Firsts, and the end of firsts, part 2

Long hair is a struggle in the field

Last week, I spent some time discussing some general themes that had come out of from my experience with my summer students. Here are a few more brief thoughts (especially on things that DIDN’T work), which I’ll aim to summarize in a more cogent post about high school research in the coming weeks.

  • Problem: Primary literature is hard. I know this is true. I still feel like it takes me a while to understand an article. But I had forgotten just how alien scientific papers can seem to someone who hasn’t read one.
  • Solution: We held weekly department-wide journal clubs with our students to talk through classic papers that were important to each mentor’s project. This gave us a change both to break down methods in greater detail and to walk the students through more advanced statistical methods.
Students checking the first three trays of seeds we planted (they did more than ten total!)
  • Problem: To high school students, a journal club seems like a classroom. Some of them shut down, and the few who don’t go into school mode dominate the discussion, while mentors are forced to fill in the gaps.
  • Solution: We generated discussion questions before the meeting for the students to think about so the shier ones wouldn’t feel put on the spot. We also made sure to break each article down every single time: what was the big question the authors care about? What was it important? How did they address this question? What did they find? In some ways, this reinforced the classroom feeling, but our novice scientists, increased structure helped them to be more willing to express their opinions.
Collecting seeds in the dry, dry California hills
  • Problem: Students don’t have enough to do. They don’t yet have skills to do more advanced protocols, and you don’t have time to teach them all the protocols at once.
  • Solution: Basic data collection tasks. Find some kind of meta data they can collect that doesn’t involve primary literature. In my case, I had them collect growth condition data on approximately 100 species from various public databases including the USDA and CNPS, which are often simple enough (if not entirely intuitive) to navigate.
  • Problem: Students have too much to do. You have begun to rely on the students too much. They are overwhelmed.
  • SolutionGet more students! No, really. More students is honestly the answer (or possibly cloning yourself).

Counting things (seeds, in this case)–a staple skill in biology

Before I close this out, it’s important that I acknowledge my summer students one more time. Lauren and Sayi both did awesome work these past ten weeks, and I am incredibly grateful for all the effort they put in.

Finally, I want to give a shout-out again to the Science Internship Program at UC Santa Cruz, especially Raja, Nina, and Sue. If you’re a high schooler in the area who has somehow found this site, consider applying for this program. The expense may seem daunting, but the experience is truly fantastic, and there are scholarships available for students with need, so don’t let financial concerns keep you from applying. If you’re a researcher anywhere in the world, think about contacting these fantastic people to see how you can start a program like this.

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