Learning by Teaching

13. January 2014

Takayuki Umakoshi

The people in my family are not very familiar with science. I sometimes wish that I could discuss my work with them, but it is not easy to explain my research to people without a scientific background. This is just one of the many instances in which we as scientists need to communicate our work to people without extensive scientific knowledge. Communication skills are crucial to your success—for example, when applying for government funding for your research. Even if you get tremendous results, they won’t have an impact if you cannot explain them properly and make their significance understood.

Engaging children with science
My OSA/SPIE student chapter at Osaka University, Japan, recently held an outreach activity called “Super HIKARIJUKU.” During this annual event, we invite about 50 elementary school students to our campus and showed them how fascinating science can be through optics-related experiments. This year I served as a student chair, and the event was very successful. The kids had a great time and learned a lot about light. After helping to organize the event, I realized that discussing science with children taught me some important lessons about how to communicate scientific topics with non-scientific people.

Communicating successfully
In order to get our message across to the students, we had to do a lot of research. We asked parents and teachers what the children already knew, so we were aware of their level of scientific knowledge. We also found out about the latest popular cartoon characters, so that we could use fun images and concepts that children already recognize and enjoy to engage them even further. Practicing and testing our demonstrations was also very important—we showed the experiments to non-scientific people so that they could give us advice on the best way to make ourselves understood and to get kids excited about the subject matter. It took quite a bit of planning and effort, but we ended up with a really good set of experiments. Our thoughtful, hands-on demonstrations allowed us to explain complex concepts to children who might not have understood them otherwise.

Applying these skills
The communication skills that we learned by working with children are also applicable to adults outside of our very specific fields. I discovered that you need to be able to break down complicated ideas into simple, understandable pieces so that they can be useful to a wider audience. Think about what language will be most comprehensible and interesting to your listeners. Where possible, hands-on demonstrations are extremely helpful and can make seemingly abstract concepts much more engaging. If you are capable of making your research easier to understand, then it will be much easier to communicate its importance. Through my work with OSA, I realized that outreach activities like these are not only informational for our audiences, but also teach us how to communicate effectively. Teaching is learning.
 
Takayuki Umakoshi (umakoshi@ap.eng.osaka-u.ac.jp) is a Ph.D. student at Osaka University, Japan, and president of the Osaka University OSA/SPIE student chapter. For more information, please check out his website: https://sites.google.com/site/takayukiumakoshiwebsites/.

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Industry Postdoc to Physics Professor: Insights from David Grier

13. February 2013

OSA member David Grier talks with Optics & Photonics News about his path to academia—from aspiring historian at Harvard to the chair of NYU’s physics department and Center for Soft Matter Research. Thanks to OSA member Brooke Hester for working with David to gather his insights.

OPN: What was your background prior to becoming a professor?

David: I started college at Harvard assuming that I'd be a historian. Through an advising mishap, I signed up for organic chemistry and multivariable calculus in my freshman year. That was fortuitous because I discovered that I really wanted to be a scientist. I switched to chemistry in my junior year, but then came to realize that I was best suited for physics. Fortunately, the college allowed me to change concentrations yet again.

After Harvard, I went to graduate school in physics at the University of Michigan. I had no real sense of what I wanted to do beyond knowing that I would be an experimentalist. Luckily, I found myself in one of the hot-beds of soft-condensed matter physics in the days before the field even had a name. I liked the people in the field and their style of work, so that set the course for my studies. Because soft-matter was such a new area, the experiments I worked on involved new and unusual techniques. For instance, I was in the first generation of graduate students to be trained in digital image analysis. Having an unusual portfolio of skills probably explains my good fortune in landing a postdoc at AT&T Bell Labs.

OPN: How did you enter academia?

David: I was invited to give a talk at the University of Chicago just as my postdoc was winding up, and I was offered an appointment as an assistant professor not long after. I jumped at the chance even though the move from industry to academia meant a very steep pay cut. After a dozen happy years rising through the ranks at Chicago, I was enticed to New York University by the prospect of helping to start the Center for Soft Matter Research (CSMR). I arrived at NYU as a full professor in 2004 and was appointed chair of the department of physics in 2005. NYU made it possible for me and my colleagues to build the CSMR into a research consortium that bridges physics, optics, chemistry, biology and several branches of engineering. 

OPN: What are your current responsibilities?

David: My work week is exceptionally busy. I typically teach one lecture course per term, which takes about 15 hours per week. Teaching used to take longer, but experience helps. I spend between 30 and 40 hours per week on research. That includes working with my students in the lab, analyzing data, writing papers and drafting grant proposals. I also do my fair share of refereeing and spend one day per month on educational outreach.

Not all of my research is done at work. I do a lot of writing at home late at night or early in the morning when my family is asleep. Finally, I have to do a lot of administrative work as chair of the department. The key consideration here is to recruit and retain an excellent staff and to work closely with them to prevent minor issues from developing into major problems. Similarly, forming good faculty committees and providing them with useful oversight ensures that the academic side of the department runs smoothly.

OPN: What advice would you give to others looking to break into academia?

David: Be enthusiastic and articulate. It is also crucial to write quickly and persuasively, since any academic job involves a lot of writing. Successful faculty candidates stand out to search committees because they convey the importance and excitement of their research to people who are not specialists in their field.

However, those characteristics will only get an applicant's foot in the door. To land a job, it is essential to have made progress on an interesting and important problem, to convince other people that your advances are substantial, and to demonstrate unambiguously that you were responsible for the results. It is equally critical to have exciting plans for the future and to communicate them effectively.

During an interview, listen closely to what others say about their own research. Ask questions. Figure out how their work might relate to yours. Make connections. Give your future colleagues lots of reasons to want you around.

The first years in a new faculty position can be daunting. On top of getting everything done, it's exceedingly important to balance research and work with personal life, which for many people means family life. I try to put family at (or at least very near) the top of my list. That means I pay close attention to how I budget my time. Time, it turns out, is your most precious resource.

David Grier (david.grier@nyu.edu) is a professor and chair of the department of physics at New York University. After a postdoc appointment at AT&T Bell Labs, he joined the faculty of Physics at the University of Chicago, where he was a member of the James Franck Institute and Institute for Biophysical Dynamics. Grier moved to NYU in 2004 as a founding member of the Center for Soft Matter Research. 

 

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Lessons from a Faculty Search

9. January 2013

David McGloin

This post is reproduced from the blog Dundee Physics with the kind permission of the author.

When my department was hiring for a life sciences-related position this past fall, I was on a search and selection committee for the first time. It’s an interesting and tough process, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on how we went about assessing our applicants in the hope that other job seekers can benefit from my insight. We cast a wide net and ended up with a large number of very high quality candidates. It was a tough choice–so how did we decide?

Fit to specification: My first piece of advice is to make sure that your cover letter, CV and research statement clearly communicate how you fit the specific position advertised. While our call wasn’t restricted to those working in a certain topic area, applicants still needed to state how their work aligned itself to the life sciences. Writing that you were “really interested in biology” wasn’t going to cut it, and for some really strong physical sciences applicants, this is where they fell down. We wanted to see at least some evidence of how the applicant’s work had been applied to biophysics research or how it might be applied in our department (and not just generically).

Experience: Your experience to date matters a lot – it shows the trajectory that you are on, what kind of thinker you are and what you might be capable of. The areas you have worked on, your general productivity and the papers you have produced make a big difference. However, the reality is that this is only part of the package. You might have been unlucky in where you have worked, or the projects you were assigned may not have gone according to plan. We recognize this. When your papers and background are a little lacking, then your research statement becomes even more important.

Research Statement: So you want to come and work with us, but what exactly are you planning to do? Your research statement should outline a coherent program of work and describe an interesting project in an innovative way. Incremental changes are not as persuasive as plans on a larger scale. However, you also have to be realistic, and this is where the challenge lies: to outline something of grand ambition in such a way that we can believe you will be able to deliver. In my mind this is perhaps the most important section: It gives you the opportunity to showcase your talent regardless of what you have achieved.

Metrics:  Does your h-index matter? Your publication count? Number of citations? Where you publish? In modern academia, these things are very significant, probably much more than they should be. The wide variety of postdoc positions that people have means you can’t always compare such factors in any meaningful way. One of my colleagues thought that postdocs should produce at least one decent paper per year. We used this as a general standard, but not a hard-and-fast rule. We did consider numbers of citations, but only as one factor to help us get a sense of the value of the papers published. Ultimately, I think the panel paid more attention to where papers were published over other numbers, but we really tried to look at the whole picture rather than just one metric. We put more emphasis on the applicant’s research ideas and his or her potential to deliver than pure numbers.

Interview: You might make a good impression on paper, but you also have to talk the talk. We decided on a full day visit for each interviewee, so the candidates got to speak to a range of people across the university. We asked them to think specifically about which faculty members they might like to converse with, in order to push them to think about why exactly they wanted to work with us. They were also asked to give a talk. All this information gave the interview panel a rounder picture of each applicant.

Ultimately, we hired someone with great potential, who we believe will take on big challenges. We were looking for—and found—a person who is a good colleague, who fits in with the department and who interacts well with undergraduates. I hope you find a similar good fit in whatever position you seek!

David McGloin (d.mcgloin@dundee.ac.uk) is head of the division of physics and a senior lecturer at the University of Dundee, Scotland.

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What They Don’t Teach You in Graduate School

3. January 2013

Arti Agrawal   

I learned a lot in graduate school: science, research, patience, and technical writing skills, among many other things. So when I took my first position as a lecturer, I thought that my grad school training and subsequent experience as a post-doc had prepared me for professional life as an academic.

Boy, was I wrong!  Many skills that I need in my current job were not taught in school, and sometimes I am blindsided when professional life rudely makes demands on me that weren’t part of my carefully scripted student career. Below are some abilities that I have learned in the workplace.

Persuading and negotiating with people: I must often deal with people in positions of authority to obtain necessities like lab space or funds for equipment, conferences, training courses, or publishing in open access journals. There are limited resources, and the people holding the purse strings are besieged with demands from many others like us, so it’s important to know how to get what you need. Start by prioritizing your wish list into must-have, nice-to-have, and don’t-need-right-now items so that you can focus your energy and efforts accordingly.

Developing good work relationships: You will interact with colleagues, students, peers, superiors, suppliers, vendors and administrative staff, and it can be difficult to maintain these relationships successfully. As a typical geek, I had no idea how to manage working relationships, especially with people who were very different from me. Sometimes taking personality tests like the Meyers-Briggs can help you to better understand yourself and others. You can also get a head start on cultivating working relationships by taking on volunteer leadership opportunities such as organizing an IONS conference  or leading a student chapter—or simply networking within a professional society.

Managing my lab: When I began hiring people, I suddenly needed to understand legal requirements for equality and diversity, health and safety, and risk assessment. I also had to determine how to evaluate my staff. You can find much information online about hiring laws in your area, and my recent OPN article on “Learning to Teach” includes some ideas on how to think through student assessment.

Balancing more than one demanding job: As a post-doc, I would work on several research projects at once and even throw in a bit of teaching on the side—which felt overwhelming enough. But now added to the mix were administrative work, department meetings, lab management, securing funding, reviewing papers and supervising post-docs. Learning how to organize and prioritize is critical.

Saying no without offending: I find it hard to say no to people, and, as a result, I often take on more than I can handle. Although it can sometimes be difficult, it’s important to learn how to deal with such situations and say no without causing hurt or offense. Just be friendly but assertive about what you can and cannot realistically do. You must be able to set healthy boundaries in order to succeed in any relationship, whether personal or professional.

Indeed, these skills are not confined to any single profession–we need them in every sphere of life. Although they may not be part of any formal curriculum, you can learn them through experience and practice. Good luck!

Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com.

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Learning to Teach

16. November 2012

Arti Agarwal

As a young academic focused predominantly on research, I felt conflicted when I was asked to lecture at my university. I was nervous about teaching for the first time and concerned about the amount of time and work required but also excited about the opportunity to impact students.

When I actually got into the classroom, I found that it was every bit as difficult as I had expected.

For those of us who are not natural teachers, the idea of facing a few hundred students, waiting like hungry lions to devour our fearful attempts at introducing discrete Fourier transform, is not an enticing prospect. However, in spite of its challenges, teaching is an integral part of an academic career. Every academic could benefit from learning how to do it well.

Fortunately, there is help out there. Here are a few ways that you can learn how to be a better, more effective teacher:

Take courses. Many universities offer classes on various aspects of teaching: theories of learning and teaching in higher education, curriculum development, assessment, teaching techniques, etc.  These courses can be very helpful for new teachers, so take advantage of them.

Find relevant workshops. I participated in a two-day teaching workshop focused on designing classes, including preparing slides, hand outs, and assignments. We practiced giving lectures that were video recorded and played back to us. Watching ourselves on tape allowed us to see how we appeared to students. Did we talk too quickly or too quietly? Was our writing legible on the blackboard? Did we fidget or appear nervous? Seeing these kinds of errors helps you to correct them.

Look to professional societies. Many professional groups and technical societies also have teaching resources for educators. Usually they will be subject-specific, and thus can be a great place to find material, teaching tips and activities for your particular area.

Seek advice from teaching experts. You can also find support from people who specialize in the study of teaching and learning. Input from these sources can be very helpful in engaging students For example, I recently had a group of students who were not solving tutorial problems. No amount of exhortation on my part could convince them to do the assignments. I was getting increasingly frustrated, so I went to the Learning Development Centre at my university and asked for their advice. They suggested that I divide the class into groups, and assign a question to each one. They would have to solve their problem on the board in front of the rest of the class, and then prepare a new question for the other groups to tackle. The most challenging question won. Peer pressure and healthy competition provided the motivation necessary to get my students excited about their work.

Even if you don’t feel that teaching comes naturally to you, you can learn techniques to help you be a more competent and comfortable teacher. It takes a lot of hard work and practice, but the rewards are worth it in the end. There is no better feeling than when a class goes well and you know that your students are truly learning and benefitting from your efforts.

Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London in the Department of Electrical, Electronic and Information Engineering, School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com.

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