Benefits to Being a TA

When I was first looking into graduate school programs, I was attempting to avoid having to teach at all costs. However life, and especially research funding, does not always work out as planned. I’ve been a TA now for several years and have to say teaching has greatly enhanced my graduate school experience. Yes, it does take a lot of time away from doing your actual thesis research, but it does develop many valuable skills. I’ve noted a few:

1) Public Speaking – Lecturing on a new topic every week that you may or may not be very familiar with. Being able to stand up in front of a group and deliver content in an engaging way takes a lot of practice. Undergrads make good test subjects since they are stuck listening to you.

2) Time Management – You have to balance your own course work, teaching responsibilities, and research. Throughout the rest of your life you are going to have multiple projects and deadlines that have to get done.

3) Really learning a topic- People always say you never really know something until you have to teach it to someone else. My understanding of microbiology has greatly improved since you never know what questions the undergrads might ask.

These are just a few of the many skills I feel I’ve honed during my time as a TA. Plus, after you teach a course a couple of times you become an expert, and it is nice to have something each week that you know you excel at as a feel good boost.

Identity, Goals, and Diversity in Interdisciplinary Research

While I was an undergraduate physics major, my interests and research experiences were quite clearly of the pure physics variety: particle physics, cosmology, astrophysics.  There was never any question about my scientific identity or goals — I was unambiguously a “physicist,” and with that label implicitly came values about what I was supposed to study and how.

When I began graduate school, however, I found a new interest: biophysics, an interdisciplinary science if there ever was one.  While Rutgers has many physics Ph.D. students and faculty studying problems in biophysics and quantitative biology, I couldn’t help but suffer a bit of an identity crisis, albeit one more professional than adolescent in nature (not so much “Who am I?” but rather “What kind of job will I be able to get?”).  This seemed exacerbated by my specific research, which focuses on evolution; while physical analogies abound within the mathematical models, the phenomenon itself is plainly biological.  So when describing my work to others, I had to wonder: am I still a physicist?  Or am I a biologist?  Am I some type of hybrid, i.e., a biophysicist, and if so, what does that really mean?

Over time, though, I’ve come to believe what defines our identities as scientists is not so much what we study but how we study it.  More precisely, it is not the questions we ask but the kinds of answers we seek that are important in defining this identity.  Many different types of scientists (biologists, chemists, physicists, etc.) in a field like biophysics are basically studying the same problems — gene regulation, biochemical kinetics, protein folding, etc. — but their actual work may look completely different from each other’s on paper.  A good example is given by protein folding, the famous problem of understanding how a chain of amino acid molecules making up a protein folds relatively quickly into a unique 3D conformation (Ref. 1).  To a structural biologist or a bioinformatician, so-called homology-based methods provide an adequate solution.  These methods predict unknown structures of proteins using large databases of known structures and statistical algorithms.  To a physicist, however, this is not really a solution at all — it is a practical tool to make predictions, but it offers no insight into the fundamental physical principles underlying how the folding process occurs.

This issue has real consequences for a discipline, beyond just a little angst for students.  Despite all the good intentions of funding agencies, journals, and institutions toward cultivating interdisciplinary research, they run into problems when geneticists are evaluating physicists’ proposals by genetics standards or when mathematicians are evaluating biologists by mathematics standards.  As demonstrated by the example of protein folding, scientists can have genuine disagreements about whether a problem is even solved.  An interdisciplinary field must be aware of these different values and should openly discuss how to make different scientists’ goals and styles complementary for the sake of scientific progress.  Indeed, interdisciplinary research has tremendous power to meet the daunting challenges of the 21st century, but only when effective communication and collaboration exist to take advantage of it.

[1]  Dill KA, et al.  (2007)  “The protein folding problem: when will it be solved?”  Curr. Opin. Struct. Biol. 17:342-346.

TEDxRutgers 2012

Vukosi Marivate

TEDxRutgers 2012 has come and gone (Website). I thought I should put my thoughts up about the event. I was one of the organizers of this and last year’s event. I take events like these as great opportunities to get to know and work with other students around the university. There are always so many things going on at Rutgers on any given day during the semester. Just check the GetInvolved website for the very long list.

Given this great number of things to do, students have a large variety of activities to choose from. My advice is to actually choose something and go with it instead of being overwhelmed by choice. The experience, outside my day to day research, is refreshing and rewarding. You get to meet new people who are not in your discipline, share ideas and potential collaborations in things you had never thought of before.

TEDxRutgers was, for me, one of those rewarding experiences. I started off in 2010 just as an attendee at the first one. The event was and still is run mostly but our great undergraduate students but I saw an opportunity to bring in some of my experience and joined the team as an organizer in 2012. The speakers in 2012 were from diverse backgrounds from in, around and outside the university. You can read more about the speakers here. We had students, faculty and performers.

My main responsibility was management of the website as well as all of the social media. I have a large interest in social media, especially as it pertains to mining data. Aside: Always be on the lookout for the opportunity to attend some of the Network Science/Social Media seminars/talks hosted at the Department of Computer Science or School of Communication. We had a great campaign for the event. Growing the Facebook page to 600 fans and having a reach (potential people who saw our posts on Facebook) of close to 15,000. Twitter was even better with a reach of close to 32,000 people. Below is a snapshot of the traffic generated on Twitter on the day of the event.

TEDxRutgers 2012 Twitter Reach
Uploaded with Skitch!

The only thing I think is heavily missing from the events is more participation of graduate students. Not only as organizers but also as attendees. It really is just a day out of the year but I believe we as grad students have so much to offer given our diverse experiences and the fields we work in.

Impressions of New Jersey

I thought I would make my first contribution to the blog some thoughts about what everyone at Rutgers seems to have an opinion on: New Jersey. One of the most stigmatized states, you’ll get different responses when you ask someone what they think of the Garden State. Stereotypes abound, from MTV’s unfortunate Jersey Shore to HBO’s The Sopranos. But what is actually there in the space between New York City and Philadelphia? The truth, unsurprisingly, is significantly more subtle.

For most of my life, New Jersey was a myth. There’s nothing intrinsic about New Jersey that caused this. Its just that I grew up in California. For me, the entire eastern coast was a legendary place, populated with Yankees, Knicks, Mafiosos, skyscrapers, boroughs, and sunrises over the water. I was 25 when I made my first trip past the Mississippi to visit my girlfriend’s family up in Connecticut. The closest I got to New Jersey was a day trip down to New York City for what turned out to be a rain-soaked whirlwind tour of Manhattan. I didn’t have any plans on coming back until we were both accepted to graduate school, me to Rutgers Geography and her to the School of Social Work at Columbia. We packed up our lives in Seattle, stuffed the cats into the back seat, and drove ourselves across the country. It was only the second time I had ever been east of Colorado. I was heading back to a mythic land. This time, to stay.

I’ve been here for five years now, and it will be six years before I leave Rutgers. In that time I’ve had some thoughts about New Jersey. Most importantly, I am compelled to point out that New Jersey does not smell. Parts of New Jersey smell, just like parts of every other state smell. If you get away from the cities and the major freeways, you’ll find the New Jersey that nobody ever sees. It shouldn’t be a surprise with a name like the Garden State, but there are still beautiful agricultural pastures in New Jersey. Just take the time to get away from the sprawl and you won’t be disappointed.

To be continued…

GradFund, or, How to Stop Worrying and Start Writing Grant Proposals

Well, it’s finally gotten to that point in the semester. I think you know what I’m talking about (especially if you’re in the humanities): class presentations, expeditions to the library to secure any last minute arrivals from E-Z Borrow, and that final push to finish off seminar papers.

Before I hole myself up in my apartment and get to writing, I wanted to give a quick plug for Grad Fund Rutgers’s incredible (and free!) resource center for graduate students seeking external support. Not only do they run workshops to help you become a better grant writer, they also maintain a vast database of fellowship and grant-offering organizations to help you find the right one for you at each stage of your research. Did I mention they offer free one-on-one sessions with  knowledgeable fellowship advisors to review your proposal drafts?

What’s more (yes, it keeps getting better!), each summer they run a Graduate and Postdoctoral Mentoring Program which provides incoming and current students the structure and support to go from identifying a “funder” to completing a proposal before Fall deadlines.

I participated last summer, even before setting foot on Rutgers, and through constant feedback and practical advice, GradFund provided me with the information and guidance I needed to make my application as competitive as possible. While I didn’t get the fellowship this time around, the process of applying gave me a chance to build rewarding relationships with faculty members who continue to offer support and encouragement. I feel so much more confident in my grant writing skills and got a great head start on refining my dissertation project.

Not every school has an office devoted to helping graduate students win fellowships, so I encourage you to take advantage of this real gem at Rutgers.

OK, back to those papers!

Feet in (At Least) Two Worlds

Every discipline has its subfields…and subfields of subfields. This is very much the case in Anthropology where the Cultural (and Linguistic) wing is a completely different world from the Physical (and Archaeological) wing. Of course there is a shared history, but they have diverged considerably over the years. In a tiny (reductionist) nutshell, the cultural wing focuses on understanding modern humans through the lens of culture, whereas the physical wing emphasizes biological features of modern humans and our ancient ancestors, such as the study of human origins. But I come from a four-field Anthropology background. “Four-field” means that I took courses in all of the aforementioned subfields, especially Cultural and Physical, and I always get a little thrill upon finding intersections where culture meets biology, such as in Medical Anthropology.

This appreciation for both the Physical and the Cultural has recently come to the forefront of my academic studies. Up until last fall, I studied the hominin fossil record. After about a year of hair-pulling and soul-searching I made the decision to switch my dissertation topic in my fourth year to the study of how we teach evolutionary theory. This switch means that now I will do my dissertation with real, live people! No more fossils for me (though I hope to visit them now and then). I am diving headlong into the world of interviews, surveys, and participant observation. Yet I am still grounded in evolutionary theory since that is my topic. This puts me in a rather unusual situation. I am still in the Physical Anthropology wing of my department, but I am also a little bit in the Cultural wing. In fact I will have committee members from both wings. As my advisor said, I’m a hybrid.

What will this mean once I finish? It could place me in a kind of disciplinary limbo, but I am choosing to look at it differently. Instead of focusing exclusively on tenure track positions, I will look beyond academia, whether it is in the realm of curriculum consulting, policy-making, or creating educational materials. The point is that taking this risk was worth every moment of anguish and anxiety leading up to the moment when I told my advisor what I wanted to do. He and others in both wings of my department have been incredibly supportive. Most importantly, what I am doing now is something that I will always be passionate about.

Lesson learned? While a big dissertation change can have its logistical drawbacks, if it will enable you to do what you love, don’t be afraid to switch direction even when you are halfway done! Graduate school is extremely challenging…emotionally, intellectually, and even physically. It’s only worth the immense effort if you are doing something that will drive you beyond the completion of that coveted PhD.

Media Mouthfeel

Who am I? I thought I dispensed with such philosophical wormholes after the teenage angst years. My first year as a doctoral student at Rutgers has proved me wrong. Although the angst has mellowed now in my late 30s, I still dread the ubiquitous wine and cheese filled inquisitions about my research interests. I will confess to a degree of envy when my colleagues in other disciplines succinctly explain what they study. Math, in particular, tends to shut people up. The study of media on the other hand sparks loads of questions. Everyone has opinions about it. For those who embrace the postmodern world (I myself am suspicious of the adjective), everything is a text filled with gaps available to be read, even the cheese cube in your hand. I actually like this everyday quality of media, yet it encourages my “shiny object syndrome”—my habit of knowing a little about a lot, a kind of epistemology of distraction. This mindset seems antithetical to the scholar, the learned one able to pontificate on the political economy of toothpicks.

So I must focus at least in time for my qualifying exam circa the start of my third year. I have roughly 6 courses left of my traditional student life. Scarcity breeds abject terror. As a 16th grader, the paranoia of making them count looms large. I also have the awesome opportunity to take two courses outside of Rutgers through the research consortium. I need a plan, yesterday.

Of course, I have talked to my advisors. They are ever so patient with me. I tend to ask enormous questions such as “What makes media more or less democratic?” I get cranky thinking about techno-evangelists, those who have Internet technology saving the planet, as if cyberspace were free of race, class and gender. Would we even want such a place if it were possible? This is why I like science fiction novels. Maybe I should have chosen English. Disciplines are mere fabrications, artifacts of university politics. Do you see why my professors are so patient with me?

If you pass me the pinot noir, I will tell you that I want my research in media studies to convey hope—hope for our global liberty expressed locally. I told a colleague that this was a corny idea. She disagreed, suggesting that theory leads to anger (at the disconnects?), which eventually gives way to a longing for hope. This has a truthy ring to it, one that harmonizes with my conviction that culture is what we make it; culture is essential to freedom. Media are cultural channels, spaces carved out with rich striations and sediments for study–cultural terroirs. I tend to focus on who made the channel, when, where, why and how. Media production is my bailiwick, and I am developing a fondness for ethnography—minus the transcription part. My kind of work is open to interpretation. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Spring Break as Conference Prep Time

When I was an undergrad, Spring Break meant a whole week to do absolutely nothing. Some years that meant traveling to a warmer locale with friends, others were of the “staycation” variety, but in both cases Rest and Relaxation were the name of the game. 

As a graduate student, things are a little different. This year, Spring Break meant a week of not needing to commute to New Brunswick from New York City, catching up on episodes of The Walking Dead, and starting the research process for end-of-semester seminar papers. Mostly, though, I spent this week putting the final touches on a paper I will be presenting at the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) conference at the end of March. 

As the name suggests, the ACLA is the national organization for scholars doing comparative work in the humanities, and the director of Comparative Literature here at Rutgers encouraged us graduate students to apply. This year’s theme is “Collapse/Catastrophe/Change,” and so I dusted off a seminar paper from a few semesters back and jumped at the chance to put myself out there and see if something stuck. And it did! I’ll be presenting a paper on two unconventional war movies: Ari Folman’s animated documentary Waltz with Bashir and Katherine Bigelow’s independent film The Hurt Locker (both great, highly recommended). This will be my third conference presentation, and while I still have much to learn, I thought I would share some of things I know now but wished I’d known earlier about applying to and presenting at conferences.

What is a conference? A conference in the humanities is typically a meeting of scholars who convene over one or more days to present papers on a particular pre-determined theme. Some are local and run by graduate student organizations (these are a great entry for your first conference); others are larger and run by national or international organizations (these are often held on university campuses or large hotels). There are often keynote and plenary sessions open to the public where notable scholars in the field offer some thoughts on that theme, concurrent sessions of panel presentations, as well as a reception to allow time for mingling. Other formats exist, but I’m not familiar enough with those to comment (though if you can, please do!).

Why attend a conference? Participating in conferences is a key part of professionalization in the humanities. They offer opportunities to meet other scholars whose interests you share, and allow you to keep up with current scholarship in your field. And while we’re being honest, it is actually quite fun to spend a few days with people who are just as obsessed with interested in the kind of work you are doing as you are.

What do you do there? This certainly came as a surprise to me when I first learned about conferences, but what typically happens is that a panel of 3-4 scholars is allowed 15-20 minutes each to read a prepared paper. That’s right — they read their papers to an audience. A Q&A session follows the presentations, and I consider this one of the highlights of conferencing.  During this time, I have been offered helpful suggestions on additional sources to consult and new angles to consider in my work. Thinking of your paper as a solid work-in-progress really takes the edge off the experience of public speaking, and allows you to share your ideas while also opening yourself to feedback. Depending on where the conference is held, you might also get to travel to a new city, so why not take some time to get to know a new place?

How do I apply? Organizations put out what are called “Calls for Papers” (CFPs), which are a few words describing the conference theme and the kinds of papers they are looking for. In fact, you need not have written the paper when you apply (though having a clear sense of what you would argue is key). Most CFPs ask for a short abstract, about 150-300 words, summarizing your main ideas and how your eventual paper would fit the theme. Once your abstract is accepted, you will either be asked to submit the paper before the conference, or simply show up with your paper in hand to present.

Where do I find Calls for Papers? While this list is certainly not exhaustive, you’ll find a wide range via UPenn’s English Department Call For Papers website. Scholarly associations such as the ACLA and the Modern Language Association also post Calls on their websites. Department administrators also do a wonderful job of circulating Calls via email, so keep your eyes peeled!

Fun Fact: Searching CFPs is also a great way to come up with a paper topic for the end of the semester. Just knowing that other scholars are thinking about the same topics and themes can help motivate your research, and that strong end-of-year paper can become a great conference paper (and possible future publication). 

So what are some of your best conference strategies?  What is the most surprising theme you’ve come across? What are conferences like in other fields?

Share your thoughts in the comments!