Careers and Communication: My top 5 takeaways from the ComSciCon Conference 2014

Out of the classroom and into the field! Summer is all about learning in unexpected settings and in new ways.

ComSciCon, at the Microsoft NERD center in Cambridge, Mass.

ComSciCon, a science communication conference at the Microsoft NERD center in Cambridge, Mass.

Hi! I’m Amy– a grad student in Dr. Josh Drew’s research group here in Columbia’s E3B Department. My research focuses on the diversity of coral reef fish in the Indo-Pacific Ocean. I’m interested in how these fishes have evolved, and how they have migrated over generations to populate the reefs they now call home.

Lately I’ve also been thinking a lot about science communication– how do we as a community share our research with a broader audience to increase enthusiasm (and funding) for science? And moreover, for the 9 out of 10 graduates who won’t find a tenure track job in academia, how do we parlay our salmagundi of skills into employment?

The majority of the year, I’m right here in New York, tackling the beast known as thesis research, quietly repressing thoughts of my next career move. But summer is a special time. It frees up a few weeks to mix up the normal routine, get out of town, and pursue new ideas in far-flung locales.

So, spicing up my summer work regimen, I headed to exotic Cambridge Massachusetts last week for ComSciCon 2014 –a conference all about communicating science! Over four full days, 50 graduate students met for a series of workshops on the effective communication of science to non-scientist audiences.

This conference is centered on a series of interactive panels, where policy makers, journalists, and academic research scientists discuss the state of science communication today. Central questions included: How is science portrayed differently to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, or to the general public, than it is to graduate students or research scientists? How do scientists perceive STEM, and are we effectively communicating our vision to broader audiences?

While we talked about communicating science, we also talked about working in science. And after each panel, I schmoozed; I dug; I generally begged for advice. Here is what I found– my top 5 insights from ComSciCon 2014:

 A graduate degree is not a silver bullet

Duh. These days credentials aren’t enough– your experience, skill set, and network matter tremendously too (more on this in a moment). But for students in the STEM fields, that realization comes as a particularly painful slap in the face. We used to have it good, man– a grad degree once translated to relative job security– but alas, no more. Now, at best, 1 in 10 PhDs will find a tenured professorship, and unfortunately, there isn’t a textbook on the way forward for everyone else.


Outside of the ivory tower, career paths are numerous and decentralized. That well trodden pathway of PhD à post doc (or three) à assistant professor à tenure forever (!?) is actually quite unusual in it’s linear clarity.

A few universities are responding by creating graduate career counseling offices– previously unheard of in academia (Check out UC Berkeley’s Beyond Academia for one example). Resources for non-academic job placement are certainly growing as academic positions dwindle, but clearly outlined stepping stones to alternative careers are still a long way off.

 Networking is (almost) everything

So, there’s no silver bullet. Bummer.

But, after schmoozing ComSciCon panelists (ostensibly very successful people) around the hors d’oeuvres for four days straight, I did come away with one majorly helpful realization: the common denominator between all these employed people is a kickass network.

Panelists overwhelmingly cited networking and luck as the major factors that helped them get their start. And that makes sense doesn’t it? Graduate students are (for the most part) smart and driven. So what sets you apart in a sea of ambitious smarties, all looking for similar jobs? Leveraging a pre-established connection to someone on the inside, that’s what.

The beauty of a conference is the people you meet and the network you build.

That’s a great advantage of grad school too; the ability to attend conferences and workshops that would be unavailable to non-students allows us to build those critical connections now.

 Marketing Matters

IMG_0049Scientists need to stop hiding behind jargon, and learn to communicate science to non-scientists in interesting ways. That’s the whole message of ComSciCon! By and large the people attending this conference already know that.

But herein lies a dilemma. As journalist/ ComSciCon panelist Phil McKenna said, (and as panelist Dietram Scheufele subsequently tweeted), “If you lose the jargon, you lose precision; if you don’t, you lose the audience.”

Is that a real tradeoff? Do we have to sacrifice information quality to make science accessible? I don’t think so. Science communicators shouldn’t sacrifice intellect for buzz. So, especially when challenging technical content is involved, the way we sell science matters tremendously.

If we step out of our labs and communicate, but we do it on blogs that no one reads, or on esoteric sites only known to other scientists, we’re just preaching to the choir. To reach people who don’t traditionally seek out science news, we need to find a means of communicating that retains challenging technical concepts, but shares those ideas in engaging, accessible ways with many, many people.

Unfortunately, ComSciCon didn’t host a panel on the specifics of effective marketing. We established that broadly accessible science communication is important, but didn’t set out actionable next steps.

It’s a pitfall of conferences in general I’d say, that panels based on the exchange of good ideas don’t necessarily translate into actionable steps back home. Because speakers are addressing large and diverse audiences, they tend to focus on somewhat generalized ideas, rather than laying out a protocol to change the field (or the world).

As a biologist, I like protocols. That said, even the most distinguished conference speaker can’t tell you what to do, or how to live your life. So how do we make positive change then? We write. We communicate. We just start, and en masse, find our voices and share them. Lose the jargon (but don’t assume the reader is an idiot) and communicate your research wherever you can.

It’s a process.

Be prepared to struggle. Be prepared to fail. The development of a career is an organic process and takes a looooong time.

Panelists overwhelmingly cited grit, rather than credentials, as key to their success. The tenacity to keep working and failing had carried many through years of career flux and financial insecurity, while they built up the network and experience to land more stable, permanent positions.

UGH, right? The prospect of protracted struggle and failure isn’t pretty, and certainly won’t increase the appeal of STEM outside of academia.

In terms of reach though, it seems that science communicators themselves are accessing broader audiences than ever before. As more and more trained researchers leave the academy, a new crop of science communication outlets has emerged. From quarterly publications like Nautilus to weekly podcasts like Radiolab, science communicators have more fingers in the pie than ever before.

Hopefully this means that if we continue to work together on smaller projects in the short term, there will be more large-scale opportunities in the long term.

Invest in the hours of your life, not in the idea of what you want to become.

Don’t get me wrong– it’s important to have long-term goals. Treat them as the cardinal directions on which you set the compass of your life. But then, rather than asking, “What do I want to end up doing?” ask, “What do I want to try next?” and “How can I put myself in a position to do that?”


All photos A. McDermott

If you invest in the moment and pursue the things you can’t help doing, you’re apt to take the inevitable challenges in stride, and to keep pushing through those early knee scrapes.

Not everyone has the privilege to do what he or she loves (financial security be damned), but if you are one of the lucky few with the opportunity to chase a not-so-lucrative passion, capitalize on that luck. Use it to build a more scientifically literate society. Use it to increase interest in science. Use it to build the foundations of a more diverse future in STEM!

–Amy McDermott

Why Study Gut Microbes?

Why study gut microbes?  This is a question I am constantly addressed with while trying to explain my research interests.  My response?  Why not study gut microbes?!  The microbiome of living organisms has been termed the “forgotten organ”, with a collective metabolic activity equal to that of a virtual organ.  Gut microbes in particular are of crucial importance to their host, assisting in digestion of food matter, absorption of nutrients and development of a properly functioning immune system.  Studies estimate that the number of genes within the gastrointestinal microbiome is 100 times greater than that of the human genome. So, it comes as no surprise that scientists across multiple fields have been diving head first into the world of gut microbes, in hopes of better understanding everything from individual organisms to entire population structures.

My research focuses on immunomodulating gut bacteria, or groups of bacteria in the vertebrate gut that affect host immune homeostasis.  In particular, I am interested in a group of bacteria called segmented filamentous bacteria (SFB).  These tiny inhabitants of the intestines have amazing capabilities to directly influence the production of T helper cells that produce inflammatory cytokines in the body.  This is paramount in protecting the body from disease and infection.

But how does this relate back to conservation biology?  In order to effectively protect species, we must understand them at all levels, including the inner antics of their tiny commensal friends. These bacteria are heavily influenced by diet and environment, so it is assumed that in a changing world, the composition of the gut microbiota will change as well, ultimately affecting host health. Studying immunomodulating bacteria and what affects them, could give conservation biologists a more solid base for understanding the health status of species in a rapidly changing world. With the importance of gut microbes growing with every newly published study, it is clear that we must put increased focus on studying them through the lens of ecology and conservation.

Right now, I have two projects to investigate this unbelievably interesting stuff!  Dr. Pat Thomas (Vice President at the Bronx Zoo) and I have captured and transitioned wild house mice into captivity at the Bronx Zoo. Some of these mice are being fed a standard zoo diet, while others are being fed a diet more similar to what a house mouse would eat in the wild, varied by season.  The plan is for these mice to reproduce to produce multiple generations, mimicking the process that happens every day in captive facilities.  We will test for levels of SFB between the two diet treatments and over multiple generations.  The goal will be to investigate the effects of a captive diet on levels of SFB.  This information can hopefully provide zoos, (which are an increasingly important tool in the conservation toolkit) with information to better the health of their captive populations for future reintroductions. The second project focuses on mice in the wild.  I will be trapping wild white-footed mice from urban, suburban and rural field sites.  Levels of SFB will be compared between these populations to shed some light on how urbanization affects levels of SFB in wild populations of organisms.  These results could provide conservation biologists with information on how increased urbanization in the coming years may affect the health of species in the wild.

The bottom line is that there is much work to be done.  There are hundreds of distinct species present in the mammalian gastrointestinal tract with many specific functions crucial to their host.  Studying them could give us an astronomically enhanced understanding of how organisms function, and even how populations of organisms function.  So, in closing, that is why I study gut microbes! More to come from the field in the coming weeks!

-Erin Dimech

Prepping for Fiji Fieldwork

Prepping for the field!! Always an exciting, yet slightly stressful endeavor. I am a Master’s student in the Drew Lab, and will be spending 2 months in Fiji for fieldwork along with fellow MA student and friend Molly McCargar, and our amazing undergraduate student, Elora Lopez (who will be blogging in the field as well, at our undergrad research blog sister site, CUEBS). We’ve been preparing for this trip for what feels like ages, starting way back in January when we started putting together a symposium for a conference we’ll be attending in Fiji, began communicating with collaborators at University of the South Pacific, and started the whole process of getting permits and research visas. But when the semester finished in mid-May, the planning ramped up a million notches, and now we’re only 3 days away from heading off! Ah!! Are we prepared? Are we ready? Probably as much as we can be. As Kaggie showed us all earlier, you never know what is in store when you’re in the field – and cliché as it is, you always must expect the unexpected.

Testing out the 99 cent GoPro rig I made in California - it works! Doesn't float though...

Testing out the 99 cent GoPro rig I made – it works! Doesn’t float though…

I’m actually currently writing this in Columbia’s IT office, as I wait for all of eternity for a tech to troubleshoot our little field laptop – one of the many small but time-consuming tasks we’ve had to cross off our list to get ready for the field. Other to-do items have involved visiting police stations, printing and laminating colorful pictures of fish, and buying items like a mini liquid nitrogen dewar and pH/salinity meters. We’ve had to get medical clearance for our research permits and prep dive gear and field equipment, buy odds and ends for cameras and technical gear, and we’re all prepping our personal gear as well. And then there’s all the email correspondence with people in Fiji to make sure we have permission to collect samples in certain villages and get everything in order for some of the more remote sites we’ll be visiting, like the Lau and Yasawa island groups. Needless to say, it’s been a busy few weeks.

Field notebooks in bulk!! The best.

Field notebooks in bulk!! The best.

We have a couple more exciting things on our agenda in addition to fieldwork and sample collection – first, I will be teaching a week-long marine conservation course at USP with our principle investigator, Josh Drew, (which we named Fiji WISE) and second, our group will be leading a symposium and doing talks at the Society for Conservation Biology Oceania Section conference in early July (called SCBO 14 for short). We’ll be spending three weeks in Suva, Fiji’s capital, prepping for and running Fiji WISE, and meeting with various people before enjoying the conference. I’m really excited to meet up with our WCS Fiji contacts and the US Embassy peeps who are helping us run Fiji WISE, as well as doing a few talks at local high schools to maximize our outreach. We’ll also be working on a few manuscripts for publication, and I’ll be blogging and posting videos for people to follow along! (Shameless plug: if you’re on twitter, make sure to check out #CUintheField14!)

A visual of how much gear we schlep around while in the field

A visual of how much gear we schlep around while in the field

THEN after all the Suva business is over, the fieldwork begins! We’ll be visiting four locations around Fiji – Nagigi in Vanua Levu, Neselesele in Taveuni, Vanuabalavu in Lau, and Yasawa Island in the Yasawas. Four weeks of sample collection (which involves diving, spearfishing, sediment coring, gut dissections, and interacting with fisherpeople – so stoked!) and then we’ll be back in Suva to obtain permits and pack everything up before heading back to the States! Phew. It’s going to be amazing.

Map of our sampling sites! (ignore the lowest dot in Kadavu, we had to remove that one in March)

Map of our sampling sites! (ignore the lowest dot in Kadavu, we had to remove that one in March)

The Lau island group, aka literal paradise.

The Lau island group, aka literal paradise.

Stay tuned for more updates from Molly and I in Fiji, and from the rest of our cohort as well!

What is soil and why does it matter?

I love soils, and all the animals that live in and on top of it. I spent most of my undergraduate work focusing on soil ecology and working both in the lab and in the field on projects related to arthropods, earthworms, and soils in forests and urban areas. This summer I am working at Black Rock Forest located in Cornwall, New York, an amazing research and teaching forest, where I will be collecting soils and the arthropods and assessing the effects of forest disturbances on these soil-dwelling animal communities. Before I describe my research project, I want to share why soil is so important, though it is often undervalued and under-appreciated.

IMG_3381Photo: Black Rock Forest, October 2013

Soil sustains life on Earth. People often take for granted that soil exists beneath their feet. Soil is not only important for healthy forests and crops but they provides habitat for a huge variety of organisms. Let’s say you walk into a forest or a garden or a field and scoop up a handful of dirt. What would you find? At first, you would probably just think you had simple handful of uninteresting material that just help prop up plants and trees. In reality, you have a complex mixture of chemical compounds and animals that make up one of the most important mediums in an ecosystem.

The soil you are holding has been in the making for a long time. Soil does not just appear. Over time, based on the parent material, which is the rock type you start out with on your landscape, the climate acts on the soil: rain and wind changes the chemistry of the rock. The scientific processes that describe the changes from rock to soil are called leaching and weathering. These processes alter the chemistry of the rock so that the compounds from the rock, mixed with the organic compounds from the surface, turn into what we recognize as soil.

When you reached down and grabbed your handful of soil, it was most likely exposed and easy to pick up. Because soils are directly in contact with the air, there are many exchanges between soil and atmosphere. Plants take in carbon dioxide (CO2) during photosynthesis and use the carbon to live. When a plant dies, the carbon in that plant is recycled into the soil and through complex chemical reactions, soil releases that carbon into the atmosphere. Most people are familiar with carbon because of carbon dioxide and its emissions in the atmosphere contributing to human-caused global climate change. In fact, CO2 emissions from soil are the greatest contributor to atmospheric COHowever, it’s important to remember that soils are a natural source of CO2, as opposed to the many anthropogenic sources.

IMG_3377Photo: Black Rock Forest, October 2013

What else is in the soil in your hand? You’ve likely picked up a living organism or two that you can easily identify, like an ant or an earthworm. You might assume that’s all that’s living in your hand. Most of these organisms are small, like little mites or springtails about a millimeter in size or even smaller on the microscopic scale, like a fungus or bacteria. Soil is one of the most important habitats for a wide variety of organisms from burrowing mammals to crawling arthropods to basically invisible microorganisms. All organisms in the soil not only transform their soil habitat by creating holes or burrows through which water can flow but they also provide services for each other. For example, certain organisms eat dead plant material and by eating this dead material, they change the form of the material – what we would call nutrients – so that new growing plants can take that transformed material and use them to grow. This is called nutrient recycling. By maintaining this natural nutrient recycling process, soils can continue to supply nutrients to plants and animals.

hypvia01Photo: Collembola or springtail, only a few millimeters in size from

When you think less about biology and ecology and more about sustainability and agriculture, soils become arguably even more important. The biological health of soils is tightly linked to social and economic issues today. Something that people often forget is that soils are the medium in which we grow many of our crops. Food production depends heavily on soils and the nutrients in them, referred to as soil fertility, which is why we care so much about fertilizers and the general chemical composition of soils. Current threats to soils include degradation, erosion, and contamination. As discussed previously, soils taken many hundreds of years to develop and current practices are not favorable for maintaining healthy soils.

The scoop of soil you originally picked up should now appear to be a complex assortment of different elements and organisms. This medium is the keystone of most forests, agricultural land and habitats. All of the complex processes in soil provide numerous services and contribute to global biodiversity. Recognizing what soil is and what how incredible it is will help to prevent further damage to this indispensable resource.


-Natalie Bray

The Truth About Fieldwork

Fieldwork is about how well you can adapt. If you can’t adapt, can’t make plans on the fly, have no creativity and a quick temper you’ll never make it in fieldwork. And that is because fieldwork is never what you expect it to be. Even if you already know your field site well anything can happen out in the field and you always have to be on your toes. An example, you ask? Well the perfect one happened on base a mere few days ago.

            With some of the newly arrived volunteers gone for a day in town, Brie, a GVI staff member, and I were changing a gas bottle for the fridges. We requested some of the older volunteers to take the empty gas tank over to the garage and bring a new one over. A few minutes later we hear one of them shout “Yo…. Fire!” (to give him a little credit, he did have a slight panic in his voice). Looking over towards the generator we saw high flames pouring out of the window. Now, I also understand that people exaggerate. Especially people who want a good story. I definitely have been known to do this before. However, in this instance, no exaggeration is needed. Flames were pouring out the window. Now, unless you are a trained fire fighter, nothing really prepares you for that moment, aka, what the HELL are you going to do with high flames pouring out of the generator room, which is full of diesel and oil covering the floors? In an act of pure stupidity or bravery (I like to think the latter, but I know it was the former), I quickly grabbed the nearest fire extinguisher and ran straight into the generator room. Having spent hours of my childhood staring at fire extinguishers dreaming of yanking out the pin and spraying the extinguisher fumes everywhere just for the hell of it, I knew the general idea of what I needed to do, even if I never had needed to actually use one (I strongly urge for all of you to look at your own fire extinguisher and do the same, it does make a difference if you’re in an emergency). Keeping the volunteers at a safe distance away from the flames and building, we used 7 entire fire extinguishers to kill the fire. That’s right, 7. If you still thought I was exaggerating about how big the flames were, now you know. 


           Image Image


So after that whole saga you would think that everyone would be done for the day. Or at least the vehicles and machinery would give us a break. Unfortunately, not to be out done by the generator, on of the bakkies on drive started smoking and burnt the battery wire. With minimal staff on base, and minimal functioning vehicles, Melanie and I delivered a new bakkie for Brie to continue on her drive while we waited with the broken/burnt bakkie for another vehicle to tow us back. By the time we have gotten the bakkie out of the dip and towing back to base the sun was setting. It’s frustrating when you get pushed back an entire day just because of things no one can control, however that sunset, like every sunset in Africa, just makes it completely worth it. And I think that is what I love most about fieldwork and being out in the bush. Every day is completely unexpected. You don’t know where the animals are going to move, you don’t know how they are going to react, you don’t know if your vehicle will get stuck or not… and you don’t know if your generator will explode randomly. But that’s good. It keeps you on your toes and forces you to constantly make plan A’s, B’s, C’s etc. A skillset that everyone should have.

And lets be honest, no one would love fieldwork if it was boring…


(photos are of the presumed source of where the fire started, the seven fire extinguishers we used, and the aftermath of the generator room after being sprayed by fire retardant chemicals!)

—Kaggie Orrick, Masters candidiate, posted from South Africa

Did You Know?

Fun Facts about South African Animals by Kaggie Orrick

Did you know that porcupines can stay afloat in water because their quills keep them buoyant?

Did you know a rhinos horn is actually made of keratin, which also makes up your fingernails and hooves of cattle?

Did you know that a leopards tail is rounded while a cheetahs tail is flattened so it can act as a rudder and keep it balanced while is sprints?

Did you know elephants can communicate from kilometers away by feeling the vibrations through the ground? They can also hear each other from up to 8 kilometers away via trumpeting. 

Did you know that a type of amphibian called an African plantanna can tell you if your pregnant or not? (a dose of a pregnant womans pee will cause the female plantanna to lay eggs within 8 to 12 hours…)

Did you know you can tell the difference between a cat track and a dog track by counting the number of lobes on the back of the pad (dogs have two, cats have three: I would show you all a picture however my internet is too slow for photos at the moment!)



More fun facts and interesting information about my research to come!