Saturday, April 27, 2013

Gates Cambridge II (Corina Logan)

Hey guys,

Here is a testimonial from Dr. Corina Logan, a Junior Research Fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Corina and I met at the Animal Behavior Society conference in 2011, when she was finishing her Gates Scholarship at Cambridge. I asked her for advice for Gates applicants and she's shared some helpful insight into her application, the interview process, and her experiences at Cambridge.
Hi all,

I was a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge in the Department of Experimental Psychology from 2008-2011. I pursued a PhD in animal behavior in Professor Nicky Clayton's comparative cognition lab. I met Nicky at a conference before I applied to Cambridge to see whether we were a good match. After discovering that we would work well together (we're both tango dancers - hobbies can help get into grad school!), she suggested I apply for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. This was the first I had heard of it and after I checked it out online, I decided to apply. I highly recommend crafting the application with your potential supervisor; that way you know they have approved the project and are interested in it and they will be willing to support your application through the departmental process. This is key! Otherwise you are just a random applicant. The one thing that really stands out in my mind about how Gates Scholars are chosen came from a Q&A with Bill and Melinda Gates in Cambridge. They said that scholars are chosen based on what they have achieved with the opportunities they have been given. This levels the playing field for people coming from different backgrounds.

My experience at Cambridge as a Gates Scholar was even more amazing than I had imagined! The Gates Cambridge community is full of brilliant, proactive people that make things happen in this world. It is fun to attend and organize events with this group. And it is rewarding in terms of the conversations that opened my mind to new avenues and new collaborators I found throughout my time in Cambridge. So many doors opened because of this opportunity and I met some very influential people as a result. It was a bit deflating to leave the Gates Scholar community after I graduated and moved back to the U.S. - that kind of vibrant community is unrivaled and I dearly miss it.

Below I list interview advice I have given over the years to people who are about to undergo the Gates interview. Good luck!


Do the interviewers ask the regular interview questions such as introduce yourself or why do you want to study at Cambridge, or are their questions intellectually challenging and mostly related to the proposed research at Cambridge?
I was surprised that the panel didn’t ask most of the questions I was expecting. I was expecting questions like: Why do you want a PhD? Why Cambridge? Why this professor? What contribution will you make in the world after you graduate? But I didn’t get any of those. Instead I got VERY specific questions about my background that they had read about from my CV, my application, and my undergraduate transcripts. They asked me how my AmeriCorps experience shaped me and how I will use those skills in the future, about a specific line I had written in my transcripts and how it applied to what I am doing now, what were the benefits of going to a non-traditional undergraduate institution, and why study the specific species I am going to study. 

How did you feel immediately before your interview?
Nervous, scared, nervous, and a whole lot more nervous. I got there early so I waited for about a half hour. Once I went into the room, though, I was able to turn my nervous energy into productive energy and I was very surprised at how eloquently I was speaking and how easy it was.

How did you prepare for your interview?
I consulted with my Cambridge supervisor, Prof. Nicky Clayton, about how to pitch my project with her and the best points to cover in terms of what they may be interested in (the medical field and humans). I also learned about the collegiate system at Cambridge since I had no clue what it was, as well as about the professors in my department and which professors were at the colleges I applied to. I wrote out what makes each of the colleges I applied to different and why I wanted to attend them. I learned a bit about the University of Cambridge. And I went through the Cambridge website looking for ways I could spin my research and pitch it well – specifically, I gathered information about conservation research that happens there and how I might be able to forge collaborations. I consulted with a Gates Scholar at the time, Molly Crockett, who have me a list of questions to consider. I wrote out how I would respond to these questions, and gathered more information when I needed it. I also brushed up on some current topics in my field on the internet.

In retrospect, could you have prepared differently/more effectively?

Well in retrospect, I would have been much better prepared for the interview after my first term at Cambridge when I did my literature review, saw for the first time and learned about the bird species I worked with (I ended up studying different species than I proposed to study), attended Nicky’s lectures and assisted sometimes, and learned what the key readings are and why specifically we study these species. But since I wasn’t able to attend Cambridge and then interview for the Gates, I feel like I was as prepared as I could have been.

Were you asked any of "off-the-wall" questions?

I was not asked any off-the-wall questions, but the one that threw me was at the very end when they asked if I had any questions for them. I wasn’t prepared for that one and at first I said no, but then a question came to me and I asked why they decided to devote a whole weekend and a lot of work to interview Gates applicants. Their answers were really inspiring. They all said they felt honored to be able to interact with such amazing people (Gates interviewees) and that they were so impressed by all of the work we do and the high quality of the applications. Their demeanor completely changed when they responded to this question. Their faces lit up and they were more open and it became more like a regular conversation than an interview.

Did you prepare a thank you-note to leave behind?
No, but I think it would be ok for you to do so if you wish.

How were you seated relative to the panel - was it like a round-table discussion or were you seated in front of them?
There were four large tables arranged into a square (with a lot of space in the middle so those across from me were about 20 feet away). I had one side of the square, a woman sat on the left side of the square, two men across from me, and two men to my right.

Was there the opportunity to shake everyone's hand before sitting down and/or before leaving?

One man met me at the door and I shook his hand, but I think the rest remained seated through the introductions (though I could be mistaken about this as I have a vague memory of the others standing up to greet me and shake my hand as well). I was offered water when I entered as well. At the end, the same man let me out and I believe I shook his hand again.

When did you hear from the Gates that you had won the scholarship and how long did you have before you had to let them know you accepted? 
I interviewed on a Saturday (interviews were held on one weekend: Friday and Saturday, 8-9 February 2008) and I had an email in my inbox that I had won on Monday! They are amazingly fast! The deal is that the interviewers invest one weekend in this thing: they interview everyone in two days and at the end of the two days they all get together and make their end of the decisions (ranking people). Then the Gates Cambridge Trust puts interviewer scores together with the rest of the application ratings and the winners are determined. I don’t remember how long I had before needing to notify them of my acceptance of the award. I remember that I did it right away though.

Once you had been formally accepted, how long did it take to get your visa sorted out and your housing taken care of at your college?
Here’s a great lesson to learn via others’ experiences: you CAN’T apply for your visa until you are WITHIN three months of leaving for the U.K. I tried to apply in May (my flight was scheduled for 15 Sept) and my application was returned to me because it was too early. The visa application and acceptance is super easy. Don’t worry about it; I think it’s more a formality.

My Cambridge online application status changed from Applicant to Offer Set around 7 February (this was a conditional offer based on my acquiring funding). I officially accepted the offer online. I was offered a place at New Hall College (now called Murray Edwards College) on 11 February (as long as I met the conditions of my offer) and I accepted on 13 February. My college acceptance form didn’t say anything about a timeline, and this may vary from college to college so you may want to inquire at your top choice about their lag time. It was later that my college sent me a message asking me to confirm if I wanted to live in or out of college and then they assigned me a room. They are a bit relaxed when it comes to giving you details about what your life will be like here, but trust that you will be happy when you get here and don’t worry about the rest.

General comment
The Gates interview process is a bit nerve-wracking, but let yourself shine. They want to know that you are outgoing, motivating, excitable and will carry these leadership skills forward in your life. So relax when it comes time to interview because there will be nothing more you can do, enjoy talking to four or five interesting people, and let the rest unfold.

One thing to keep in mind is that Gates Scholars and the Gates Cambridge Trust are extremely nice, friendly, outgoing, interesting, and energetic. Once you get there, you realize there isn't anything intimidating about these people and they become your good friends. So when you're being interviewed, that is really the place they are coming from and they feel inspired by conducting the interview process so you are actually doing them a favor!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Gates Cambridge I (Paul Bergen)

Hey guys,

I asked a friend of mine who was recently awarded a Gates Cambridge scholarship to write a blog post with advice on applying for the scholarship. Here’s what he had to say. (For some background, Paul graduated in 2012 from Auburn University and is currently pursuing a Fulbright.) For advice about the interview process and overall experience at Cambridge, here is a post by Gates alumna Dr. Corina Logan.

Hello everyone! My name is Paul Bergen and I am a Gates Cambridge Scholar-Elect to begin my PhD in Pathology (Microbiology) at Cambridge this upcoming October. Matt asked me to write this post to give advice on applying for a Gates Cambridge scholarship. Many people are aware of the Rhodes scholarship, allowing you to study at the University of Oxford, but fewer are aware that a similar scholarship exists at the University of Cambridge. Founded by Bill and Melinda Gates (the “Gates” in Gates Cambridge) in 2000, the scholarship allows students to complete a Masters (both one- and two-year programs) or a PhD (three years). More information can be found on the Gates Cambridge Trust’s website.

Below is a list of five key points I feel are essential to a successful application. Bear in mind that this scholarship is extremely competitive (about 5% of applicants receive a scholarship from the U.S. and only about 1% make it from the international competition). There are numerous steps and hurdles that you and your application must overcome before you are named a Gates Cambridge Scholar. But with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, the application and interview can be conquered.

1.  Research potential advisers and contact them early on.
This is important for research based degrees. I spent about a month researching who I wanted to work for based on their past and present research. I sent emails to three PIs (principal investigators, or the head researcher of the lab. The faculty system is different at Cambridge and Oxford than it is in the US. At Cambridge, PIs can be a “Professor,” “Lecturer,” or research group leader) and received one reply. Turns out, that was the PI I wanted to work with and will be working with. She was indispensable in helping me construct my project proposal for the GC application. All the reason to contact PIs as early as you can.

Alternatively, you may want to apply to a course-based program to use the GC as a gap year to complement or improve your future research or career. For example, a future doctor could do a one-year program in music theory or sociology before entering medical school. If you want to apply to a course-based program, there is less initial work but you still need to research the program and explain in an essay why that program is the perfect fit for you. You may also be required to submit a sample of your writing or music or whatever based on the requirements of the GC Trust, your department, and the university. Finding an adviser or contact early on can be the difference between a successful application and one rejected on a technicality.

2. Start the application early!
A general piece of advice for any scholarship, but a very important one. The application for the GC scholarship is tied to the application for graduate admissions to the University. That means in addition to your research proposal and GC personal essay, you need to fill out additional information and essays for the university. Part of the application will ask you to pick your top two college choices (see this webpage for more details –

You need to research which college is the best fit for you based on whatever factors you deem important. For example, I wanted a college with guaranteed affordable accommodation for graduate students, a strong and varied scientific community, and something that immediately caught my interest when I researched the college. I chose Churchill College for these reasons. Churchill is sometimes labeled the “MIT of Cambridge” for its strong scientific and engineering community but also maintains a strong classical and liberal arts community and sits on the largest college grounds in Cambridge with plenty to do in respect to sports and outdoor activities. All of this research must be done before the mid October deadline of the Gates Cambridge Trust.

In addition to the application, the Trust requires two academic references and one personal reference. Find these three people early on. They need to be someone who knows you well and knows very well what you are doing in college and the community.

3. Always keep in mind the four criteria of a Gates Cambridge Scholar. 
  • Are you a good fit for Cambridge?
    Why must you complete this research or enroll at this specific program in Cambridge?
  • Do you have a strong academic background?
    Have you done
    undergraduate research? Excelled in all your classes? What type of research you’ve done is less important than whether you completed an “original” research program. i.e. did you pose a hypothesis not previously posed, built an experimental plan to test said hypothesis, and reached a conclusion. If you washed tubes or pipetted liquids from one flask to another, you can certainly include laboratory experience in your essay, but it helps to have worked on an original research project. Grades are also important here as they get you past the first “weeding out” stage
  • Have you been a leader in campus or community organizations?
    Why those organizations? How does merely writing "I was President of Club A" demonstrate leadership potential?
  • Can you demonstrate a desire to help others and how your proposed program at Cambridge will benefit this?
    Because the scholarship was
    started with a donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it is important that you can show how your proposed project or program will give you the necessary tools to go out and save the world. That may some lofty or cheesy, but the selection committees want to hear why your work will make a positive impact.

You only have 500 words to express these four criteria to the committees. Use them wisely. Write draft after draft. Have people you trust (friends, family, advisers, mentors) read your essays and correct for both content and grammar. Tell the committees how you fit the four general criteria while weaving a story that connects all aspects of your application. It helps to be as specific as possible when it comes to you and what you have done and how that impacts what you will do.

4. Remember that luck plays a role.
Of the almost 1000 people (from the U.S.) who apply, less than a hundred are chosen for interviews. To get to that round, your department at Cambridge has to first rank applicants based on academic merit only. The top applicants from that ranking then go to a general committee who evaluate all aspects of the application. This committee recommends their top applicants for an interview.

Once at the interview, almost all applicants are equal on paper. You have one fifteen minute chance to impress upon the committee why you deserve the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. No matter what stage you reach in the competition, realize that luck has certainly played a role in helping you or someone else go further. Maybe they wrote the exact sentence one reviewer wanted to read. Or they have an interesting facet to their application that only they could have. You may have given it all on your application; nevertheless, Lady Luck might have other plans.

5. Do not be afraid to ask for help.
Help with your applications, help with practice interviews, help with the celebration. You will find that the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” definitely applies to the Gates Cambridge application and interview process. My best friend, who knows virtually nothing of my subject, read my application and found at least a few mistakes I made in my explanation of technical details. My Cambridge adviser helped me compose my project proposal so that it sounded less undergraduate-y. My university set up three practice interviews for me with various professors both in and outside of biology. My friends in the States and my friends in Germany also helped with a practice interview. There are so many people who are invaluable to your success with this application. From academic referees to scholarship advisers at your university to friends who will take time out of their day and read your application. They may have conflicting opinions on changes for you to make but that is the beauty of having so many reviewers. It is up to you to serve as both author and editor of your application. You have the final say on almost every decision and it only helps to ask for outside opinions.

I made sure to pay close attention to tip 3 in my essay. I started my essay on why I chose microbiology. For me, that was a trip I took as a child to Yellowstone. I then moved on to accepting an invitation to conduct undergraduate research in a microbiology lab. I explained how that led me to view biology in a different light. No longer was I memorizing pathways or gene regulation in class; I was actively involved in figuring out how that worked in vivo! I was met with plenty of failure and little success my first year, but that only served to teach me patience and persistence. I revised my definition of research and found renewed interest in microbiology. I connected my (sometimes philosophical) discussion of research to “hot topics” in microbiology I wished to study. I explained those further in my research proposal and how they related to my PhD topic. I suggested in my essay that scientists need not be just researchers, but competent and active members of their general community. I detailed how my extracurricular activities and double major demonstrated my desire to fulfill that goal. How I branched out into the community at my university beyond just journal clubs and seminars. I concluded with my current endeavor and how I felt Cambridge will provide me with the tool set to become a top researcher.

There are many more tips I could give, but I do not want to bore anyone with more anecdotes of my application. I poured blood, sweat, and tears into this application and interview. I believe that is the best advice I can give. Pour your soul into the application. Show your true colors (unless, you know, you are a racist or bigot or something. Then maybe tone down that rhetoric.), but leave something to elaborate on for your interview. The interview committee will be very familiar with your application and the comments from the previous selection committees. They will question you on your opinions and beliefs in your personal statement or project proposal. When I got to the interview I was asked to defend the “definition” of a top researcher that I laid out in my essay and specific examples I could give of how Cambridge would help me reach that definition. Be able to explain clearly why you feel the way you do. Understand that this committee will play devil’s advocate just to judge your reaction.

Applying for a Gates Cambridge scholarship is applying for both graduate school at an extremely prestigious university and for an extremely prestigious scholarship that will pay for you to go there. Stay cool throughout the entire process. Start early enough to give yourself plenty of time to review and review and review. Have confidence in your abilities and your record and go from there. I cannot guarantee that these tips will win you a Gates. No one can guarantee that. But I am confident that if you follow this advice, for whatever it’s worth, you will be satisfied with your application. And that is always the first step toward a successful application. 


Paul can be reached at for further questions.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Protein Kinase A involved in locust swarming

Originally written January 2012

Protein Underlying Swarming Behavior in Locusts Discovered

A study published in the December 19 [2011] issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has revealed a protein responsible for transforming desert locusts from solitary feeders into swarms of agricultural pests. 

Desert locusts (
Schistocera gregaria) are normally solitary, exhibiting cryptic coloration and behavior and avoiding conspecifics. Rain is sporadic in their barren habitat, supporting vegetation growth and the subsequent locust population explosion when it occurs. Once the rains stop, however, the locusts are funneled into dwindling islands of plants.  

These patches leave the locusts crowded, triggering a behavioral and physiological transformation. Within just four hours, they change from shy and cryptic into aposematically colored, fast, and desiring to seek out other locusts. This last point causes a positive feedback loop, resulting in increasingly larger swarms of locusts that can devastate crops and pastures.

A team headed by Dr. Swidbert Ott of the University of Cambridge showed that Protein Kinase A (PKA), a signal transduction protein involved in numerous forms of learning, underlies this initial behavioral transition. When the team injected a PKA inhibitor into solitary locusts, none changed into their ravenous counterparts when crowded for hours. RNA interference – essentially knocking out a gene by destroying the mRNA, and hence respective protein, it produces – on PKA-related genes also confirmed its role in the transformation.

The fact that PKA is involved in this transformation implies that locusts ‘learn’ to crowd in the sense that a social experience alters their future behavior. PKA’s role in physiological changes due to social experience has also been shown in clinical depression in humans. 

Defeating locust swarms, however, will not be as simple as spraying PKA inhibitor onto crops. Co-author Stephen Rogers wrote, “The viability of any such control measure would be highly dependent on finding a receptor or effector that is sufficiently distinct in locusts that it can be specifically targeted without affecting other animals or species. The universal nature of the mechanism we have discovered, whilst scientifically interesting, makes it more difficult to identify specific points of attack.” 

He added, “But it is possible, indeed likely, that somewhere in the chain of molecular signaling there is something that could be targeted by a possible anti-swarming agent.” 

The group is now identifying the central nervous system proteins PKA affects in the short term and which genes become differentially expressed in the long term.

Original article
Ott SR, Verlinden H, Rogers SM, Brighton CH, Quah PS, Vleugels RK, Verdonck R and Broeck JV. (2012). Critical role for protein kinase A in the acquisition of gregarious behavior in the desert locust. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 109: 381-387.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Gestural communication in a non-primate

Originally written December 2011

Ravens the First Non-Primate Shown to
Perform Communicative Gestures Too

A study published last month in Nature Communications [November 29, 2011] shows the first evidence of gesturing in a non-primate. While drawing others’ attention to objects begins as early as one year of age in humans, observations of comparable gestures in our closest relatives, the great apes, are relatively rare and come primarily from captive or human-raised individuals. Such sophisticated communication involving understanding another’s perspective on the world and how it relates to one’s own has long been considered an ability unique to primates.

Simone Pika from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and Thomas Bugnyar of the University of Vienna, however, have shown otherwise. The conclusion of a two-year study shows that wild ravens (Corvus corax) use non-vocal gesturing with their beaks to show and offer moss, stones, and twigs to others, usually partners of the opposite sex. Following the gesture, the recipient frequently oriented towards the object before interacting with it alongside the signaler. Pika and Bugnyar observed a wild colony in Cumberland Wildpark in Gr√ľnau, Austria, indicating that the gesturing communication reflects natural behaviors. 
Ravens are a member of the corvid family, along with crows, jays, and over a hundred other songbird species. Corvids have brains as big as primates relative to their body size and score similarly high on intelligence tests. Yet, corvids arrived at this level of intelligence independently of the hominid lineage. The ecological and evolutionary significance of corvid cognition remain to be understood, as large intelligence is developmentally and metabolically costly. With abilities once thought unique to humans continuing to be discovered in other species, we may find the intellectual gap between us and the rest of the world not as large as we once thought.  

Original Article
Pika S and Bugnyar T. (2011). The use of referential gestures in ravens (Corvus corax) in the wild. Nature Communications. 2: doi:10.1038/ncomms1567

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Hi all,

I've recently been awarded an NSF-GRFP, so here's some advice on what worked for me in my application!

To preface, funding is everything in academia. You can have a brilliant idea that will shake the fundamentals of our understanding of biology, but if you don't have the money to do the experiment, the idea will have to remain in your head.

Your funding for graduate school usually comes from three sources: the department, your advisor, or externally. Departmental funding is usually in exchange for teaching: you TA a class or lab, and the department pays you. You will most likely teach unless your advisor can cover you or until you get a grant from a funding source outside of your university (e.g. the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, etc.). While teaching is immensely rewarding, it also takes up a lot of time. It's not just the actual two hours a week where you're standing in front of the students. It's that and the five hours a week preparing for the lab (e.g. writing quizzes), one hour setting up before lab and one hour answering questions after lab, the three hours attending lecture, the two hours in office hours, and the three hours grading quizzes. And don't forget the eight hours spent proctoring and grading exams three or four times a semester.

The requirements add up! It's hard to focus on getting any research done when so much of your time is devoted to teaching. If you're lucky, your advisor has money to cover your living expenses in addition to the costs of research. But, you shouldn't expect your advisor to have the money to shell out on you as soon as you arrive (or when you first e-mail them about working in their lab). And the money your advisor would have to spend on you would come from an external grant that he or she applied for anyway.

Even big-name professors have to secure grants to help fund their research, so the earlier you start learning how to effectively write funding applications, the better. As a graduate student in the U.S., the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship ( is one of the biggest sources of external funding for your research. The fellowship is a three-year stipend of $30,000/year as well as $10,500/year cost of education allowance for tuition and other fees. Essentially, this means that you come as nearly free labor for your advisor and your department - because your living expenses and tuition are covered, the money that would have been spent on your stipend can now be devoted solely to research expenses. So, instead of spending only six weeks at your field site in summer, you have the ability to spend ten weeks, for example, or you can present your research at a conference in Spain instead of in Indiana (no offense, Indiana). While you will most likely still teach for at least a year, because you have external funding, throughout your PhD you will be able to focus more on your research instead of splitting your attention between your work and your students.

Aside from letters of recommendation and your transcript, the GRFP application has three essays: personal statement, previous research experience, and proposed research. [Note: The personal statement and previous research experience are now one essay. 9-30-14] I've heard it's good to structure your essays as a cohesive whole (like a three-part story that shares themes), as the reviewers apparently read all three of your essays one after the other. So, what this means is that something like your broader impacts ideas should be woven into all three essays, not just your research proposal. Find a way to link your research ideas with ways that will benefit the local community (e.g. employing undergrads or high school students in data collection), and if not, be willing to spread your message beyond the academic sector in other ways.

One of the most important things in academia is learning how to make an argument for why what you're studying is important. If you strike up a conversation with me trying to convince me that your experiment on naked mole rat social structure is important, you don't have to try hard because I already think it's a cool topic (eusociality in a mammal?? So awesome). What's harder is when I'm a geologist on a funding panel trying to decide who should get a huge grant and I don't have the patience or time to read up on why I should care about mole rats. Ultimately, being able to convince someone else why your work is important is the key to any successful application. To do this, I recommend the following:
  1. Explain why your project is interesting!
    This might sound obvious, but it's easy to forget to include details that we've long ago accepted but will be new to the reader. Give solid, easy to visualize reasons why your project is interesting. Don't lose your reader in jargon. "Naked mole rats are eusocial" is super interesting to an animal behaviorist, but scientists from other disciplines will most likely not get it. Try something like: "Naked mole rats present an enigma for the study of eusociality, or the highly detailed social caste systems otherwise only found in Hymenoptera insects." Then, tie it to a broader question. "Studying information transmission in groups of eusocial mammals can yield insights into human social networks."
  2. Be as specific as possible, whenever possible
    It's one thing to say that your research will have implications for the medical sector, conservation, etc. It's another thing to say how your research will have an impact. If you end up modeling the protein you set out to do, how exactly would this make it easier to fight diabetes? If you discover the plant community composition of Jurassic-era Asia, what will this teach us about the effects of deforestation on wildlife today? Pretend your reader has no imagination and can't visualize anything unless you write it explicitly in your application.
  3. Be willing to do more than just research as a grad student
    An NSF-GRFP is a lot of money. It's a hefty sum because it's meant for you to be largely free from financial restrictions as a grad student. NSF doesn't want to award someone who will stay in his cubicle and read papers all day. They want someone who will volunteer to give presentations on her research at the national park in which she collects moss samples, or someone who will walk into a high school and tell a chemistry class why protein modeling is cool. Sounds intimidating? Sure. I'm a bit nervous about this, too. But you should view this as an opportunity to do something really cool because you're not tied to a strict teaching schedule to earn your paycheck.
And then, of course, go through as many drafts of your essays as you can. Get feedback from your advisor, from older graduate students, from as many perspectives as you can. The NSF-GRFP comes from taxpayers' dollars, so from reading your application, they should agree that you should get the funding!

To conclude, here's a relevant post on reddit from "grfppanelist" (undoubtedly a pseudonym) on his/her experiences working for the GRFP review board and recommendations for applicants. (r/AskAcademia, topic "AMA: I used to work at the National Science Foundation")
        I was on a GFRP review panel several years ago. The process at that time was to gather a panel of reviewers (mine had about 15 people on it) for a two-day review session. Each application was read by at least two panelists, who scored it for (a) intellectual merit (basically grades, GRE scores, and research proposal) and (b) broader impacts (e.g. diversity, community outreach or education plans, etc). It is critically important to understand that these two scores receive equal weight in determining the final ranking of the application. You can have a perfect GPA from MIT, perfect GRE scores, a novel and well-thought-out research plan, and letters that say you walk on water, but if broader impacts are not evident from your application you will not rank high enough to be assured of getting a fellowship.
         Once all of the applications have been read (some get read by additional panelists if there is disagreement on the scoring) all of the applications are ranked by the total score. As I recall something like the top 15% was more or less guaranteed a fellowship, with another 10% or so still in the running to get an award. My impression was that in this second category the program manager applied additional criteria (e.g. whether the applicant was from an under-represented group) to decide the final awardees.
        The take-home message is that if you want to win one of these awards, you need to be sure the broader impacts part of your application is convincing. It helps a lot if you have done some sort of outreach during your undergrad career and write something convincing about how you will carry similar activities forward in your graduate and post-graduate career.

Good luck!

[7-2-13 edit: I just found this incredibly helpful website by a former GRFP awardee. Great source of application advice.]

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Keeping a good lab notebook

Originally written April 2010

I feel like I learned a lesson today that IBH [the Integrative Biology Honors program at the University of Illinois] has been trying to drill into our heads from day one.

I came into [my professor's] lab today with instructions to set up some opossum matings + tapes and then prepare some primers for PCR. The opossum matings went fine; I've been doing this every Monday since the start of the semester and lately it's been going really well. I got back upstairs, hung up the lab coat, put away the keys and i-card (I'm still not authorized downstairs) and got to my lab bench and...

Now what? I stared at the two boxes of primers for a moment before rifling through my bag to look at the notes I had taken from two weeks ago, when the P.I. and I did this for the first time. They were brief and scattered but had immense holes in them - did I add the ddH2O directly to the capsules, did I centrifuge first (and for how long?) and then add the water, did I add 10x the mass of the sample as uL or nL, was DEPC H2O ok if ddH2O wasn't available? I actually got scared, holding hundreds (thousands?) of dollars of technology in my hands and not knowing what to do. My P.I. was gone and the other students in the lab were busy doing their own projects. I've felt guilty making them take time out of their day to bring me up to speed, the new kid who's just a weight on the lab until he starts pulling his own weight. I looked at my notes again but didn't know where to start.

Fortunately, one of the other members of the lab saw me struggling and came over to help. She gave me her notes (much better ones, I might add) and gave me some advice on what to do before getting back to her work. After a question or two for clarification, I started prepping the samples and merely minutes later messed up because I hadn't read my notes (and hers) carefully enough. This happened again twenty minutes later, probably because I was a little tired as well.

When I finally put the solutions into the PCR machine and hit "Start," I knew that I needed to really get serious about the notes I took during lab. In IB 270 and 271 [two of the core IBH classes], it's important that we take notes so that we can know what we did when it comes time to write the lab report or (in 271) do the experiment again. But in those cases, I was with other students, working together in something that at most will cost me a few points in the long run with the semester. Now I was in the same situation but with the trust of a professor, where my work is really an extension of her work, her career. I was handed something worth enough money that messing up would make me look pretty bad. And I almost couldn't do it.

Dr. Cheeseman [former head of IBH] keeps telling us that everything in IB Honors happens for a reason (wow, replace "IB Honors" with "life" and you have something philosophical going on). Jokes aside, I understand what he means now... the lab journals, the sleep. It's easy to brush the advice aside when we're working late into the night on something we put off, but in reality the man's right. I don't want what happened today to happen again.

Off to Walgreens to buy a fresh lab notebook,

Space metal: Animals as Leaders - "Tempting Time"

So, not all Animals as Leaders songs sound like an epic space battle from the future, but I always envision something akin to that when I hear "Tempting Time." What an awesome way to kick off your first album. I couldn't find a video of just the song thanks to copyright law in Germany (though it's probably easy to find in the US), so instead here's a really great drum cover of it by Troy Wright.

A bit about Animals as Leaders (largely taken from Wikipedia): the group was founded by Tosin Abasi, a guitarist for the relatively unknown metal band Reflux, who was approached after a concert by Prosthetic Records about writing a solo album. He initially declined, saying he didn't feel he was skilled enough to do so, and that it was "egotistical and unnecessary." After taking a year off to study music, though, he decided to contact Prosthetic about the album. He recorded most of the guitar and bass for the album, while Misha Mansoor of Periphery added a few guitar solos and programmed the drums and synthesizers.

I've tried doing a drum cover of an Animals as Leaders song. It is insanely hard. I joke that it's because a guitarist wrote the drums instead of a drummer... it's like when you read something written by someone whose first language isn't English. It makes sense, but it still has a slight feel of something... different. A different path taken to get to the same endpoint. But then again, there are some drummers, like Bobby Jarzombek, whose drumming is so complicated I swear he must think in numbers.

Edit 6-8-13: I just found this absolutely amazing piano cover of "Tempting Time." 0:53 - 2:07 is seriously impressive.

Note: If you're looking for actual space metal, try the bands Being or Gru:

Being - "Cosmonaut" (for some reason Blogspot can't find a video preview)

Gru - "Nebula"

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Glass ceilings and testosterone

I originally wrote this as a feature for the online undergraduate-run Journal of Young Investigators in Fall 2011. It was never published (long explanation, with no one really at fault) so I've decided to publish it myself.

Glass Ceilings and Testosterone:

The Debate on Sex Differences in Spatial Skills 

We've all heard about it. Glance casually at a lecture hall of engineering students and you have to squint to find the few women sprinkled in the midst of a sea of men. Pass a table of girls studying at a library and hear a conversation about economics, minority rights, child psychology, or Buddhism, but seldom physical chemistry. In the U.S., women make up only 19% of the science, engineering, and technology workforce; in academia, only 8.3% of tenure-track math professors.

Why do so many girls shy away from math and science? Tasked with answering this question, evolutionary psychologists in the second half of the 20th century turned to the  hunter-gatherer society of our evolutionary ancestors for an answer. In his book Why Men Won't Ask for Directions: The Seductions of Sociobiology, sociobiologist Richard C. Francis wrote, "Because Fred and Barney did the hunting, they had to range much farther than their mates, whose own duties revolved around camp life: watching the kids, gathering foodstuffs in the vicinity, and so on. As a result, the males experienced stronger selection for spatial cognition than did the females."

Evolutionary Adaptation

Alright, the question is answered, right? Men are just smarter than women because they hunted while women stayed behind to take care of camp. Well... hold on. There are a few problems with this. 

"A lot of people who argue for major cognitive sex differences in humans argue as though sexual division in labor, which is at most 100,000 years old, is what drove the major differences," said Dr. Kathryn Clancy, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studies evolutionary endocrinology. "For something as major as cognitive sex differences, I would expect a lot more evolutionary time to elapse than 100,000 years."

London School of Economics evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa added, "Men and women within a population have always faced the same level of evolutionary novelty throughout evolutionary history, because they have always migrated together." This means that we men aren't more or less "evolved" than women. 

Another problem with this hunter-gatherer hypothesis lies in simple genetics. If, indeed, the males who could form better cognitive maps of their hunting terrain brought home more impala and were considered sexier than their less-successful companions, their alleles (gene variants) wouldn't just be passed onto their sons. Their daughters would inherit them too! Smarter hunters would mean smarter sons and daughters, which would keep cognitive maps in both sexes roughly equal. 

"A hypothesis can sound great but that doesn't mean it can be tested," said Dr. Charles Whitfield, professor of genetics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Very often you have 'Just So' hypotheses, where you tell a story to try to explain something. These are very hard, if not impossible, to test."


So, it looks like the "evolutionary" argument doesn't hold much water. Another hypothesis that has been proposed is that the hormone testosterone could be pushing a separation between the sexes regarding spatial ability, which in turn causes the huge gender gap we're seeing in science and technology.

"Solid evidence has established that males display superior performance relative to females on tasks pertinent to way-finding in humans and many animals," wrote Edward Clint and colleagues at the University of Illinois in a 2012 study on the adaptive value of spatial ability in animals in The Quarterly Review of Biology. "The superior performance in males has been documented across cultures and across species, and appears to be related to the hormone testosterone."

"Note that, if true," the authors added, "a male advantage in one arena of cognition does not imply superior cognition in other areas. Indeed, it has been found that females outperform males on other tasks, such as object memory location, verbal fluency, and recognition of facial emotional expression."

If testosterone is the culprit, then, differences in spatial cognition could have formed as a side effect similar to male patterned baldness or acne. The trait itself doesn't have an adaptive benefit; rather, it got pulled alongside something that did.

The experiments linking testosterone and spatial cognition in humans go as such: men and women are presented with pictures of 3D Tetris-like shapes and then asked which pictures are the same block rotated into different positions. A more elaborate study was conducted in 2000 by Dr. Irwin Silverman, of the University of York, Canada, which involved leading people into unfamiliar parts of a wooded area and asking them to point towards their starting location. In both of these types of experiments, men outperform women.

Gender Roles and Societal Expectations

While testosterone is linked with greater spatial knowledge, we still have the confounding variable of societal expectations that few studies have been able to address. Societies promoting gender equality, such as Sweden and Norway, still have these gender differences in spatial abilities. Could the true issue lie deeper?

A 2011 PNAS study by Dr. Moshe Hoffman and colleagues found startling differences between two genetically- and geographically-similar tribes in northeast India, the Karbi and the Khasi. The Karbi, a patrilineal tribe where women can't own land and the oldest song inherits all property, had the expected male-superior results on a visual puzzle.  However, the Khasi, a matrilineal tribe where daughters inherit land and men are expected to hand over their earnings to their wives or sisters, had no gender gap at all. Women in the matrilineal tribe were equal to the men on the test, despite much genetic similarity to the patrilineal tribe.

"Don't forget that there's a U-shaped curve for testosterone and spatial skills in men: too much is as bad as too little," said Dr. Virginia Valian, co-director of the Gender Equity Project and professor of psychology at Hunter College - CUNY. "People can learn to become more or less skillful at spatial manipulations. The Khasi tribe's data show one sort of effect."

Dr. Davis Tzuriel and doctoral student Gila Egozi of Bar-Ilan University, Isreal, have shown that girls can be taught to change their strategies with 3D block figure analyses. Though the process is time-consuming, teaching girls to use analytic rather than holistic analysis eliminates the gender in these spatial tests.

"What is most important here is understanding what goes into the skill. It's not as if people have it or they don't," said Valian. "We can distinguish between different types of strategies (analytic vs. holistic) and it turns out that one is superior. Then we can ask why males tend to use one type and females another type."

In Valian's book Why So Slow? Advancement of Women, she uses the term "glass ceiling" to describe the lack of women in leadership roles of organizations. It implies that invisible influences, rather than overt discrimination, keep women from ascending. It also implies that these influences are unlikely to disappear soon and that female job performance is at least equal to their male peers'.

"Subtle sexism is cumulative," said Clancy. "A lot of people like to describe these narratives of 'It used to be bad, but not anymore,' but I still see these problems every day. I was a little girl when they made the Barbie that said 'Math is Hard.' But my daughter was just born and last year, JC Penney released the 'I'm Too Pretty for my Math Homework' t-shirts."

Where from Here? 

Gender differences in spatial skills clearly compose a complex, highly-charged debate that is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. Testosterone is correlated with spatial skills, but perhaps we're approaching the issue incorrectly. Women perform more poorly than men on spatial tests, but how much is due to a lifetime of being discreetly told they're not as smart at math as men?

"Science is not just about math ability," said Clancy. "You need creativity, intuition, motivation. You can't get defensive. You're constantly modifying what you do. This is not something you can test with the ways we're using to tell children what they should be. A mathematician doesn't do arithmetic."

Valian said, "To both male and female students: treat each other seriously and have high expectations for each other, not just in math and science but across the board. It means  stepping up to the plate and being willing to fail in order to learn, and being willing to let others step up to the plate."

Further Reading
Francis, RC. 2005. Why men won't ask for directions: the seductions of sociobiology.
           Princeton University Press.

Hoffman M, Gneezi U and List, JA. 2011. Nurture affects gender differences in spatial
            abilities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 108: 

Silverman I, Choi J, Mackewn A, Fisher M, Moro J and Olshansky E. 2000. Evolved
            mechanisms underlying wayfinding: further studies on the hunter-gatherer theory of
            spatial sex differences. Evolution and Human Behavior. 21: 201-13. 

Valian V. 1999. Why so slow? Advancement of Women. MIT Press. 

Nine months out of the college bubble

Originally written February 2013

Hi all!

As the one-year anniversary of me graduating approaches, I've had some time to reflect on my college experience and the ways it has - and hasn't - prepared me for graduate-level research.

1. Grades matter, but experiences matter more
Study for your classes. Good grades should obviously be a priority. But view your classes as the skeleton of your college experience; they are a base that you need to care for, but you need to add some flesh to it, too. From an academic perspective, your undergrad classes rarely come up in conversations in grad school... it's all about the work you did in the lab or field. Much more important to graduate committees (and your future self) are your experiences with research: what techniques did you learn, how was the experience different than what you expected, how did you overcome problems you encountered, how did it affect your perspective on science? There's a difference between loving X and loving doing X, and unfortunately a lot of people figure this out once they've already committed a few years to doing X, be it graduate school research, a particular field, etc. Get your hands dirty and figure that out now! If you realize it's not for you, you can redirect your energy to finding something that does make you happy. 

2. Try things out
Say "yes" to more opportunities you receive. Get out of your comfort zone. Second semester senior year, I had the opportunity to volunteer for bird banding - taking mist-netted birds (birds that were caught by flying into a thin, big net strung between two poles or trees) and giving them color rings so they can be identified later. The grad student who sent the e-mail needed the extra help, and in exchange we would learn how to band and handle birds. This was when I knew I'd be working with birds in Germany for the following year, so I said yes (even though the work started around 5am). Even the little bit I learned about how to properly hold birds, distinguish male vs. female characteristics, and identify potential signs of illness came in handy when I started doing research with birds. I also took a graduate-level statistical modeling class my final semester and, while I definitely didn't master all of the complex R coding we did, being exposed to that stuff really changed my perspective on modeling in science.  

And from a personal standpoint, I abide by the life philosophy that you should try everything at least once (except probably heroin and that sort of stuff). Attend a meeting for a random club, go to a play or performance you might not have given a chance to otherwise, call up a friend you haven't talked to in a while. The worst that can happen is exactly what would happen if you don't do it: nothing. And the best that can happen is that you discover something you really like, meet a new friend, or have a memorable time.

3. Accept that it's ok to fail
While #1 and #2 are really important from a career perspective, I would say that this is the most important from a personal standpoint. When I began my Fulbright year at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, I was anxious to make the most of it. I was on the waitlist for ten weeks, so I felt incredibly lucky to have this opportunity at all. I became involved in three separate research projects: formulating and carrying out an independent project on social foraging in wild great tits, helping a graduate student in a project on sleep and predation risk in wild great tits, and recording and analyzing mate-pair vocalizations in captive ravens. I became essentially buried in work, and the grad school applications, bio GRE, NSF-GRFP funding application, and furniture shopping for a new apartment added layer after layer of stress to my life. I made two crucial mistakes: underestimating how much time fieldwork takes to prepare for and carry out, and overestimating how much I can get done in one day. November was pretty miserable, and it was made so much harder because I wasn't used to things not going well.

Research is hard in that you have to make thousands of little decisions every day, many of them on things you're trying for the first time. For example, I needed to replace the normal feeders in the plots with new feeders at the start of the foraging experiment. Which plots to choose? Well, I suppose I should film the current feeders to see which areas have lots of birds at them. What about cameras that are in pretty open areas, where anyone walking by could see and maybe steal them? Ok, I'll park the car a little down the path to not disturb the birds and I'll wait to see if anyone walks the path. Then, how do I decide between a plot that has lots of birds that aren't great tits vs. one that has mainly great tits but not as many? Well, think about what's most important in the experiment and go from there. Ok, now I need to clean and paint the poles the feeders go on. I've never painted anything in my life and I don't know where to get alcohol or paint. Ok, e-mail around, find the name of a store to go to. Drive there, ask around using a German dictionary to help, buy the stuff. No idea if this works well or not, or what size paint container to buy. Let's try something that looks promising. Ok, paint the poles using my best guess on how to do it. Then: the feeders need to be filled and constructed, then transported to the plots, then carried to the places, then secured. Will any birds visit? Well, let's put a handful of sunflower seeds on top and hang some fat balls around the feeder to attract birds. Ok, the feeders sometimes don't dispense food because the cold makes the peanut powder clump together. Well, let's visit the feeders every day to un-clump the powder for that day. So, as you can tell, there are so many decisions that you can't even anticipate before you begin. It's easy to focus on all the little mistakes you make (which can add up to big mistakes) and think you're not fit for academia. But really, you need to accept that mistakes happen and remember all the good decisions you make as well.

As for how things have turned out for me, I've found a much better work balance and have accepted my limits (for now). This doesn't mean I've given up or am any less ambitious... I would say this means I'm smarter about my goals. But it took failing pretty hard, stepping on a lot of people's toes and overworking myself and losing sleep, to learn this. So, don't be afraid to try something and fail! Failure is a much better teacher than success, I believe. 


p.s. this inforgraphic about how high schools frequently underprepare students for college work is relevant and quite interesting. Thanks to Alex Campbell for sending it to me!