Yay, it’s finally here! I presented a portion of my PhD thesis to the Harvard community as part of a symposium of 4th year graduate students (thus, G4) in my department, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. A number of important people in my life were not able to be there and so I have been eagerly awaiting the video. I’m sure they will enjoy it and I hope you will to. This will give you a bit of a window into my research and my presentation style. I completely love my study system; if you know me, you’ve heard me say “Cycads are the coolest plants in the world” and I hope it comes through in the presentation. You can also watch it on youtube for full screen.
I had one of the coolest experiences recently. We did a live review for our publication ‘Don’t Judge a Plant by its Flowers’ to the journal Frontiers for Young Minds at Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland California. I was called in to help mentor Riva Bruenn and Valorie Lavenburg on writing this paper that is aimed at children ages 8-16 because it is based on the research that I did for the Spiraling in to History Costus phylogeny. These two ladies are incredible collaborators, writing with them was so much fun. Not to mention the unique challenges that come with aiming your research towards children. I think this should be a requirement for scientist, maybe it would help solve our ‘communication problem’! The journal is completely rigorous too. The child reviewers are guided by adults scientist and not only do the criticise you on clarity, but also on methods and larger questions (see my fumble in answering “you don’t really explain why evolution happens” in the live review). They submit a much more through review online that must be addressed. And finger’s crossed we get accepted. Hope you enjoy! You can also view on youtube for full screen.
I am so stoked to have received the American Society of Plant Taxonomists (ASPT) Grady L. Webster Award for my first first author paper, ‘Spiraling into history: A molecular phylogeny and investigation of biogeographic origins and floral evolution for the genus Costus‘!! I couldn’t be happier. I was so very fortunate to have found the Specht lab at UC Berkeley where I did this work as an undergraduate for so many reasons. Chelsea Specht is an incredible advisor because she gives you such a perfect balance of guidance and leaving you alone to create your own path. She doesn’t hold your hand and she sets the bar for you just above what you think is your capability, pushing you to keep raising the bar for yourself (out of fear of looking bad at a lab meeting, but even so 😉 ). I also found some of my greatest friends in the Specht lab, so she definitely brings the cool kids to the table. I made a deep and lasting friendship with Tanya Renner (who another undergrad once said must be the only example of genius he’s ever meet – and she great for pizza and a beer). She’s now an assistant professor at San Diego State University, with what I hear is a great offer from Penn State. I’m selfishly hoping she moves there just because it will be closer to me! I also count Thiago André as one of my best friends and was super lucky to work on a few more projects with him that you can see on my publications tab. I also spent about two months visiting him in Brazil where he selflessly took me all over the country ‘hunting for Zamia‘ cycads, which we later learned is a euphemism for wasting time. Although, due to his magic as a naturalist, we did find every species we were looking for and had some great adventures on the way. He is now a professor at the Universidade Federal do Oeste do Pará and I’ve said many times that I wish he could be my phd co-advisor because I can’t imagine doing a paper with out his incredible ability to bring the big picture to any study (and make me laugh).
Anyway, it is truly wonderful to have capped my time at the Specht lab with such an honor. And even better, UC Berkeley’s department of Plant & Microbial Biology did a little write up on the award, you can see it here.
I loved Santa Rosa Junior College. I had a great time at UC Berkeley and am absolutely loving my PhD, but nothing compares to the growth I experienced at SRJC, a truly excellent school. I was super happy that they reached out to me and gave me the chance to send a little praise their way. Man, I miss you Santa Rosa!
Here’s the text:
Born in Texas, raised in Georgia and Germany, Shayla spent “too many winters” in Michigan working on an organic farm. She eventually settled in northern California, managing the Boonville farmer’s market. Her mother, a career counselor, discovered the SRJC Sustainable Agriculture Certificate program and recommended that her daughter return to school. Shayla planned to complete the certificate only, then move on. But one class led to another, and she fell in love with science.
“I wasn’t interested in an associate’s degree, let alone a bachelor’s degree when I started at SRJC. But I took Steve Mullany’s soil science class, followed by his plant science course, and found a passion for science. The faculty encouraged me to consider a higher degree. I decided to pursue the associate’s degree which meant more math and English classes, even more than I needed to receive an A.S., because I had dropped out of high school.” When she received a 100% on a test in Claire Shurvinton’s microbiology class, Shurvinton encouraged her to pursue a bachelor’s degree, suggesting UC Berkeley. “I began to see myself differently when I realized how supportive and serious my professors were about what I could achieve,” said Shayla. “SRJC’s lab equipment is top notch,” she added. “You don’t have the ability in other schools, even Berkeley and Harvard, to use the equipment that we got at the JC.”
She also raves about the faculty at SRJC: “I love the math faculty at SRJC. I love the biology and chemistry departments. Taking Robin Fautley’s biology classes at SRJC changed the course of my life. She gave a final lecture in Biology 10 that had half the class in tears, as she explained that to be good citizens of this planet we all need to have an understanding of biology. She has been one of my biggest supporters…Galen George [Chemistry] should receive the best teacher on the planet award. Joe Fassler took time outside of class to catch me up on chemistry. I still stay in touch with Galen and Robin.”
Supported by instructors, the scholarship office and financial aid office, Shayla transferred to UC Berkeley and later, Harvard, where she now is pursuing a PhD in plant-insect interactions. Shayla maintains that the hardest exam she ever completed was for the late Nick Anast’s zoology class. “At SRJC, the emphasis was on learning how to think and to use your experience to analyze and interact with new information. At Berkeley, they just wanted the two-word answer. That was not the way SRJC taught and because of that, it’s been a cakewalk since then.”
Shayla’s husband’s SRJC experience was also very positive. After a time at San Francisco State University, he returned to the JC, taking classes that led to his career as a professional photographer.
Shayla’s dream is to teach science at SRJC. “At SRJC’s graduation, you walk to the reception through a line of all the professors in their academic regalia while THEY applaud YOU. It’s like a movie, walking past all these people who helped you achieve your degree and changed the course of your life. I want to be one of those people for someone else one day.”
Here’s my husband and I’s first co-publication! I am on the board of directors for the Cycad Society and wrote an article introducing myself with photos by Rory. You can see more of his work at RoryMaherPhotography.
The Harvard Graduate Student Science Policy Group does a number of very cool things. I’m on the executive board so I may be a bit partial, but you have to admit that a focus on opening the window into the world of policy for science phds is pretty cool. Throughout the year, we put on monthly faculty chats and a J-term course (details). But perhaps the coolest once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing we do is offer an annual trip to Washington DC to meet with policy groups. This year we visited (and excuse the listing) the White House Office of Science Technology and Policy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the House Minority Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Health, the National Academy of Sciences, the Department of State Office of the Science Technology Advisor, NASA headquarters, and the Department of Defense Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research. It was an incredible trip.
If I had to describe a theme of the trip I would say democracy – and I know that sounds cheesy so let me explain. All of the people that we meet with have many obstacles to using their point of view to influence policy. As scientists, it is their job to present knowledge and then step back and let policy makers decide the course of action. We heard over and over again that agencies (such as the EPA) cannot approach the hill and say “This is what you need to be thinking about and working on.” That would be lobbying. They have to wait until they are charged with analyzing a problem before they can study it and this is hard for scientist to hear. We think, “Look, I’ve done all of the work and I’ve got the statistical values and the peer review to show that I am RIGHT. Now let’s make policy based on my correct work.” But that isn’t how it works in a democracy. You may disagree with other people, but you still have to work with them. This was brought up in literally every meeting we had. And it seemed to me that for a scientist working in the policy sphere, you have to love the mess of democracy more than the order of science. I mean, hey, dictatorships are efficient, and what scientist doesn’t love efficiency? It takes a special breed of scientist to try to use order to influence chaos.
The other theme that flowed through the trip was the importance of communicating science. It seems like this message is practically slapping me in the face every where I turn lately. In a meeting with Bill Nye the science guy (another awesome Science Policy Group event) he said the most important thing for scientist to learn is how to tell a story and how to use english. This was mirrored by all of the people that we met with but perhaps most emphatically by Dr. Joel Scheraga, the Senior Advisor for Climate Adaption at the EPA. His opinion is that the most important step to take as a graduate student scientist interested in policy is to develop the skill of communicating science in plan understandable English. He also made it clear that decisions are made everyday and your science needs to be a part of it even though scientists want to wait until the science is done before presenting or discussing it. It can’t wait until you are done and so scientists need to get comfortable discussing science while it is still in the process and get comfortable discussing science with everyone. His thought was that all scientists need to be involved with policy in a bottom-up approach by getting the public and policy makers aware of the problem, which relies in a large part on science communication. He suggested that you need to increase awareness, change behavior, and then you can think about how to focus behavior to address the outcome of concern. This pretty much sums up the big take home message for me at this point in my career. I’ve got a few years yet in my phd to practice communicating and discussing my science before it is done. Hell, I’ll get a good shot at that last one this summer when I present at the Evolution and the Cycad conferences!
I also had a good time making a little photo project of the trip. Hope you enjoy it!
The first task of the new superintendent of schools needs to be to ride the T from Forest Hills to Harvard Square.
She should buy a monster energy drink at Forest hills and a tall frappe latte in the Starbucks outside the Harvard station. On the ride, the new sup should take notes on shoes and what riders use to keep themselves busy from ereaders and newspapers to candy crush and social media.
He should be asked to report on advertisements lining the wooden walls of the rundown orange line and hanging above the brightly colored festive seats of the red line. Perhaps she should analyze trash from each train like an anthropologist.
Maybe then our new superintendent will get a sense of the divide facing students who may think sports stardom or American Idol are more accessible than the technology boom happening a T-ride away.
For the benefit of our students and our state, she – and we — need to understand the orange-red divide.
Tutoring at an area juvenile jail and seeing the stark contrast between life on the orange line and life on the red line gives me a new perspective of the problems in STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math). The current fad is to tack failures on to the approach – focusing on facts that do not connect to students’ real lives and not on STEM’s inherent creativity and imagination. Perhaps, however, there is an even larger issue.
On my last Orange trip, I sat next to a teenager wearing a faded T-shirt and across from a young woman loudly talking into her cell phone about a court appearance. The woman near the door wore a janitor’s uniform and carried her laundry. A young man in hard-toed construction boots drank an energy drink. The advertisements, reminders to get yearly checkups, are mostly ignored as passengers are lost in games and Facebook.
Transfer to the red line and everyone is in business gear, heels and dressy wool coats. Red-liners read newspapers and paperbacks and sit under advertisements for Harvard extension courses while drinking from reusable coffee mugs and water bottles. Red line riders appear one step higher on Maslow’s pyramid of needs and the comforts of their daily lives are clearly displayed.
As a high school drop out turned Harvard PhD student, I have a drive to destroy personally-installed educational barriers and STEM education obviously has a problem of perception; the perception that it is not accessible.
We know Kim Kardashian is a real person yet it does not occur to us that her lifestyle could be our reality. My concern is that in the same way going to Harvard or MIT or having a white color job in the tech field does not feel tangible to many of our students. We cannot imagine a daily commute via private jet and perhaps many cannot imagine a daily commute on the red line. Perception can put limits on reality, exactly like blinders on a horse.
Erasing the lines between our poorest communities and our booming tech industry needs to become a priority and I challenge the new superintendent of schools to work to remove those blinders and make orange-red transfers easier. I ask her to make a concentrated effort to connect our world-class universities and innovators with students from all communities, making each a part of the other’s reality.
Without showing the promise and excitement in STEM fields, we are losing some of our communities’ most promising minds. I know first hand that students find other outlets for their drive, potentially even illicit.
We need to catch them before it’s too late and ride the train together.