pm. The hotel was a complete crap hole and we slept and got up and drove another 7 hours to Ann Arbor. This one I budgeted out and recorded all of the expenses. Here is the breakdown: U Haul = $1110.56; Gas = $229.85; Food = $14.82; Hotel = $55.05 for a total of $1520.28. We obviously didn’t eat a lot and were very exhausted when we got up to Ann Arbor. Most recently, we did a more local move from Ann Arbor to Chelsea, about 20 minutes west of Ann Arbor. This was unfortunately during the stay at home order. We were able to rent an in town U Haul for about 24 hours. For whatever reason we went with the 10 foot truck, which required three roundtrips and several in our Subaru as well. We did all the packing and unpacking on our own, washed our hands a lot and did our best to be socially distant during the move. The truck cost $136.61 and gas was ~$16 for a total of $152.61. 

Other things to consider: deposits, some companies require first and last month rent, changing electrical can have a processing fee, setting up internet services has a fee, cleaning supplies, don’t forget a new shower curtain (we did multiple times).

Sarah [North Carolina > Alabama > Tennessee > Florida]

Moving regularly can really have a big impact on you, especially since it’s easy to feel isolated in academia and it’s expensive (especially on a graduate student budget!). Jen covered a lot of the details I would have, with moving truck logistics and costs, so I’ll try and focus on other aspects of moving to consider! 

With each of my major moves to new states, I did so as cheaply as possible, since I was a graduate student/recently graduated graduate student for all of them. I did so by moving in a cargo van or the smallest possible moving truck. This was made easier by not taking a lot of furniture with me when I moved. I went to thrift stores the week I moved to town and purchased things like tables, chairs, bookshelves, etc for cheap and sold them what I could or donated them when I moved again. Usually, I could afford to get all the furniture I needed for under $100-$150, which was way easier and cheaper than it’d be to rent a bigger truck to haul it hours away. 

The major concern when I move is my pets- if you didn’t know, I have a LOT of pets. My partner and I have fostered for a few different animal shelters and we have quite a few of our own and some fosters that ended up just staying with us permanently. So moving can quickly become a hassle, so I’ll give you a breakdown of the things you might need to think about! I’ve never flown with my pet (I have too many and I have pets that most airlines don’t generally allow on board), so I can’t give you advice on that! I always drive with mine! Here’s a picture of all of my critters that I’ve moved with!

Sarah’s pets, from top left to bottom right: Here are my guinea pigs, Iris, Annie, and Cassie (Iris and Cassie were permanent fosters through the Knoxville Guinea Pig Rescue), my dogs Piper and Boon, and bunnies Leo and Josie. Missing from this image are my many other foster bunnies, guinea pigs, and even a gerbil!

Do you have pets that could be not allowed in a rental agreement? I have a pitbull- mix, which can often be discriminated against in rental houses and apartment complexes. While I don’t agree with these policies, I can’t do much to change them. When moving to Tampa, I spent a lot of time trying to find apartments that did not discriminate and I did eventually find a good one. We contacted a real estate office that helped with apartment rentals and they gave us a list of apartments that didn’t have restrictions. A lot of apartments will also discriminate against “exotic pets” (i.e., anything outside of a cat or dog). 

My best advice in this situation is to call and talk to them before you move in. I called a number of apartments and talked to them about my bunnies (I have two-Leo and Josie, 8.5 year old siblings). Most of the apartments were willing to waive that restriction when I explained that my bunnies were litter trained. I was also able to get the pitbull restriction waived when I was in town and made appointments to meet the apartment managers. Piper won them over in a minute with her endless affection!

Do you have more pets than a rental agreement usually allows? This can be a tough one! Again, if you feel comfortable, just call your apartment. I called in advance and explained that while we had two dogs, we also had two small bunnies and a guinea pig, all of whom were litter trained or lived in a hutch and wouldn’t have access to the rest of the apartment. My new apartment said that was fine, while others said no (so I didn’t rent from them).

Do you have money for pet deposits and monthly pet fees? Many places charge pet deposits that can be hundreds of dollars and monthly additions to rent. Make sure you can afford those charges before the move.

Look for vets BEFORE you move! If you can, make sure to find a vet that you think you’ll like before you move. This is *especially important* if you have a pet that isn’t a cat or dog, since not all vets are required to treat critters like bunnies, guinea pigs. This is so important because you never know when an emergency will happen! One of my bunnies had an emergency medical situation when we first moved here, and I had luckily already scoped out an emergency vet that could see bunnies. Call the vet office before hand to make sure they’re accredited (i.e., the AAHA- the American Animal Hospital Association) and to make sure they have someone who can provide help with your pets’ specific conditions, if they have any. It can be really scary not to have a vet identified in an emergency!  Tip: does your local university have a vet school? They may have a clinic you can use!

Have at least a month of supplies stored, just in case. This is super important because critters don’t always tolerate change well! Make sure to have enough food, litter, and other needed supplies so that you can keep their lives a bit steadier while you move to a new place. Sometimes, you may need to take a few days to figure out where to get supplies in your new town (or, like in my case, 2017 Hurricane Irma came just a few weeks after we moved to Florida and we needed to have a bit extra on hand!)

Make sure to be extra patient with your pet. Moving is tough and it’s a lot harder when you don’t know what’s going on. Make sure to praise your pet, give them extra attention and treats. Consider giving them a new, special toy to distract them. Be patient if they forget their manners and use the bathroom inside- sometimes, stress can make your pets react weirdly. With my dogs, we had to move them to a separate room when we were loading the truck so they didn’t see it, which kept them calmer. If you know your pet is nervous, ask your vet if there’s a good medication option to help them get through the car ride.

Adriane [Virginia > Ohio > Virginia >Massachusetts > New York]

Jen and Sarah have already given you great advice above related to pets and moving fees, so I’ll keep this brief and provide some additional advice. First of all, I hate moving. My family moved a lot when I was younger, and as a consequence I feel like I don’t really have a ‘family home’ when I think back to my childhood. So when I move, the feelings of anxiety and unsteady home life come flooding back. Here, I’ll give you some insight into how I deal with moving. 

When I moved to Massachusetts, it was just my husband and I. We had rented a U-Haul truck with a car trailer. My husband drove the truck towing his car, and I drove our Jeep with our two cats crated in the back. We did the drive from Virginia to Massachusetts in one day; it took 14 hours and it was HELL. We were all tired, but luckily our hotel in MA was nice. I had researched hotels near our new apartment extensively, as I knew we needed one with a large parking lot, a free breakfast (that’s always my requirement for a hotel; if I’m paying to stay with you, feed me), and of course they had to be pet friendly. We stayed at a Howard Johnson with two queen beds, which I hoped the cats slept on their own bed. No, they slept with us (ok, it *was* super cute). The next day, we drove to our new apartment and moved in. We had trouble moving in our couch (our apartment was on the third floor, with a narrow stairwell), but lucky for us a neighbor helped (we became and still are to this day good friends). 

Spice, my Maine Coon cat, in her crate during the move. Her face captures all of our feelings about moving.

I really came to love our Massachusetts apartment, which really became our community and home. Therefore, when I got the postdoc offer from Binghamton University in New York, my excitement soon turned to anxiety when I realized this would require another move. However, in my offer package, the university would cover moving costs up to $3,000. I took full advantage of this. I hired a moving company for our moving day, and we were able to move 3.5 hours away from Amherst, MA to Binghamton, NY in one day. Whew! The cost came to a bit over $2,900 but under $3,000. If I can help it, I will never move again without hiring movers. Just be aware, with moving reimbursements from universities, especially public universities, the state may require an invoice or bill of lading. I did not realize this when I moved, my moving company has been unresponsive when I try to get in touch with them, and therefore I’m still waiting for my moving reimbursement from New York state today.  

As mentioned, I become super stressed when I move. Here’s some things I did before our move to NY from MA that helped with the stress:

  1. I tried to pack a box or two every day for a month before we moved. This allowed me to organize stuff and carefully pack all my valuable things (read: fossils). 
  2. I carefully labeled boxes with their contents, and grouped boxes with similar contents together. This way, when we moved, the movers kept together all the kitchen stuff, office boxes, etc. It made unpacking easier as well. 
  3. I Googled Binghamton (where we were moving to) and made a mental list of things I wanted to try, do, and places to visit when we got there. I find that if I have something positive and fun to look forward to, this reduces my anxiety greatly. I also feel more comfortable visiting or moving to a place the more I know about it beforehand. 
  4. I visited my favorite shops and stores in Amherst, and brought those foods, wine, and beer with us to our new home. It was nice to have these things with us in New York, as they were small comforts and gave us, oddly, a sense of peace.
  5. I talked about my anxieties about my moving anxieties with my husband, and cried a lot. I have a thing where I stop talking about things that bother me, which will just increases my anxiety about an issue and causes me to cut myself off from those around me. It’s super unhealthy, I know, but I made a conscious effort to reach out and share my fears with my partner about moving. This helped my mood immensely, although it didn’t totally dissipate the anxiety. If you are like me, I would also strongly suggest visiting a therapist to share and work through anxieties about moving (I probably should have). 

The Benefits of Community College: Personal Stories and Examples

Adriane, Rose, Shaina, and Jen here-

Here in the United States, community colleges are two-year institutions that cater to students in or just out of high school and people who are returning to college for a degree. In some areas, local high schools partner with community colleges for students to participate in special technical classes to expand their skill sets. This can include mechanical courses, film and editing, and much more. In short, community colleges are higher-education institutions that can provide workforce training and which offer several classes that are considered ‘core courses’ at four-year institutes and universities. Core classes include such topics as history, math, art, and science, with electives and options within each of these topics. Students who attend community colleges often transfer to a four-year university to complete their undergraduate degree, which takes another 2+ years depending on their degree. In some states, community colleges have agreements with universities that allow students a guaranteed transfer if the student meets certain requirements. 

Community college provides a fantastic option for students who finish high school and don’t quite know what their career path will be, for working folks who need flexibility in choosing courses and schedules, and for others in the community who might just want to take a course or two on something they are interested or passionate about. The very attractive aspect of community college is that class sizes are often smaller, the professors and teachers have more time to dedicate to students, several classes are available as online courses, and the on-campus classes may have several different times to fit the schedules of working students and adults. And bonus, similar to large four-year universities, many community colleges offer athletic and recreational teams for you to join! 

Regardless of all the pros to community colleges, there is still a perceived stigma surrounding them. 

The purpose of this post is to share some of our experiences with community college to break down the stigmas and negative perceptions surrounding community colleges by highlighting our own experiences in community college. We argue that we wouldn’t be where we are today without the structured training, guidance, and mentorship we received at our respective community colleges. 

TL;DR: Benefits of Attending a Community College

  • Attain a higher GPA after high school
  • Increase knowledge in certain subjects that were not taught sufficiently by a high school
  • Increase self-esteem in an academic setting
  • Build a support network of professors, teachers, and other students
  • Flexible schedule
  • Ability to take as few or as many (with limits) courses as you feel necessary
  • Opportunity to explore different career paths and options through diverse course offerings
  • Determine if a career is right for you
  • Affordable compared to a 4-year institution
  • Local students can live at home and save money on living expenses that would be incurred at a 4-year university
  • Take courses while simultaneously attending a 4-year university and have those credits transfer
  • Federal and state grants often cover the full cost of tuition (in and out of state)
  • Most professors also teach at a 4-year university or have in the past, and can offer advice to students pursuing a BS/BA degree and higher
  • Some professors may have worked in industry or in a non-academic position, and can offer advice to students pursuing these career paths
  • Some states offer a guaranteed admission program from community college to 4-year universities 
  • Some community colleges have exchange programs, offering students international experiences 
  • Because so many adults go back to school, the range of ages and life experiences in a classroom is very enriching and diverse

Adriane 

I started in community college the fall after I graduated from high school. I knew after graduating that my grades were not competitive enough for a 4-year college, and that I would likely do terrible on the GRE exams. My high school education was also not the best. I didn’t learn algebra as well I should have, and I was often bullied and had low self-esteem, which fed into doing poorly in my high school classes. I would often skip high school to go to the movies with my friend, or went riding my horse by myself (both were likely bad ideas). So attending my local community college was the best option for me. In addition, I also did not know what I wanted to do for a career. I thought that perhaps I wanted to be an artist (graphic art and design), or go into the medical field (even though medical stuff grosses me out), or even be a machinist like my dad (which would have been a really fun career, to be honest). 

Around the time I graduated high school, my mom was going through a divorce and was raising my little sister. I got a job in a retail store, and helped my mom with my sister, getting her on and off the bus everyday, and I was also able to help pay bills and help with groceries. Attending community college was great because I was able to work, help out around my home, and still take courses. My local community college, called J Sargeant Reynolds in Richmond, Virginia, had very flexible class schedules which worked great with my work and home schedule.

It was also at J Sarge that I found the career that I am currently in. I had to take science electives, so I took Geology. I figured I always loved rocks and fossils, so why not? During the first semester, our instructor took us to a local creek, where we collected fossils from ~15 million years ago! I was totally hooked. So I took another geology course, and it was during this course that I knew I wanted to become a geologist. Community colleges in Virginia have a guaranteed acceptance program with several state 4-year universities: if your GPA is high enough after graduating with an associate’s degree from a community college, you are guaranteed admission into a 4-year university. My grades were above a 3.5 at the time I graduated, so I was automatically accepted into James Madison University. Most of my credits transferred, so I was able to finish my geology bachelor’s degree in 3 years. 

Rose

I started at Green River Community College after graduating high school. I was primarily homeschooled through high school, but took a few electives at my local public high school (choir, Shakespeare, a cooking class). One of these classes was an education class. I loved kids but wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a classroom teacher, so my teacher at the high school suggested I start at the community college first. Our local CC has a well-respected education program, so if I did decide to go on to get a teaching degree I shouldn’t have any problems transferring and would be well-prepared. If I decided I didn’t want to pursue a teaching degree, I would have an associate’s degree in education, which would allow me to work as a paraeducator. Other advantages of this option were that I could live at home and save money. Because tuition was lower here than other colleges, I was also able to get Pell grants and state need grants that covered my full tuition.

I loved my classes because there were always a variety of people in them. There were students like me straight out of high school, high schoolers in the Running Start program, people coming back to school after many years to finish college or find a new career, and folks from the community who were just interested and taking the class for fun. My CC also had a large and well-known international exchange program. Students from many East Asian and European countries came for a year to study abroad in the US. For example, my chemistry lab partner one quarter was from China and my class partner was from Belgium! My lab partner in geology was Dutch, and while he didn’t go on to get a degree in geology we both decided it was our favorite class ever and still keep in touch via social media today.

Shaina

I started attending Manchester Community College the fall after graduating from high school. Growing up I knew I wanted to be an astronomer, but unfortunately my high school had very few options for math and science courses and most of the ones they did have were taught by sports coaches and not particularly beneficial so I ended up taking the excellent history and social science classes offered instead. This, combined with my prevalence for skipping school, meant that I was not prepared to apply to a four year institution after graduating, especially in the field I wanted to study. 

I ended up signing up for community college almost on a whim and was instantly thrilled with the options for classes I could take— I was able to take astronomy, could finally start learning math for real, and even had a wide variety of fun and useful classes like photography, women’s health, and even Philosophy of Lord of the Rings! I made a ton of friends, got straight A’s, and built the foundation for transitioning to a four year school. When the time came to apply to schools during my second year I had a great support network of professors who wrote me letters and helped me get into the astrophysics program I had dreamed of. I never could have done it without my experience at MCC to help set me on the right path.

Jen

Unlike Rose and Adriane, I didn’t start out at a community college. I went to a 4-year university straight from high school, I grew up in an area with a lot of state universities and picked one close to home. My high school had close ties with our local community college, the College of DuPage (COD). I had friends that would take classes there when they had moved passed what my high school offered or to get more technical training. There was a program where students could be at our high school for half the day and the other half would be spent at COD in a special program. 

I attended community college through a summer course – calculus. I was trying to stay ahead of my studies, to remain on track to graduate on time but couldn’t afford (time and money) to go to a summer class at my 4-year institution while working. The class was something wild like 3 hours every day starting at 7 am. The class size was incredibly intimate, maybe 25 students in the room for a month long course. At my 4-year institution all general courses were over 100 students during the lectures. The smaller course setting enabled me to meet new people, feel comfortable asking questions, and really foster a strong relationship with my peers and the material. I struggled with precalculus my first year of undergraduate — when I excelled at it in high school. This was incredibly frustrating and really made me feel like I would fail calculus. Community college helped me realize where I learn best — small settings where I feel comfortable. 

Not long ago, my mom returned to college by starting a program at COD. She had been a stay at home mom for almost 20 years and needed to get back into the workforce. She took courses over several years to become a medical biller and coder. 

If you are interested in going back to school, taking courses, or beginning at a community college, click the link below to find a community college near you in the continental U.S.: Community College Finder

Participating in Science-A-Thon

Jen & Adriane here – 

This year we participated in Science-A-Thon. Science-A-Thon is a five day celebration of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields and everyone who identifies as a scientist is welcome to participate. Each day you share your science goings-on, including  conducting research, data crunching, or any major discoveries you made. The goal of Science-A-Thon is to show the public what scientists do in any given day, and also what a scientist looks like! Posts from Science-A-Thon are tagged with #DayOfScience so anyone can find them on social media platforms. 

In addition to a global sharing of science, the organization also does a fundraiser to contribute to support women in science. They raised over $14,000 in 2019; check out the fundraiser here: Science-A-Thon 2019. This year, the money went to three major charities: Earth Science Women’s Network, Girls Who Code, and Society of Women Engineers.

Jen’s Experience

I was particularly interested in sharing aspects of my new job as Research Museum Collection Manager at the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology. Many people don’t really know what goes on behind the scenes in museums. Many of us have visited natural history museums but this is only what is on display. The display specimens are usually a very small number (<1%) of the actual holdings of a museum. I work at a research museum, so we share specimens with our public facing museum but my job includes helping to facilitate research. So my visitors are usually scientists wanting to look at very specific specimens. These specimens are very important and are not put on display because their scientific value is more important.

I shared pieces of my day on my Twitter (@paleoJB), Instagram (@jenebauer), and Tumblr (phylojenny.tumblr.com). The whole goal being to bring folks into the collection that is not really as accessible as the public museum. My job can be pretty variable. Some days I spend a lot of time on the computer doing paperwork, entering data into our database, or checking specimens against our database. Other days we get a donation and I am helping organize the new specimens that came in or I am putting away miscellaneous specimens that had been misplaced or were hiding out in my office. 

An example of Jen’s post where she breaks down a task she was doing on one of the days! Sometimes there are fun finds like really old newspaper clippings!

Adriane’s Experience

Like most of the end of 2019, I was working on my dissertation during Science-A-Thon. But I think it’s important to show that sometimes, the path to becoming a doctor isn’t all classes and science experiments. Much of my science journey is sitting alone in front of my computer, trying to write up the results of those experiments and data generating and collecting I did years ago. It’s not glorious, but it’s an essential part of what a scientist does. All of those fancy papers we publish all begin as crappy drafts (well, at least mine begin that way) that require lots of time editing, polishing, and re-writing. 

One of my #DayOfScience Twitter posts for Science-A-Thon written while I was working on a dissertation chapter.

Anyway, I showcased a bit of this writing process (without going into too many details) and some posts about what I do as a scientist during my Science-A-Thon posts. I only posted on Twitter (you can find my posts by searching ‘@ForamWhisperer #DayOfScience’) as this was my first year participating and I was still getting the hang of Instagram. Overall, I think it went well but I will definitely do more posts next year! More than anything, I also enjoyed following along with other scientists’ posts to see what they do in a typical day, and learn more about my friend’s and colleague’s research. So Science-A-Thon isn’t just for the public, but rather a fun annual event that allows me some insight into other scientists’ worlds as well!

Keep an eye out for next year’s event by following Science-A-Thon on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or checking their website, it will occur annually in October! 

Collection Management

Jen here – 

A graphic I made for Science-A-Thon this year explaining what a collection manager actually manages!

I recently started a new position as a Research Museum Collection Manager at the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology (UMMP). I am in charge of taking care of the invertebrate fossil collection, which are housed at an off campus facility with all of the other natural history museum collections (anthropology, zoology, and the herbarium). My position involves a lot of moving parts. I took over for someone who had moved the collection twice in the past several years – which is an astronomical endeavor. I have started with working to get a lot of paperwork organized. Specifically the loan paperwork. Research museums loan out specimens to other institutions and borrow specimens from other institutions! Usually there is a lot of paperwork associated with this but not everything is always organized or clear. I’ve spent quite a bit of time working to make sure I know who has specimens of ours and trying to reach out to others to return specimens. I’m nowhere near done but I have a good handle on the last decade, which I consider a victory!

I have recently employed several undergraduate students to help me get a better handle on what is actually in our collection. All of the type and figured specimens are in our local database but they were entered from the card catalog rather than examining the specimens and specimen labels. So, we want to make sure all the information matches and update it if it doesn’t! We are also working to take images of the types to attach them to the specimen records. This is a huge task and I am happy to have some help. 

Here is a peak inside one of the cabinets! The drawers are filled with specimens and how we store them is important for the longevity of the fossils and materials!

I also have been organizing the collection, after the move there were lots of boxes and pallets with miscellaneous fossils and I’m working to figure out what is what. Some of this was easy, some of it involved going through some really nasty old news paper that was used as packing material decades or even a century ago. It’s really important that the collection stay clean because the specimens are housed in compactor shelving. Meaning that if you are trying to get to one area you may have to move other cabinets and it can be difficult to try to look in different time periods or collections at the same time.

Part of my job includes bringing people into the collection. This could be researchers to study the different animals in the collection or conduct geochemical analyses or even high school students looking to pursue a career in paleontology. Every week I have at least one visitor, which is great for the collection. Next week, two folks from the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department are coming to explore some of our Cenozoic material as they are interested in understanding the ancient climate along the eastern coast of the United States. To do this, they use shells from the collection to reconstruct what the environment may have been like!

Comparison of Meetings: GSA vs. NAPC

Jen and Adriane here – 

Recently, we were able to participate in the 11th North American Paleontological Convention (NAPC), held in Riverside California. This meeting is hosted every 4-5 years somewhere in North America. In comparison, we are usually able to attend the annual Geological Society of America (GSA) Meeting. These meetings have many differences and here, we explain the importance and differences of each meeting. 

Geological Society of America 

The GSA 2019 logo.

The Geological Society of America meeting is held every year in a major city, with smaller regional meetings held each year as well. For example, I (Adriane) am currently in New York, so I am part of the Northeast Section of GSA. The Northeast Section includes Washington D.C., Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont in the United States, as well as the provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, and parts of Ontario in Canada. Find what section you are in by clicking here.

But here, we’ll just focus on the larger national GSA meetings that are held yearly. The mission of GSA is to “advance geoscience research and discovery, service to society, stewardship of Earth, and the geoscience profession”. The vision of the society is to “be the premier geological society supporting the global community in scientific discovery, communication, and application of geoscience knowledge”. The GSA meetings embody the vision and mission of the society by bringing geoscientists together from all subfields to share their recent research, discuss new initiatives and goals for their specific fields, and to support students. These meetings are also a wonderful place to network, catch up with friends and colleagues, and make new friends and colleagues. 

Solveig (works with Adriane), Adriane, Jen, Sam (works with Jen), and Sarah posing for one last picture together at GSA 2019!

Generally, GSA is held in a large convention center in a well-known city. This year (2019), the meeting was held in Phoenix, Arizona. The year before that (2018), it was held in Indianapolis, Indiana. Next year (2020), the meeting will be held in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The meeting location changes every year (except for every 2-3 years, the meeting is held back in Denver, Colorado) to be close to the society’s headquarters. 

When registering for GSA, the only thing that our registration covers is access to the meeting and an evening beverage (soft drinks, wine, or beer) during the poster sessions. GSA has different ‘tiers’ for membership, so not everyone pays the same registration costs. For K-12 teachers, registration is only $50; however for professionals (such as professors) the cost is $430. There are additional activities we can sign up for, such as breakfasts, dinners, workshops, and even field trips to check out the local geology. Many of these additional events are at a fee. For example, this year I (Jen) attended the Paleontological Society Business Meeting ($45 for professionals; $15 for students), Association for Women Geoscientists breakfast ($42 for professionals; $15 for students), and the GSA Education Division Awards Luncheon ($54 for everyone). Separately, they aren’t a big deal but they really add up quickly. Click here to read about all the add-ons for this year’s conference.

GSA is structured with a day that is full of talks. These talks are split into different subsections, which are held in different rooms. We call each room with themed talks a session. There are usually tens of sessions going on at any one time, usually scheduled from 8:00 am to 5:30 pm. Poster presentations are hung up in the poster hall all day long for people to view at their leisure, but the poster presenters do not have to be there all day, just for about 2 hours in the evening. The poster presentations overlap with beer, wine, and soda offerings at GSA every afternoon. After about 6:30, the poster hall shuts down and folks go off to other evening events and meetings, to dinner, or sometimes just call it a day and go back to their hotels to rest. I, Adriane, generally try to get back to the hotel early (I’m an introvert and get pretty tired quickly), but that usually never happens as I always run into friends or have plans and just have too much fun to go home early. 

North American Paleontological Convention

The NAPC 2019 logo.

The North American Paleontological Convention (NAPC) is held every 4-5 years somewhere in North America. This year it was held in Riverside, California. The previous event was held in 2014 in Gainesville, Florida. Unlike GSA, NAPC is not a proper organization or society – those in charge rotate out and there are not set staff that are continually helping plan and execute these events. In other words, we cannot become a member of NAPC like we can GSA, as NAPC just refers to the name of a conference and not an entire structured organization.

Similar to GSA, the NAPC meetings have a few goals for the meetings. Namely, the purpose of NAPC is “to exchange research findings, define future directions, and be a forum for extended and relaxed interactions between professionals and early career scientists, most particularly graduate and undergraduate students.Since NAPC was sponsored by the Paleontological Society (the major society for American paleontologists) the convention embodied many aspects of that society, including their recently revised code of conduct: 

Adriane and Jen (against the left limb of the R) with fellow science communicators. The great thing about NAPC was that it not only brought together scientists, but those of us who love to conduct educational outreach activities!

This is PS. The Paleontological Society is committed to safe and inclusive events and meetings for all attendees. The Code of Conduct applies to all members of the Society and to all participants of NAPC2019. The Paleontological Society is implementing “This IS PS” (Inclusive and Safe Paleontological Society) to help ensure adherence to the Code of Conduct at Society-sponsored events, including NAPC.

Registration for NAPC allowed you to stay at on campus dorms that were a convenient walk to and from the conference center. They also provided golf cart transportation to those that needed it. The dorms were four single rooms with two shared bathrooms, a living space, and a kitchen. This could be purchased alongside your conference registration and was $360 for five days, a steal in terms of lodging expenses (for reference, a hotel close to the convention center at GSA cost about $150 per night in Phoenix, Arizona). Those staying in these dorms were also offered breakfast in the nearby cafeteria. 

Jen, our friend Wesley, and Adriane at the NAPC banquet!

Every day there was a catered lunch in a large open area outside where you could grab a sandwich and chat with new or old friends during a break. This meant everyone was on a break during this time so you weren’t rushing to eat between sessions and everyone was in a unified space. This was one of my (Jen’s) favorite parts of the event. There was always someone new to sit with and catch up with. The conference also offered dinner almost every evening, some in the same location as lunch, another more formal banquet, and a more casual finger food event. 

There is something that inherently feels like bonding when you are sharing meals with collaborators and friends. I (Jen) think this was a really meaningful and well thought out aspect of the conference. Usually at large conferences such as GSA, everyone is scrambling to find food nearby and you don’t get to really have meaningful discussions. One thing that also really differs from GSA is that NAPC holds a banquet for everyone at the meeting. At this year’s banquet, there were string lights hung in trees, music playing, and very nice tables set up for us all. Later in the evening, we had a dance party which was a ton of fun! There was also a night where we had a raffle, with beer, wine, and food. It was great fun as well!

NAPC is structured similar to GSA, in that there are several talks that are going on in different sessions simultaneously throughout the day. However because NAPC is generally smaller than GSA, the number of sessions going on at any one time was on the range of 4 to 8. Also similar to GSA was the poster hall and session. At NAPC, the poster hall is much smaller, but the posters are left up all day, and presenters are required to be at them during the afternoon hours. Jen and I also chatted with folks at our NAPC posters throughout the day, as they are great places to talk about your research, tell friends what you’ve been up to, and get ideas about research you may want to conduct in the future. The poster sessions and daily meeting ended when it was time for dinner. 

GSA and NAPC by the Numbers

Item NAPC 2019 GSA 2019
Attendees ~700 from 34 countries ~6,000
Topics Paleontology Geoscience
Duration* 5 full days 5 full days
Registration Cost $350-425* $50-$430*
Included Meals Almost all meals included Several optional  luncheons & evening mixers
Included Lodging Yes, optional. $60/night No

*excluding optional pre and post field trips

Rattlesnake Creek Fossil Collecting

Jen here – 

Action shot of folks collecting in the creek. Taken by Victor Perez of the Florida Museum.

I recently went on a fossil collecting trip associated with a FOSSIL Project workshop on digitization and imaging of fossils. To preface this, whenever you are looking to go fossil collecting you should make sure to be aware of the laws and rules in place in your town. The spot we were heading to abuts private land so one of the coordinators made sure to reach out to them ahead of time to request permission and explain what we were doing. To give back to the community, we also cleaned up the creek while we were looking for fossils. There is always trash or debris and this is an easy way to give back to the community you are hunting in! 

In Florida, you have to prepare to be out in the heat. Surprisingly the creek was pleasant and we were pretty shaded for most of the day. I wore a UV protectant shirt, shorts, sandals, and a hat. Insects can really get you, so it’s also best to know what to prepare for and use lotion or bug spray to prevent any spread of disease.

I was mostly observing and helping facilitate this trip but I was excited to see others getting really into the fossil collection. This location is in the Coosawhatchie Formation which is Miocene (~23-5.3 million years ago) in age. It overlies the Eocene (~56-33.9 million years old) Ocala Limestone. The Ocala Limestone fossils are very different from the Coosawhatchie so they are pretty easy to distinguish from one another. Most folks were finding shark teeth, ray plates, clams, snails from the Coosawhatchie Formation and things like small echinoids and large benthic foraminifera from the Ocala Limestone. Specimens from the Ocala Limestone were often a white-cream color whereas specimens from the Coosawhatchie were very dark.

Hemipristis serra specimen collected by Corinne Daycross. Check out her specimens on myFOSSIL.

 

We also spent some time observing the local insects and sharing education apps for identifying fossils and modern life! Workshop participants were from all over the country so there was some regular chit chat and getting to know one another. I had known several participants for some time from various online platforms so it was really great getting to meet them in person! If you want to check out what the group was up to here is the myFOSSIL group that everyone was posting in: Imaging and Digitization for Avocational Paleontologists Workshop

Eagle ray plate found by Corinne Daycross. Check out her specimens on myFOSSIL.

I was also helping my friend and collaborator, Rich, with a study. He was interested in thinking about participant dynamics at workshops and field trips. So we had a matrix and were recording interactions between participants at the workshop and facilitators (/people running the workshop). He then also gave everyone a survey to see how people’s perception of who they interacted with matched what we observed. They were pretty close but perceived interactions were higher, which could be due to a variety of things. It has been really fun getting into some of these observational studies!

Check out the summary blog post on myFOSSIL about the event: Imagining and Digitization Workshop

Group photo of everyone after we had been hunting in the creek. By Jeff Gage at the Florida Museum.

Hobbies are important!

Sarah, Jen, and Adriane here-

Ever wondered what a scientist does for fun? Many people are surprised to find out that people who do science are into just about every single hobby that can be done! I think shows like the Big Bang Theory, that paint scientists as really nerdy and incapable of doing non-science related things, can make people think that scientists are really like that in real life (some of us are! Definitely nothing wrong with that- but scientists are a pretty diverse group of people). Why are hobbies important, though? Well, hobbies keep me sane. They give me a chance to take a break, completely, from work and do something challenging and fun. They give me a chance to make new friends outside of science and give me things to look forward to, when work gets tough.

So what kind of hobbies are scientists into? Well, we here at Time Scavengers wrote a group post so you could see the the types of stuff we get up to in our spare time.

Sarah

The three trilobites I’ve cross stitched so far! (This is my very first attempt at any form of embroidery-I’m pretty proud of them!

My favorite thing to do is read! I have a challenge with myself–I read at least 50 books a year. I don’t have a favorite genre, really. I’ll read just about anything: fiction, classics, memoirs, young adult–I just like reading stories of other people’s lives, whether they’re real or fictional. I read every night before I go to sleep and I always have an audiobook that I listen to while I’m vacuuming, walking to class, or driving in the car. Right now, as this post is being written, I’m rereading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and listening to Tara Westover’s Educated (both super good–highly recommend!). I’ve read books for fun for as long as I can remember. Little known fact about me- I was on a competitive reading team in middle school aka I was super cool and not at all nerdy.

I’m also really into crafts. My mom is an art teacher, so she taught me how to do a lot of different crafty things (even if I inherited none of her skill). I love to paint, decoupage, and create all kinds of things. Recently, I decided to take up learning how to embroider. So far, I’ve cross stitched a few different trilobites to hang up in my office! Around my house are the relics of old craft projects that I’ve made and am probably way too proud of.

Another project of mine that I’ve taken up is learning American Sign Language. I’ve always wanted to learn and I recently decided that there was no time like the present. So, for the past year, I’ve been taking online classes through my local community college and spending time on weekends with the Tampa Deaf community to learn how to communicate via sign. It’s been a total blast and I’m hoping to keep learning!

Photo: the three trilobites I’ve cross stitched so far! (This is my very first attempt at any form of embroidery. I’m pretty proud of them!)

Jen

Jen at Graham Swamp Conservation Area where she was biking and checking out dredged sediment from the beach. Fossils galore!!

My favorite thing to do is be outside. After working for any amount of time the only thing that really refreshes me is getting some sunlight and air. Most of my work involves sitting at my computer so I constantly get burned out from staring at my screen. These days I do a lot of biking both on long greenways on my road bike and on trails on my mountain bike. Jeb even made some nice trails on our property in Gainesville – almost two miles! I used to do a lot of trail running when we lived in Knoxville but would have to take long breaks to offset my shin splints, which would get really painful at times. I also like to examine the wildlife – what’s around me and do I know what it is? iNaturalist allows me to figure out what the things are that I’m unfamiliar with. They have a more ‘fun’ app called Seek that has monthly challenges and can identify organisms as you sort of pan over them with your camera! It’s a lot of fun to explore and learn and the same time.

I also knit scarves, I don’t do fancy patterns or anything besides scarves because the point of knitting, to me, is to clear my mind and keep my hands busy while we are watching TV or just relaxing. I choose to knit Harry Potter scarves because I love the series!! I first started knitting them almost a decade ago and have a little Etsy shop where people can purchase them if they want to. They are also really warm, I started making them when I lived in Chicago and it’s just a funny joke that I keep moving south and keep making them.

I have many other hobbies but those are the two that I really enjoy the most. I read books but not as avidly as I once did and it’s much harder for me than it used to be, I suppose it’s because my mind wanders more easily to get all of my other tasks done. I do yoga a lot, play with my cats, garden, play Pokemon Go, blog, and chat with old friends.

Adriane

Adriane and Scimmitar!

As I’m in the last year of my PhD and frantically trying to finish my dissertation, I don’t have as many hobbies as I should. Much like Sarah and Jen, I do enjoy reading novels (mostly fiction to balance out the serious-ness of sciencing), playing Pokemon Go, blogging, and hanging out with my cats and husband. When the weather is nice, I also enjoy hiking around western Massachusetts (there’s no shortage of awesome views here!). My husband and I have also taken up biking, which has been great incentive to get us out of the house and doing something physical! Often in the summer and fall, we bike down to a market down the road a bit for ice cream.

Honestly, my most guilty pleasure right now is Netflix and HBO, and cooking. There is nothing I love more than to come home after a long day at work (I’m currently averaging about 9-10 hour days in the lab, so when I come home, I don’t feel like doing much) and plopping onto the couch with my kitties and husband. I love to cook and experiment with different recipes, so I usually cook about 5-6 days a week. After that, my husband and I watch the latest TV obsession, which is usually a series (yes, we’re sad Game of Thrones is over, but hey, that leaves more time for re-watching other beloved series like Dexter!).

The aforementioned hobbies (if you call watching TV a hobby) are not always my ideal ways to pass the time, so I’ll let you all in on a little secret: I LOVE old cars! Before I left home for graduate school, my dad and I would work on my 1971 Mercury Comet, which my husband wittily named ‘Halley’ (like Halley’s Comet, get it?). My dad bought the car for me as my high school graduation gift, and we’ve been working on it ever since. My dad is a huge car nerd as well. He’s a machinist by trade, but I’ve never met anyone who knows as much about cars as him. He has rebuilt several engines, installed exhaust systems, rebuilt carburetors, you name it. Since I’ve had Halley, we’ve put in a new engine (a 306 cubic inch compared to the 289 that was in it), new rims, and lockers on the rear (lockers make both back tires spin at the same time). Eventually, I’d like to make the car a 4-speed, install bucket seats, and give Halley a paint job, as currently she is 3 different colors. As you can imagine, antique car restorations are expensive, so this is not an ideal hobby to have whilst one is in graduate school on a limited budget.

Adriane and her mom having an archery competition.

My other hobbies that I absolutely love to do but cannot in this phase of my life are gardening, horseback riding, tending chickens, and shooting (rifles and recurve bows). After that last sentence, you probably now realize that I was raised in the country and am a bit of a redneck. Currently, my mom takes care of my horse, Scimmitar, who I have had and ridden since I was in grade school. Scimmi is a 31-year-old Egyptian Arabian who has more spunk than any older horse I’ve seen. When I go back home to Virginia, I still take him on trail rides through the woods with my mom, my sister, and our other horses. My sister and mom love chickens as much as I do, and still have 8 as pets. The chickens are all different breeds, and are mostly used for bug control in the yard and a source of eggs. Recently, my mom did teach her hen how to play the xylophone! My mom is the one who actually got my husband and I hooked on shooting recurve bows. She learned from her friend, and actually taught a few classes at her local sporting goods store. Archery is great because it forces you to clear your mind and focus on your body. It’s a great stress reliever, way to build muscle, and learn to focus your attention. I enjoy shooting rifles with my dad and brother, but those are pretty noisy and not quite as good for centering yourself like archery 🙂

Academic Job Interviews

Jen and Adriane here –

Academic job interview season is always upon us and we wanted to give some perspective from our experiences. We have done phone interviews, Skype interviews, and in person interviews. More recently I, Jen, have had the opportunity to be on the other side of the table and do the interviewing. All of these experiences have given us a lot to think about and we would like to reflect on some of it for you all. 

Prepping for an interview

Jen: To prepare for interviews I had a series of steps. First, I would do some research on the university/museum/organization to figure out what their mission, goals, and vision are. I could use this information to figure out if I was a good fit and what about my own career goals align with theirs. I then go to the department/group website to get a sense of who might be interviewing me, in many cases you will get a list of people ahead of time. I would think about questions they may ask and answer them on a note sheet and then come up with a list of questions to ask them. 

Adriane: I was interviewed for two postdoctoral positions, and one tenure-track job. For the job, I did basically what Jen outlined above. I did research on each person in the department, such as where they went for graduate school, their most current and previous research interests, and any major on and off campus activities they were involved in. I then created a document with all of this information, with each page dedicated to that person. On that same sheet of paper, I also wrote down specific questions for each person. This way, I had everything I needed for talking to one person on one page, and I could also take notes. This method sounds like a lot of work (it really wasn’t), but it paid off immensely. Often, these on-site/campus interviews are tiring and you’ll be extremely nervous; do anything and everything ahead of time that will make the experience easier for yourself!

Below are some questions we encountered during job interviews (these were asked of us specifically for visiting or tenure-track professor positions):

Some questions you should prepare to answer:

  • Why do you want to work here? 
  • How would you/your research contribute to this department/job?
  • What do you need (such as equipment) to do research in this department?
  • What courses could you teach in our department?
  • How could you involved our students in your research program?
  • How could you collaborate with our faculty in this department?
  • Provide an example of an effective teaching method you use in the classroom. 
  • Describe your research. 
  • Describe how you teach/your teaching strategies. 
  • Outline a syllabus for a class you would teach (or they might ask you to do this for a specific class). 

Questions you should prepare to ask*:

  • How does the department support you (grad, faculty, staff) in your role?
  • What would the ideal candidate for this position bring to the department?
  • What sort of funds are available for students to engage with research or projects?
  • Are students encouraged to travel to conferences? Are there funds to help them?
  • Am I encouraged to travel to conferences?
  • What sort of internal funding support is available for my research?
  • Are there departmental service requirements and what would they be for my first year?
  • Do faculty support each other’s work? Is this a collaborative environment?
  • A good one to end on: Do you love living and teaching here, and why?

* It is always good to ask these questions to multiple people to see how answers vary within the department.

Phone Interviews

Jen: These are the most awkward for me. I take a lot of queues from facial expressions to keep conversations moving, so trying to figure this out without seeing is tricky. It also is harder for me to listen closely and take notes without the visual queues of someone speaking to me. My suggestion would be to wear headphones so you don’t have to hold up your phone, this will allow you to quickly take notes as people are speaking to you. Since you can’t tie names to faces, it’s best to have a list of people who will be speaking to you ahead of time so you can refer back to their speciality or position during the call. 

It may be worthwhile to use an online transcription feature like in Google Docs you can use Voice Typing. You’ll have to have the call on speaker but then you will get all of the questions people ask relayed in front of you. This is the other thing I struggle with – recalling multipart questions when on a call. Often you can’t write them down quick enough so you forget! But having a way to visualize the question again would be greatly beneficial and keep things moving. 

Skype/Video Call Interviews

Jen: I prefer these setups because having a visual of the interviewers really helps me. They can also be very awkward though – depending on the set up. Often, you will be projected onto a larger monitor and be interviewed by a conference room full of people. I have been interviewed by 1 to 6 people. This is tricky because if there is not a separate microphone it can be incredibly hard to hear the people interviewing you. That is okay, just be sure to notify them – they will likely ask if you can hear them and include something like, ‘you are a little faint’ or ‘could you speak up some’. These people will have a set of questions to ask you and often they will go around the room as certain people may have specific questions they are posed to ask each candidate. 

This can make it hard to identify who is who. I usually make a drawing of names or initials around a table so I can refer back to my cheat sheet of notes about the people interviewing me. This then helps place the people in the context of their role at the institution – which is super easy to forget when you are quickly being introduced to five people sitting around a table who are only ½ an inch high.

Be sure to have a quiet area to do the interview. Wearing headphones with a microphone ensures that they can hear you and hopefully you can hear them. I would also recommend a plain background or something simple so that the people interviewing you don’t get distracted and you are the main focus. I would try to have your face centered on the screen as much as possible without being cut off at the top or bottom of the screen. 

Similar to the phone interview, I would have a notebook adjacent to you so you could quickly take down some notes during the interview. Also, you can more easily use the ‘take a drink of water’ trick when they can see you drinking – unlike on the phone. If you need a second to ponder an answer to a question- take a sip of water and reflect then respond.

Adriane: In addition to what Jen said above, you should also find out ahead of time the format for the interview. For example, one of my postdoctoral interviews over Skype was in the format of about 10 minutes for a presentation and 20 minutes of questions and talking. This was helpful to know in advance, as I could prepare what I wanted to talk about and use slides to do so through screen sharing. Another important step you should take is to test your equipment before the actual interview with trusted friends or colleagues. I tested my Skype and screen sharing capabilities twice with friends. I’m really glad I did because the second time, my sound went out! Luckily I figured out the problem and was able to fix it far in advance. 

Because I work in a lab with several other people and I needed to be at my computer for the interview, I sent around an email to my lab mates to let them know the date and time of my interview.  I also put a sign on our lab door that read ‘Interview in Progress’ so people wouldn’t run into our office during that time. 

In-person Interviews

Jen: On campus interviews for faculty or staff positions can be much more involved. I’ve done two two-day campus visits and one one-day visit. Depending on the type of position you will likely be invited to give a talk – or two! These can be about a specific aspect of your research, your proposed research program to bring to the institution, your teaching experience and course offerings, or teach a course so they can observe you at the head of the classroom.

Prepare your mind: These are marathons. You will likely have a packed schedule of 30 minute meetings with all sorts of people. It is perfectly within reason to ask similar questions to a variety of people – in fact, you absolutely should! It will give you an idea of who is maybe talking up the department versus the reality of the situation depending on the answers you receive. 

Prepare your talks: Before starting, know your audience – meaning who are you speaking to? A room full of people who will understand exactly everything you say? That’s highly unlikely. Prepare background information to catch people up to speed. I have a set of background slides I constantly use to help people understand phylogenetic trees and how to read them. It’s best to set up your audience to understand your talk rather than to just spew information at them. 

Ask your colleagues, peers, friends, supervisors, anyone who recently went through the job interview life to send you their slides to see a structure or to set up a time to chat with you. I was advised to include citations for as many of my publications as possible on the slides. Showcase work done with undergraduate researchers to show the audience your commitment to their student body. 

Extra things to bring: For my first on campus interview I tired to be really prepared. I often don’t travel well so I made sure to bring aspirin and tums. I also tend to not sleep well or get cramps from sitting funny on the airplane so I always carry Icy Hot or similar muscle relaxer when I travel. Bring things that you need to be comfortable because you are likely to experience some discomfort. 

I always had a water bottle with me, I get really dehydrated so I figured this would help. None of the interviews I have done allowed flex time for bathroom breaks. This means you often have to request to use the bathroom or get a refill of water – you definitely should request these breaks!! It helps to just be quiet for a few minutes in a cold place before jumping back into conversations.

Adriane: For my on-campus interview, I did basically what Jen outlined above. I did research on each person in the department, such as where they went for graduate school, their most current and previous research interests, and any major on and off campus activities they were involved in. I then created a document with all of this information, with each page dedicated to that person. On that same sheet of paper, I also wrote down specific questions for each person. This way, I had everything I needed for talking to one person on one page, and I could also take notes. This method sounds like a lot of work (it really wasn’t), but it paid off immensely. Often, these on-site/campus interviews are tiring and you’ll be extremely nervous; do anything and everything ahead of time that will make the experience easier for yourself!

Second, I took the time to really get to know the department through news articles, their website, and through colleagues (our department head and one of my friends did their undergrad at the college I interviewed at, so they were great resources!). I did this while watching TV at night, and it became kind of fun. It also paid off, as I was able to ask questions about events and initiatives at the college which got people talking more. 

Third, I’ll emphasize what Jen said above about knowing your audience and preparing for your talks. When I did my on-campus interview, I was asked to do a teaching demonstration and a research talk. The college where I interviewed was undergraduate-only, so I knew I had to tone down the complexity of my research. I’ve taught a ton of undergraduates, so the teaching demonstration was fun and easy. I spent the most time on my job talk, which involved modifying figures that I had previously made, culling out very jargony words specific to my field of research, and providing enough background information for a general audience. I also used graphics to explain my science. I create a lot of geochemical data, which are basically just squiggly lines plotted against geologic time. To make the interpretations from these squiggles more appealing and contextual, I created models of my interpretations. These models likely won’t become published in a paper because I don’t have enough data to support them, but they were perfectly fine to illustrate my science and communicate that to a more general audience. After my talk, even the biologists who sat in said they understood everything and thought my research was really cool! So taking the extra time and effort to readily and easily communicate your science in well worth it!

A figure from my paper showing increased evolution correlates to cooling global temperatures and tectonic activity, but this was created for other scientists.
The modified version of the above figure that I made for my job talk, which was to a room full of undergraduate students. Here, I’ve cut out some data and added in colored bars and gradients to help guide people’s eye to better see the trends.

 

Fourth, be prepared for your schedule to get shifted around. My on-campus interview was during the Deep Freeze of early 2019, when temperatures in Michigan got into the -40’s with windchill. This led to the college closing, which rarely happened. This also meant that my two talks, instead of being on two separate days, were 30 minutes apart. I was totally fine with this, as I had practiced both talk to the point of almost boredom, and I had practiced them back-to-back (just by chance). 

Lastly, just be yourself and have fun! I’ve received A TON of interview advice over the years, but this has to be the best one. For every interview I’ve had, I just go in being myself and bring my full enthusiasm for my science. For the talks I gave during my interview, I made them fun not just for my audience but for myself as well.

An example of images from my teaching demonstration, where I got some laughs. Who doesn’t like cake and pictures of kids with cake on their faces?!?

As far as packing for the interview, I packed several different outfits (I tend to change my mind a lot, so I wanted to give myself some flexibility and freedom on wardrobe choices). I have curly hair, and have to use mousse otherwise I look like a Chia pet. I didn’t want to check my bags in the airport for fear they’d get lost, which meant I couldn’t take my beloved mousse brand. So I spent a few hours tracking down a travel-sized mousse I could take with me the week before I left. I even tested it out beforehand to make sure I was happy with it. So, don’t be afraid to take the extra time and initiative to pack what you want and what will make you comfortable. I’m so glad I didn’t try any new hair products while I was interviewing, that would have just added to the stress. I also bought myself a new leather bag that made me feel like a professional and adult. Just having this helped my self-confidence, and it allowed me to be more organized (I tend to just throw everything into my bookbag).  

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself during your interview. It just so happened that while I was traveling to the interview, I started my period. For me, this means ibuprofen every 6 hours or else I feel dead. So I made sure to tell folks that I needed to use the restroom when I had to, and also when I needed to get back into the department head’s office to grab more Advil from my bag. There’s no reason to pretend your not a human with basic needs during these interviews, so don’t be afraid to ask for bathroom breaks, water, or whatever else you need!

Evaluating candidates

Jen: While I was at the University of Florida, I helped with the hiring process for two positions. The first was a staff position with over 50 applicants apply to join our core team. Our core team is really small, there are only five of us and three of us were part time. So we all evaluated each of the 50+ candidates, this means we looked through the submitted materials and online form. We had requested each applicant include a resume, cover letter, and list of references. Since there were so many candidates, those that did not follow instructions (such that they missed one of the required documents), we excluded  their application. We used the original job advertisement to look for specific aspects that the candidates could help us with and ranked them but this was only part of how we determined best fit. We also took into account education versus experience, how well laid out the resume was, and how well written the cover letter was. 

From this we pulled out just over a handful of candidates to investigate further. First, we re-read application packets and then we called their listed references to ask them a series of questions. We decided upon the questions we would ask ahead of time so that each of us got the same information – or close to it – for each candidate. We then hosted Zoom interviews with all the candidates that passed our reference check. This was usually about 45 minutes on our end 30 minutes on the candidates end. Something that is hard to avoid were technical issues. The first candidate we couldn’t get projected up onto the big TV so we all had to strain our eyes to see them on a laptop – we had to do this with the remaining candidates as well to be fair.

Ignoring my strange face and poor quality image, notice the background of the image. Your eye immediately wanders from me, the focus of the interview, to the miscellaneous things around my office.
Okay, again ignoring my strange face you see there are much less distractions in this image with the plain background. So your focus remains on my strange expression.

But it brought up some key things – be front and center with a plain background behind you. This will help the interviewers be able to see you very clearly. Use a microphone outside of the one in your computer, this greatly cuts down on background noise and the interviewers are likely in an echo-y room so anything you can do to reduce it will be easier on them. Speak slowly and deliberately, there is not a rush and when you speak fast (not always avoidable) sometimes it’s hard to keep up. Mostly because there are a few people in a large room trying to focus on a small screen – it’s a bad situation. 

We then had a meeting to decide upon the top candidates to bring to campus for an in-person interview. We spent half a day with each candidate working to get to know them better. We had a group discussion where other members of the museum staff could come mingle and ask questions and then a more formal interview with the core team. These were more conversation led with a few major points we wanted to make sure to hit along the way. These points could be items from the candidates resume or cover letter that we wanted more information on or from something in the first interview that we needed clarification on.

Hopefully these hints are helpful and best of luck on the job market!

NAPC Teacher’s Workshop in Digital Paleontology Resources

FOSSIL’s newsletter article: https://www.myfossil.org/digital-resources-in-paleontology-professional-development-workshop-napc2019/


 Jen and Adriane here – 

As part of the North American Paleontological Convention, there was a teacher workshop all about sharing digital resources in paleontology. This was hosted by the FOSSIL Project (which employs Jen) and iDigBio with many participating partners. We advertised the workshop about two months in advance and had a webpage with information for the applicants – we were targeting local California teachers. The primary goals were to (1) Raise awareness of resources available for teachers associated with digitized paleontological collections; (2) Connect teachers with a network of professionals, to help them develop and implement collections-based curricula; and (3) Increase confidence in teaching about global change and evolution using fossils.

Jen (front left) and Adriane (front right) teaching teachers about the wonderful world of foraminifera.

The day was structured in seven hour blocks. Each presenter had ~20-30 minutes to introduce the platform, provide background content, and explain the utility of the resource. This was then followed by a ~30 minute activity using the resource. We wanted the workshop to allow educators to immediately take content back to their classroom to employ but it’s always best to do a test run so the educators and facilitators can brainstorm modifications or limitations within their own classrooms. You can see a full agenda for the day by clicking here.

We were specifically involved with the presentation on the Digital Atlases of Ancient Life. When we were working on our MS degrees with Alycia Stigall we were both employed as an RA on this project for one year. Jon Hendricks led off our hour block with a presentation explaining the atlases that are available, the Digital Encyclopedia of Life (DEAL, a free online textbook), and the Virtual Teaching Collection. Alycia followed with a short presentation on Paleozoic life and assessing ancient ecosystems. And then we used the Virtual Teaching Collection to work to identify some of the major animal groups that were around during the Paleozoic. We helped facilitate the lesson and answered any questions the educators had. 

We also led our own presentation later on using myFOSSIL tools in the classroom. Sadie Mills led off with an overview of myFOSSIL and all of the capabilities of the website and mobile app. Adriane followed with a presentation on how foraminifera are the most awesome creatures to ever float on Earth. And then we walked through a lesson on using foraminifera as a tool to think about morphological shape and how they may have lived in different environments, and we provided other lessons for the teachers to think about forams as a tool for understanding climate change. 

Overall, the workshop was a huge success and the participants really learned a lot and got to have lots of in depth conversations with facilitators! All the materials from the workshop can be found on the myFOSSIL website.