Lessons in Online Learning

Massively open online courses, or MOOCs, are rapidly revolutionizing the face of higher education, but this may not be a good thing when it comes to instruction of the physical sciences. A MOOC is a class created by an expert in a particular field (often a university professor) that is posted online and open to the public. The number of MOOCs available has increased dramatically from roughly 100 in 2012 to more than 1,200 at the beginning of 2014.  Over 200 universities have contributed courses, and it is estimated that more than 10 million students have signed up for these free online classes so far. MOOCs allow students to learn at

A student completes coursework outside on her laptop.

A student completes coursework outside on her laptop.

their own pace, from anywhere where they can find an Internet connection. Several universities in the United States are even beginning to offer credit for online courses, allowing students to replace in-person lectures with time behind the computer. While many are hailing MOOCs as the future of higher education, it can be argued that hands-on, real-life science education can never truly be replaced by virtual learning.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, science is the “intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” The physical sciences are unique among other disciplines in that they describe the principles that govern our world. These mechanisms surround us, and the only way to understand them is to witness and experience them. No number of online simulations or lengthy descriptions can substitute for feeling the heat from an exothermic reaction in a chemistry lab, or measuring for yourself the flow of electricity through a circuit that you have constructed. As an undergraduate science major, I used to mope and groan when I had additional required lab time in conjunction with all of my chemistry, physics, and biology courses while my friends in business and arts and letters majors were free from study outside of their normally scheduled lecture times. By the end of my four years, however, I came to appreciate how essential these hands-on experiences

Young students gain first-hand knowledge of basic chemical principles.

Young students gain first-hand knowledge of basic chemical principles.

were in cementing and clarifying abstract scientific principles.

If online courses cannot sufficiently replace face-to-face class time, how can online learning platforms improve science education? The smartest application of MOOC technology to education in the physical sciences is to implement a “flipped classroom” approach. In this course structure, students watch lecture videos in advance in order to learn a lesson’s fact-based material before meeting with their instructor.  The flipped-classroom approach permits the most efficient use of one of the scarcest resources amongst students and professors: time. It allows class time to focus on demonstrations and applications of those principles instead of the recitation of background information that students can master on their own. Students are free to do a good deal of their learning online at their own convenience, while still gaining practical understanding of the principles in their textbooks through in-person classroom experiences.  This greatly increases the value of classroom and lab experiences, allowing greater depth of education and improving the retention of information and experience. So, while online courses should not be a replacement for classroom education, they can serve as a way to augment students’ work in the classroom, improving and accelerating education in partnership with traditional approaches.

Rebecca Marton is a senior Biological Sciences major at the University of Notre Dame and co-Editor in Chief of Scientia, the undergraduate journal of research for Notre Dame’s College of Science. She studies retinal regeneration in the adult zebrafish and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in stem cell biology. 

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“Synthetics” – Berkeley Scientific’s Spring 2014 Issue

BSJ Synthetics

Berkeley Scientific publishes undergraduate research, features articles, and interviews with UC Berkeley professors spanning many areas of science. In the Spring 2014 issue of Berkeley Scientific Journal, we explore how recent technological and biomedical developments have advanced our understanding of “synthetics” in science. We are constantly surrounded by synthetic science— manmade technological advancements that enable us to communicate faster, manipulate genes, and progress toward cleaner energy. UC Berkeley professors and other members of the academic community are currently researching cancer immunotherapy, genome editing, and solar energy among other topics. These accomplishments among many others have garnered global attention. Now is the perfect time to dedicate the current BSJ issue to “synthetics.”


This semester’s issue is filled with high quality research, features articles, and an interview with an award-winning Cal professor. For an understanding on how synthetic science works on a microscopic level, read our feature articles about DNA as building blocks of nanotechnology, magnetoelectric materials, and “lab on a chip.” Departing from micro-scale technology, explore interesting articles on “Manufactured Memories,” artificial heart devices, and “Bright Ideas in Solar Energy.” Additionally, Berkeley Scientific had the opportunity to interview Jan Rabaey, a professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science about his research on neural prosthetics and their future applications. I invite you to read the second issue of Berkeley Scientific Journal’s eighteenth volume, filled with fine articles and undergraduate research papers on the topic of synthetics.


Prashant is a senior undergraduate student studying biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley. He currently is Editor-in-Chief of Berkeley Scientific Journal, where he became interested in science journalism and its propensity to motivate general audiences.  Read the current issue here. Follow BSJ on Twitter.


Category: Artificial Intelligence, Bacteria, Clinical Trials, ethics, Interviews, Medicine, Memory, Neuroscience, PLoS, PLoS Biology, PLoS Blogs, PLoS Medicine, ResearchBlogging, Science Journalism, Students, The Student Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What can you do with that PhD?: FAQs about non-academic jobs

As the school year winds to a close, another class of students nears graduation and will be asked the inevitable question: “So, what’s next?” This year, I’m one of those students, and like 61% of STEM PhDs, I’m leaving the tenure-track career path.

I’ve noticed a difference in how people react to my career plans versus those of my friends who are moving on to postdocs or professorships. When asked about their post-grad plans, my friends on the traditional path receive a quick congrats and the topic of conversation moves onto something else. On the contrary, I’ve found that people ask a lot of follow-ups about my career plans. If you’re interested in alternatives to traditional academic careers, read on for my answers to some of the most commonly asked questions.

Why are you leaving?

People mean well when they ask this, but it’s a very personal question; I don’t recommend asking unless you know the person well. Often, I’ve found that the asker wants to commiserate with you about the state of the academy. While I do think that there are major issues with the culture and structure of academia (the leaky pipeline faced by women in STEM and replication issues, among others), I’m grateful for the knowledge and skills I’ve gained through my graduate school experience.

Contrary to popular belief, students do not always leave the academy because they are disillusioned or have “failed” at finding an academic job. Many have genuine interest in consulting, outreach, starting a company, working on Watson, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, starting a bakery, or whatever it is they go on to do. Research is only one facet of life, and it need not be the only one. I’m leaving because I have always had other interests, and I want to explore those opportunities. During my time in grad school, I discovered that the part of my work I found most rewarding and enjoyable was communicating cutting-edge research to the public, so I’m trying out a career in science writing and outreach.

Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State, has a Ph.D. in Political Science. She didn’t stay on the academic track, but she’s doing just fine.

Did you tell your advisor? How did it go?

To be honest, I dreaded having this conversation with my advisor. My fear – which is a common one – was that she would be disappointed, angry, or even “give up” on me by providing fewer lab resources and less guidance. I waited to tell her until I was sure I wanted a non-academic career. After that conversation, I felt like a weight had been lifted, and I wished I had done it sooner.

Advisors can be a great resource to connect you with others who have been in your position before. Plus, you may find that you and your advisor work better together if you’re honest about what you want – for instance, if you and your advisor both know that you’ve got your heart set on consulting, you may decide together that those five exploratory follow-up studies that would have made you a more competitive academic job applicant are no longer a productive goal.

I feel lucky that my advisor has been supportive of my decision, but unfortunately, not every advisor will be supportive of students who choose a non-academic career path. In that case, seeking out a faculty member who will support you can be helpful.

But what can you do with that degree?

I’m usually asked this question by students in my field who have been thinking about leaving the academy, and are hopeful I will mention some magical, previously undiscovered career path. Consider instead: what do you want to do with your degree? Sure, your degree may confine your choices to some extent – sadly, as a psychology PhD, it’s pretty unlikely I’ll ever be an astronaut – but students routinely underestimate the general skills they learn as a PhD that apply to most jobs. All those studies you’re juggling? That’s project management. The RAs you’ve trained to run your studies? That’s leadership and team management. Submitting manuscripts and writing endless emails? Communication skills.

A longitudinal study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that between the ages of 18 and 46, the average person has 11 different jobs. Your job as a graduate student is just one of many you’ll have!

How did you find out about career options?

Narrow down the qualities of your ideal job. Do you enjoy teaching? research? working with people? Do you want something with flexible hours and projects, or do you do better with structure and deadlines? Do you prefer to work on teams or alone? These are just several questions to consider; if you’re at a total loss, check out AAAS’s MyIDP to help you start asking the right questions.

I’m also fortunate to work with Beyond Academia, a career education conference at Berkeley. We had our second annual conference in February, where we invited former PhDs talk about their experience transitioning from academia to the “beyond”. There were panels featuring speakers from a variety of industries (e.g. technology, science communication, and entrepreneurship) and workshops where students worked on specific skills (e.g. narrowing in on a career path, or how to create a personal brand). It was a great learning and networking opportunity, and students on other campuses are now lobbying their universities to hold similar events. Your campus may have a similar career education program, or at least a career fair. If not, consider starting one!

There are also a variety of online resources that can help you begin your search. Most universities’ career centers have websites with resources for students, though not all have sections specifically dedicated to post-PhD careers. Beyond Academia has begun compiling a list of resources here, which can be a good starting point.

Eric Schmidt, Google executive chairman and former CEO, is another former Ph.D. who has done quite well off the academic track.

What helped you in finding your career path?

Reaching out to others who understand your position can be both inspiring and educational. Take advantage of your personal network – talk to recent graduates from your department, or friends and faculty in your department to see if there’s anyone they know who has the type of job you’re interested in. Also remember that your university’s career center could be helpful for resources or alumni connections.

If you don’t have personal connections to your chosen field, the internet can be a massively powerful tool. Set up a LinkedIn profile and see if there’s anyone in your extended network who has your dream job. Twitter and blogging are also a good way to connect with strangers in your field. (On a personal note, I found out about a fellowship through Twitter and got a job interview due in large part to a blog post I wrote. The internet is a magical place!)

Also, be sure to try out what it is you want to do. Do you want to be a consultant? Join your campus consulting club. Your campus doesn’t have a consulting club? Start one! Other options to consider are summer internships, conferences, and workshops.


If you’re considering an alternative career, get acquainted with your options as soon as you can. Start right now, if you feel so inclined. Use those time management skills you’ve learned in grad school to set aside a couple hours a week for career exploration. Like completing a dissertation, career exploration is a marathon, not a sprint; incremental steps toward your goal will get you there. Admittedly, seeking out these opportunities in addition to your duties as a grad student can be tiring, but finding the right career for you is a worthy reward!

If you have any additional resources to suggest, please leave them in the comments below.


jane hu

Jane Hu is a Ph.D. candidate in the psychology department at University of California, Berkeley. Her research focuses on social cognition and learning in preschoolers. She is also an editor of the Berkeley Science Review and an organizer of the Beyond Academia conference. Follow her on Twitter @jane_c_hu, and check out her science blog: metacogs.tumblr.com

Category: Academia | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

NASA to SpaceX: the Space Race Privatized

Over the several decades that have passed since the Space Race there has been a dramatic decrease in federal support for the nation’s intergalactic sense of manifest destiny. However, it is not that the nation suffers from a lack of curiosity or a decrease in intellectual prowess. The ultimate factor lies within our infrastructure. Changes in the national political climate have made for a tumultuous history for large scale scientific projects. Our lunar touchdown was the product of an efficiently focused national effort during a time when our status as an ingenious and powerful nation was threatened. Today, the idea of space travel and research has become significantly less of a priority, illustrated through the cuts in the NASA budget over the past years. This year, the federal NASA budget is set at $17.7 billion, a decrease of approximately $50 million from the initial 2012 plan. While this budget is enough to sustain several major projects, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA has had to cut and reduce many promising programs, thus relying on partnerships with other countries, especially Russia and China, in transporting American crew and payload to work at the International Space Station.

Russian Soyuz spacecraft docking on International Space Station. (Image Credit: NASA)

Russian Soyuz spacecraft docking on International Space Station during Expedition 37. (Image Credit: NASA)

As a junior physics major hoping to pursue a career in astrophysics research, I have noticed an underlying theme in the variety of opinions on NASA’s current funding levels. That is the lack of full understanding of the organization’s contributions to immediate technological and medical problems. Much of the technology developed to break the earth’s atmosphere and operate properly in space, has led to several “spinoffs” on earth. For example, the technology used in the space shuttle fuels pumps inspired NASA and heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey to design the miniaturized ventricular assist pump, which is now undergoing European clinical trials and has been successfully implanted within 200 people . Furthermore, technology developed to test the effects of a Martian climate on wind power resulted in 200 NASA-derived Northern Power wind turbines and a decrease in annual carbon emissions by 50,000 tons. Also, much of the data used to monitor the earth’s climate, which is invaluable during emergency situations, originates from NASA. In fact, such geospatial data is now available via the Cloud, due to an agreement with StormCenter Communications. Within the past ten years, the work done by the space agency has resulted in approximately 18,000 jobs created, 444,000 lives saved, and $5.1 million in revenue.

NASA has a strong focus on inspiring and promoting wonder within the general public. Space naturally appeals to the innate childlike curiosity we possess when looking up at the stars. With one child enchanted by a spectacular image of the Milky Way Galaxy, a passionate scientist can evolve. Without this process, how could the nation maintain a strong footing in solving the difficult problems space exploration presents? Yet, last year the sequestration forced NASA to suspend all aspects of their outreach program, causing a ripple of anger amongst much of the public. Though a minute amount of funding is now available, it does not correlate to the realistic amount needed to reach the millions of students within the country, and certainly not to depths the agency is capable of.

My passion and situation in physics are ultimately due to an internship I had at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. During the summer of 2011, I worked in the heliophysics division studying the magnetic interactions between the sun’s interplanetary magnetic field and the earth’s magnetic field. The experience was humbling and slightly overwhelming, as one can imagine. Earlier that year President Obama cancelled the Orion and Antares projects meant to facilitate human low orbit shuttling with the assumption that private space companies would grow large enough to fulfill these needed rolls. The morning of the final mission launch, STS-135, my mentor picked me up at 4:00AM to view it live from campus. As a rising college freshman, it was easy to become fixated on the sadness and disappointment of the ending of something so iconic. Yet, the atmosphere within the auditorium was not mournful, rather, celebratory and hopeful. Every astronaut I met that summer emphasized how their passion began with something they experienced as a child. Now a junior, I often imagine the amazing feeling of fulfillment and excitement one has when achieving a dream so deeply seeded, which motivates me to withstand the trials of college.

Since the retirement of the shuttle program there have been several major changes within the environment of space exploration. First, NASA’s reliance on other countries, especially Russia, has grown. In order to reach the ISS, a join flight must be sent including Russian and American payloads. However, the current Ukrainian conflict and rising international tension with Russia has caused several figures, namely NASA director, Charles F. Bolden Jr., to emphasize the need to eliminate dependence on Russia. In fact, the agency recently declared that it plans to pause “the majority of its ongoing arrangements” but will continue to collaborate at the ISS.

In light of these political events impeding the advancement of space science and technology, it is difficult to envision a prolific future for NASA. This is where, I believe, the second change enters. In recent years, privatized space companies have risen to new heights in rocket development. However, the path to these promising developments is one not free of failure. In 1996 NASA funded Lockheed Martin to design, build, and fly the X-33 rocket with the intention of improving space travel. However, the failure of this program caused monetary losses of approximately $922 million and $357 million for NASA and Lockheed Martin, respectively. After more than a decade, the objective to produce successful privately funded space crafts was achieved. In 2008, NASA announced the results of the second round of their Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, thus signing agreements with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, out of the more than twenty firms that applied, to fund their proposals focused on transporting crew and cargo to the ISS. With the development of Falcon 9 and Dragon, SpaceX became the first private organization to successfully launch a spacecraft to rendezvous with the ISS. While this was a major success for the state of human space exploration capabilities, the program also highlighted the heavily competitive environment of the market. In the past many firms have failed to develop innovative and successful designs, resulting in massive losses for the owners as well as their respective funders. It clear that the market for privatized space transportation is high risk but high reward.

SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, has proven to be a major, if not the most important, player in the market now, with a history of efficiency and innovation. Though the Falcon 9 and Dragon were not able to transport a crew during the initial launch, the design of the rocket and spacecraft are exceptional. The two stage rocket is propelled by the 9 Merlin engine octaweb, which is capable of producing a power equal to more than five 747s at full power. In order to separate the two segments, Falcon 9 relies on a pneumatic system rather than the traditional pyrotechnic method, thus allowing for more control. During the second stage, only one engine is used; however, it includes the unique and innovative ability to restart periodically, making maneuvering Dragon from different orbits more manageable and efficient. SpaceX is currently working on the adjustments needed to make both suitable for transport of a crew per the NASA agreement.

Falcon 9 carrying Thaicom 6 at Cape Canaveral on January 6, 2014. Image Credit: SpaceX

Falcon 9 carrying Thaicom 6 at Cape Canaveral on January 6, 2014. (Image Credit: SpaceX)

International Space Station fastening onto Dragon. (Image Credit: SpaceX)

International Space Station fastening onto Dragon. (Image Credit: SpaceX)

Branching out from the initial Falcon 9 design, the Falcon Heavy is the world’s most powerful rocket boasting a liftoff thrust equal to fifteen 747s at full power. This is achieved through three 9 Merlin engine octawebs, which also provide the ability to maintain proper flight even after one engine shutdown. It is capable of carrying a payload of 53,000 kg to low earth orbit, which is more than twice the amount a NASA space shuttle can transport. The regular use of this rocket will provide the U.S. Air Force, NASA, and others who can afford it with unprecedented cost efficient and reliable transportation.

The Falcon Heavy is the world's most powerful rocket, capable of carrying 53,000 kg. (Image Credit: SpaceX)

The Falcon Heavy is the world’s most powerful rocket, capable of carrying 53,000 kg. (Image Credit: SpaceX)

During a visit to GSFC, I was able to meet with Nobel Laureate John Mather Ph.D and inquire as to how he felt about the rise of privatized space companies. His response emphasized a strong support for such firms, as ultimately, NASA spends an extraordinary amount of money on rockets, around $1.6 billion per flight. If SpaceX can develop a standard, cost efficient, design space exploration would only become easier. Per flight, the costs of Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy are $56.5 million and $77.1 million-$135 million (geostationary transfer orbit), respectively. Yet, the impressive company has already started work on designing a reusable rocket. The Grasshopper, the experimental 10-story Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing vehicle, reached its highest distance of 744m altitude on October 7th, 2013. Afterwards, it was able to hover and land successfully. Living in a community where reusing materials is the go to method of maintaining environmental consciousness, the development of reusable rockets is a major leap towards achieving a balance between advancing human knowledge and being proactively conscious of the state of our environment. It is an enormous challenge to produce rockets and spacecraft that are reliable, efficient, and dramatically cheaper than traditional costs; however, SpaceX has managed to operate well on that thin line of success. Perhaps the firm’s ultimate goal of providing humans with the ability to inhabit other planets will be achieved sooner than estimated.

Grasshopper during test flight. (Image Credit: SpaceX)

Grasshopper during test flight. (Image Credit: SpaceX)

With this I am reminded of the late Steve Jobs and his famous saying, “one last thing”. It is exciting and inspiring to see this same visionary outlook. As a college student I have noticed a strong need to constantly think ahead. Remaining with the pack is useless, but forcing ahead, taking risks with confidence and creativity is essential for success. The world and its environment are constantly changing and we must be prepared to adapt with them.

Before I end this rather long post, I would like to make a remark on another benefit of privatized space companies. While thousands of jobs have been lost as a result of the NASA budget cuts, communities surrounding the launch sites of SpaceX plan on greatly benefiting from these projects. The latter will create hundreds of jobs, provide internships for students, and attract other major, up and coming, companies. The potential Falcon 9 launch site, Brownsville, TX, is extremely excited but equally focused on confirming their selection. If you would like to read more on this, please refer to their local newspaper, the Valley Morning Star. In a previous post I highlighted the benefits of astrophysics research, beyond the romanticized visions of space. I hope that this post will provide clarity on the current standing of NASA both budget and research wise. The agency has been the pinnacle of human space exploration abilities and continues to conduct extraordinary work on the spatial objects. Its concentration on the earth’s dynamics have provided invaluable data as we learn to adapt our lifestyles. Due to recent political events, there is certainly a need for privatized space companies and it is clear many firms are meeting this challenge. The continued partnership between NASA and companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences will lead to major advancements in space exploration. As an aspiring physicist, with research experience in astrophysics and nanotechnology, I look forward to combining both areas to develop technology that can build upon this powerful and incredible progression.


  1. Jones, John. (2011, May 01). Space shuttle spinoffs. Retrieved from http://spinoff.nasa.gov/shuttle.htm
  2. SpaceX. (n.d.). Capabilities and services. Retrieved from http://www.spacex.com/about/capabilities
  3. SpaceX. (n.d.). Dragon. Retrieved from http://www.spacex.com/dragon
  4. SpaceX. Falcon 9. Retrieved from http://www.spacex.com/falcon9
  5. SpaceX. (n.d.). Falcon heavy. Retrieved from http://www.spacex.com/falcon-heavy
  6. Turnbough, L. (2012, March 02). Commercial crew and cargo. Retrieved from http://www.nasa.gov/offices/c3po/about/c3po.html
  7. United States. National Aeronautics Space Administration.Budget for Fiscal Year 2014. Web. <http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2014/assets/nasa.pdf>.
Category: Physics, Technology, The Student Blog | 7 Comments

The Final Steps of Your Undergraduate Research Experience: Peer Review and Publishing

Conducting research is quickly becoming an integral part of the undergraduate STEM curriculum. The benefits of self-directed research early in an undergraduate education is echoed by my colleagues at The Student Blog (notably, Sarah Bhattacharjee, Rachel Cotton, Sean Lim) and large advocacy groups like the Council on Undergraduate Research. On paper, the increase in student research has very little to show, even with the developing trend of undergraduate-only research publications. Too many students and their faculty advisors are failing to recognize that the research is not complete until it is peer reviewed and presented to an audience. While undergraduate research journals have existed for some time, (for example, the Beloit Biologist for over 30 years and the Journal of Young Investigators for 17 years) the awareness of these opportunities is still lacking. When I speak with my peers, few of them are aware of the many opportunities for undergraduates to publish their research. The most common forum for young scientists to present their research is through conferences such as the Beta Beta Beta Conventions, MCMS Symposia, and NCUR. While these fantastic opportunities can contribute greatly to the development of a young scientist’s career, I believe that undergraduate-only refereed research journals provide an invaluable platform for the student research, well beyond other media.

Charles Darwin, who presented his research on leech eggs as an undergraduate

Charles Darwin, who presented his research on leech eggs as an undergraduate

Why you should try to publish as an undergraduate

1. Active and individualized feedback will help improve your scientific writing

Undergraduate STEM students are huge consumers of scientific literature. Students are introduced to primary research articles within the first few classes of their education. Many of these articles are poorly written. In a recent blog post, my fellow blogger, Jahlela Hasle, posed a very important idea; she said, “Why is the [scientific] writing so bad? Simple. We scientists aren’t trained to write.” Sure, we have all written countless lab reports, but in most cases, we are never asked to improve and revise our writing. Professors and TAs simply do not have the time to offer individualized feedback about their students’ writing. This is where peer review comes in. Many universities have implemented aspects of peer review and mock-publishing activities as part of their curriculum, with much success (and little additional work for the faculty). For example, at the University of South Carolina, the use of peer review contributed to the advancement of students’ writing skills and scientific reasoning abilities as measured by objective tests. Not surprisingly, the students agreed! Eighty-three percent of students involved in the peer review reported that it improved their writing, editing, researching, and critical thinking skills. Unfortunately, the implementation of peer review within formal coursework is still too uncommon.

The unfortunate destination of far too many undergraduate research papers [Wikimedia Commons]

The unfortunate destination of far too many undergraduate research papers [Wikimedia Commons]

2. It will professionalize your education

While most educators emphasize the importance of student-directed research projects, they must also recognize that a research experience isn’t complete until it is published. Peer review and peer assessment are an unavoidable component of a professional science career. Most research projects are bookended by peer review—first through proposal evaluation, then through publishing.  In order to professionalize an undergraduate science education, research experiences should be designed in a similar manner. Engagement in publishing is encouraged in many other disciplines, such as art, journalism, and creative writing yet it is unnecessarily avoided in the sciences.

3. You can get excited!

In my own experience, my first time publishing in an undergraduate-only research journal was an incredibly exciting experience. Not only did it give me confidence in what I can do, but I learned to communicate like a professional. Just as importantly, I have evidence that I can communicate! Now, I have a better idea of what to expect in graduate school and beyond. One of the most cited benefits of having journal-quality work as an undergraduate is that it provides evidence of a student’s gumption, independence, and ability to communicate clearly.

An undergraduate student realizing his dreams

Criticisms of Undergraduate Research Journals

Despite the apparent benefits of undergraduate-only journals, some oppose the idea. Critics argue that undergraduate publishing will “up the ante” and put unnecessary pressures on both students and their faculty advisors. Interestingly, the negative reaction to undergraduate journals often come from those who value undergraduate mentoring in their own labs. Many of the criticisms are along the lines of what Scott F. Gilbert argues, “If the research is good enough, it should be published in a ‘real’ journal.” By extension, if undergraduate-only research journals publish only “sub-par” research, who will read them?

What these arguments fail to recognize is that undergraduates, especially those who perform self-directed work, have much less time, money, and resources than research faculty. This disadvantage should not limit their ability to have their work peer reviewed and published. This is why undergraduate-only research journals primarily benefit the authors, and only secondarily benefit the readers.

To those who think that publishing should not be the status quo in a serious undergraduate STEM education, I pose the question: What is the purpose of an undergraduate education?

How to get involved in undergraduate publishing

It is extremely easy to get involved in peer review and publishing as an undergraduate. The Council on Undergraduate Research compiled a list of undergraduate journals. Many of these journals use undergraduate students as reviewers, editors, programmers, and designers. The journals span subjects from religious studies to physics. Some notable nation-wide journals include the Journal of Young Investigators, BIOS, Stanford Undergraduate Research Journal, and EvoS. In addition to these, an increasing number of undergraduate colleges are starting their own institutional journals.

[Credit: Grace Gockel]

Nathaniel Omans is a recent graduate of Beloit College where he founded the Beloit Undergraduate Research Journal. He plans to pursue his interests in neuroscience and education at Columbia University in the fall.


Category: The Student Blog | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Communicating Science Through Hip Hop

The Student Blog has talked a lot about ways to communicate research, from eliminating zombie nouns to “sacrificing truth for understanding.” But how about summarizing your findings in a rap?

We tracked down the Perlstein Lab, and asked Ethan Perlstein a few questions about his lab’s recent research remix.

Q: So, why a hip hop remix of your research?
Ethan Perlstein: The Evo Pharma Remix started out life as a more conventional video animation that I commissioned from a Canadian production company called Stone Canoe in the summer of 2012. (The genesis of the 2013 Ted-Ed video is unrelated even though it also deals with the topic of membranes). I decided to repurpose the original video animation after I crowdfunded Baba Brinkman’s 2013 Indiegogo campaign. The perk for my donation was a custom rap. Baba has released several science-themed rap albums, eg The Rap Guide to Evolution, and I’m a huge fan. I thought he would be uniquely suited to understand the basic science underlying evolutionary pharmacology and to parlay this understanding in rap form.

I knew that folks were blending science and hip hop in creative ways. That includes Baba’s oeuvre, but also Tom McFadden, an innovative science teacher whose students produced a hip hop tribute to Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who produced the historic images of double-helical DNA that Crick and Watson analyzed; and Chris Emdin, a Columbia professor who teaches science through hip hop. Science outreach is usually done by writers and bloggers who act as translators, but there’s no reason this outreach has to be in prose.

I basically just emailed Baba a link to the original video animation, which I had narrated, and he did all the rest! Including enlisting his musical partner Jamie Simmonds, who created a catchy, head-bopping beat.

Now imagine them remixing. [Citation: Chen J, Korostyshevsky D, Lee S, Perlstein EO (2012) Accumulation of an Antidepressant in Vesiculogenic Membranes of Yeast Cells Triggers Autophagy. PLoS ONE 7(4): e34024. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034024]

[Credit: Chen J, Korostyshevsky D, Lee S, Perlstein EO (2012)  doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034024]

Briefly describe the research highlighted in the video.
EP: The Evo Pharma Remix is based on my former Princeton lab’s 2012 PLOS ONE paper. In broad strokes, we used yeast as a simple experimental model for studying how a complex drug works at the cellular level, an approach I dubbed evolutionary pharmacology. Specifically, we uncovered a novel mechanism of action of the antidepressant Zoloft involving its accumulation in membranes and ensuing cellular adaptations. We proposed that this drug accumulation plays a role in the human response to antidepressants, a hypothesis that still needs to be tested.

 Are you hoping to do more in the future?
EP: My biotech startup Perlstein Lab is focused on orphan disease drug discovery, and I would love to commission an entire album of orphan disease hip hop explainers. Not only to raise awareness of orphan diseases, but also to explain their underlying biology, their clinical history, and their patient advocacy efforts. And I couldn’t think of anyone better to do it than Baba Brinkman.

If you could remix one scientific paper from any time in history, what would it be and why?
EP: That’s a tough question because I think every seminal paper in the history of science should be immortalized and popularized in rap form. Someone needs to call Kanye’s or Eminem’s agents and see if they’re interested in bringing science to the masses. There are lots of papers to go around!

If Lady GaGa is more your tune, see our Q&A with the Lab Grammy-nominated DLab follies. Also, check out this PLOS ONE paper about the relationship between listening to hip hop and learning words. 

Category: The Student Blog | 2 Comments

GRE and Graduate School Success: The Key is in the Writing

GRE study medium

Vocabulary study materials for the general GRE. Many students memorize hundreds of vocabulary words in preparation for the general GRE.


What is the remainder when 1416 + 1614 is divided by 10? Do you know what sinecure, plutonian, and interregnum mean? If not, you’re probably like the rest of us applying to graduate school and beginning to prepare for the GRE. The general GRE consists of three sections. The verbal section, in addition to reading comprehension, largely consists of vocabulary-based questions, testing your knowledge of archaic English words, many of which are likely never to appear in a scientific context. The math sections contain problems relating to topics covered in high school, ranging from geometry and algebra to probability and statistics. Do these types of questions really fairly assess your ability to be a successful graduate student in the sciences? Does the exam analyze your capability to interpret data, think creatively, be innovative in your research, or solve real world problems? I, like most frustrated students hastily attempting to memorize antiquated words and math tricks, would argue that it does not. Instead, I argue that the third section, the analytical writing portion of the exam, is best able to indicate potential for success in graduate school in the sciences.

Common sense tells us that being familiar with the number of degrees in each interior angle of a polygon or knowing 10 different obsolete synonyms for an everyday word will in no way contribute to success in a graduate program. Many studies have focused on the relationship between general GRE scores and graduate achievement. While the results have varied greatly based on the metrics used for success, most are far from encouraging. One study found that there was no statistical difference between GRE scores of students who succeeded in graduate school and those who did not (Nelson and Nelson). The same study even found that in graduate programs in the life sciences, students that did better on the GRE were more likely to fail in graduate school (Nelson and Nelson). A more recent study found that students in the top 25% of GRE scores were 3 to 5 times more likely to have a 4.0 GPA after their first year of graduate school, but also conceded that variation in the data was so great that attempting to draw conclusions based on GRE scores about graduate school success was nearly impossible (Bridgeman et al.).


A student fills out answer on a standardized test. Both the MCAT and SAT will be changed significantly in the coming years.

While the makers of the MCAT believed that the writing section “offered little additional information about the applicants’ preparation for medical school,” the prerequisites for success in graduate school are fundamentally different (AAMC press release). In the general GRE, the essay section consists of two components. The first asks you to identify flaws in a given argument. When considered in a broader context, isn’t this a large part of what is done as a student in science? Identifying flaws in logic and assessing whether claims are backed up by the evidence presented are essential skills for students to master. The second essay evaluates your ability to form and defend your own coherent argument. These skills are directly relevant to the production of a body of work sufficient to complete a graduate school thesis.

Some students argue that the writing samples do not accurately reflect their abilities and that their undergraduate scientific training did not focus on the types of writing measured by the general GRE. However, whether you have an outstanding vocabulary and ornamental writing style or your approach is to be simple and to the point, you should be able to cogently express your ideas in writing. Like it or not, writing is the medium through which scientific discoveries are shared. What is the good in having brilliant ideas and remarkable data if you cannot relate your findings to others?

In the future, the graduate school admissions process for programs in the sciences would benefit from emphasizing a student’s writing score above their math and verbal scores. A student’s ability to analyze the arguments of others and to defend their own in writing is likely to be a better indicator of success in scientific fields than their knowledge of geometry or the size of their vocabulary. While other standardized exams are moving away from required essay sections, doing the same in relation to the GRE will eliminate an opportunity for scientific graduate programs to gain insight into their applicants’ abilities to synthesize and express their findings as a graduate student.

Rebecca Marton is a senior Biological Sciences major at the University of Notre Dame and co-Editor in Chief of Scientia, the undergraduate journal of research for Notre Dame’s College of Science. She studies retinal regeneration in the adult zebrafish and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in stem cell biology. 

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We can’t live with anything less than Open

The Open Access Button has mapped over 6,000 paywalls since it launched four months ago. We know this is just the tip of a very large restricted access iceberg and there is still so much work to do. Currently we are recruiting new student team members and a steering committee. We’ve also started developing Button 2.0 and will have exciting announcements in the upcoming weeks. To make sure you’re up to date on these follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

The Open Access Button seeks to make the often invisible problem of paywalls visible, but paywalls aren’t the only open access problems that need to be made more visible. The last few days alone have highlighted problems with publishers and governments that need to be made visible.

There’s the unethical and possibly illegal actions from the publisher Elsevier. Two years ago Dr. Mike Taylor blogged about Elsevier charging to download open access articles and last August Dr. Peter Murray-Rust called attention to Elsevier charging to read open access CC-BY articles. On Sunday, Murray-Rust revisited the topic in “Elsevier are still charging THOUSANDS of pounds for CC-BY articles.” Murray-Rust found that many open access CC-BY articles were labeled as “All rights reserved” and users would be charged hefty sums for permission to reprint the articles. One example that Murray-Rust noted was Elsevier charging 8000 GBP for just the permission for 100 reprints of a CC-BY article that was incorrectly labeled as “All rights reserved.” No one should have to ask permission to re-use a CC-BY paper in any way.

Authors pay an article processing charge (APC) of $500-5,000 ($3,000 is often the standard) to publish their articles open access under a CC-BY license in an Elsevier journal. So, Elsevier is doubly profiting off APCs and the large permission charges for incorrectly labeled articles. Alicia Wise, Director of Access and Policy at Elsevier, responded to Murray-Rust’s email stating that Elsevier is “improving the clarity of our OA license labeling … This is work in progress and should be completed by summer.” This means their work in clarifying their OA license will take at minimum a full year. Taylor, Murray-Rust, and many other bloggers and Twitter users have made some noise about the issue. But there’s more work ahead to keep Elsevier and other publishers accountable.


On Monday, H.R. 4186, Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology (FIRST) Act was introduced into the United States House of Representatives. Section 303 of the FIRST Act would be a leap backwards for open access to United States federally funded research articles. Some of the harms in Section 303 include embargoes increasing from six to 12 months up to three years, failing to ensure federal agencies have full text copies of their articles to archive, and a lack of clarity about what data will be made accessible and where it would be stored. Read more about the FIRST Act from SPARC here.

Paywalls are the blockade to articles, but we need to also keep our eyes open to other problems on the open access front even in areas we already think we “won” by publishing openly. As advocates we need to keep publishers and governments accountable. We need follow up by ensuring publishers are properly displaying an article’s open access and copyright status and not confusing (whether intentionally or not) their site’s users. We need to push for stronger public access to publicly funded research and fight back when governments are regressing the progress open access advocates have made.


The Open Access Button team is currently comprised of student volunteers. Most of us will soon become early career researchers, librarians or doctors, and we see the need for open access. Often younger academics are told that open access is risky or advocates call for “punk scholars” to pave the gold road first. But isn’t it more risky to let our research hide behind paywalls? To silently wait out a publisher’s year long label fix while they continue to profit off the mistake? Or to not to reach out to our elected representatives and challenge bills that will harm access?

Last week SPARC held their Open Access Meeting in Kansas City. One of the most notable presentations from the conference came from Dr. Erin McKiernan, an early career researcher working at the National Institute of Public Health in Mexico. Her institution only has access to 139 journals and she has pledged to be open. During the talk, McKiernan said, “If I am going to ‘make it’ in science, it has to be on terms I can live with.” (Presentation slides here, and video available in the next 2-3 weeks here.)

Over at team Button, we’re on the same page with McKiernan. This isn’t about what is “risky” or who is “punk” enough. It is about what we can live with. We can’t live with publishers incorrectly labeling open access articles and charging users just for the permission to make copies. We can’t live with governments setting back public access to research. We can’t live with anything less than open. How about you?

Start taking action to support open access by opposing section 303 of the FIRST Act if you’re a U.S. Citizen and by joining the Right to Research Coalition.


Chealsye Bowley is a solo librarian and Master’s in Library and Information Studies student. She presently coordinates social media for the Open Access Button and will soon be transitioning into Launch Coordinator. You can follow her on Twitter at @chealsye and the Open Access Button at @OA_Button. 

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That Homeostat’s Got Rhythm!

Biological stability, or ‘homeostasis’, where an organism works to maintain an internal ‘steady state’ in response to the environment, is a concept familiar to all modern biologists. At all levels of organization, from cells to entire organisms, negative and positive forces act in a yin and yang fashion to dynamically respond to the environment and re-establish balance. In humans, for instance, our temperature ‘set point’ is ~98 °F. In response to an infection, our systems respond by raising the ‘set point’ via changes in neuronal activity in the hypothalamus (a key brain region in the regulation of temperature). This produces a fever, which facilitates immune system function and stifles the growth of the invading pathogen. When allowed to run rampant, however, fever can be detrimental to the health of the organism and eventually lead to death. This highlights the importance of precisely regulated homeostatic mechanisms in maintaining health and preventing disease.

If your education in the life sciences was similar to mine, a lot of emphasis was placed on homeostasis, with little if any placed on an equally important concept: biological rhythms. For a long time, researchers disregarded unexplained daily variations in what they were studying (like temperature, blood pressure, growth hormone levels…) as ‘noise’ rather than true biological phenomena.  Indeed, until the latter half of the 20th century, research in ‘biological rhythms’ was lumped into an unfashionable category along with fringe subjects, including astrology and ‘mood rings’.  I wrote this post aiming to address misunderstandings in the relationship between homeostasis and biological rhythms, and share some cool and interesting real world examples that highlight this relationship and the value of biological rhythms.

Temperature regulation shows how the set point (or “homeostat”) can adapt in response to challenges from the environment to aid in survival (a process called allostasis). To add another layer to this, wouldn’t it be even more advantageous for an organism to pre-emptively change its set point to coincide with predictable environmental challenges (i.e., those that occur with some predictable frequency)?  In humans, for instance, body temperature and cortisol rise during the day to promote alertness, while growth hormone and melatonin secretion peak at night to aid in rest and recovery. At first glance, these variations seem to fly in the face of homeostasis, which dictates that each of these factors should remain at a fixed point to ensure optimum function. The reality is that this point must move up and down over time because the obstacles an organism must face change throughout the day and the year. Biological rhythms govern these changes and help explain why they occur.

Jürgen Aschoff, a fundamental figure in biological rhythm research, described the link between homeostasis and daily rhythms in the mid-1960s:

Homeostasis is a shielding against the environment, one might say, a turning away from it. For a long time, this phenomenon has been taken as the prime objective for an overall organization in physiology; and it evidently has great survival value. But there is another general possibility in coping with the varying situations in the environment; it is, instead of shielding, ‘to turn toward it’; instead of keeping the ‘milieu interne’ stable, to establish a mirror of the changing outside world in the internal organization. This has one clear prerequisite; the events in the environment must be predictable, which of course is the case when they change periodically.’

Nicholas Mrosovsky provides the example of temperature regulation in the camel to provide a real life example of Aschoff’s point. A camel faces a major problem every day of its life: how to keep cool. It is too big to bury into the sand, there is hardly any shade, and it would quickly die of dehydration if it were to utilize evaporative cooling to dissipate heat through sweating. There is a fundamental opposition between water balance and temperature regulation. Evolution has given the camel the necessary tools to deal with this situation.

The camel offers a prime example of homeostatic ‘set point’ regulation over time (Credit: Wikipedia)

During the day, the camel’s body temperature can rise as high as ~106°F – a wicked and almost certainly lethal fever if found in humans. At night, however, when water is scarce, the camel drops its temperature down dramatically to ~93°F, which would classify as dangerous hypothermia in people. The camel drastically reduces its temperature to protect itself from the next day’s heat. Because it drops it temperature so low at night, it now takes longer to heat up following day. In other words, the camels’ ‘set point’ is not fixed; it varies in response to predictable environmental challenges.

An organism’s physiology isn’t the only thing that needs precise timing; its behavior is set to a rhythm as well. Animals must not only adapt to a spatial niche (e.g., canopy, tide pools) but to a temporal niche (e.g., nocturnal, diurnal). It’s not only what an animal does that’s important, but when it does it. The ability to predict future events (either consciously, or in the case of biological rhythms, unconsciously) is of paramount importance in passing on your genetic information to future generations. One dramatic example of precise timing is the 17-year cicada, which emerges in a predictable fashion after lying dormant for nearly two decades. Another is the short-tailed shearwater, a bird that arrives at its breeding site in mid-autumn on small islands north of Tasmania. All the individuals in the population lay their eggs between November 24th and 27th each year, and they hatch at the same time. The cicada and shearwater make use of their exquisite timekeeping machinery to overwhelm potential predators with their progeny, allowing more newborns to survive than would if offspring emerged over a longer period.

Predator avoidance most certainly played a role in shaping the evolution of biological clocks. About 20 years ago, Pat DeCoursey and colleagues at the University of South Carolina conducted a study to investigate the adaptive function of rhythms in behavior. They lesioned the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN; a brain structure that acts as the primary ‘time keeper’ in vertebrates) of wild eastern chipmunks and then released them back into the wild and followed their survival for the next two years. To control for the effects of the surgery itself, they also “sham” lesioned several chipmunks, and left their SCN intact. After just 3 months, only a single intact chipmunk had become the target of predators, while 40% of the SCN lesioned animals became lunch. These deaths were attributed to the animals being active when they were not biologically inclined to be (i.e., their ‘clock’ was broken), making them easy prey.

A short day (left) and long day (right) adapted Siberian hamster (Credit: Gregory Demas, Indiana University)

In many rodents that live at non-tropical latitudes, the shortening amount of light each day signals the approach of winter months before the really cold weather hits. Siberian hamsters, for instance, have evolved to tell the time of year by measuring day length (photoperiod). With just two bits of information: (1) day length, and (2) whether days are getting longer or shorter; the hamster can tell what time of year it is, and if winter is coming or going. When days get shorter, males rapidly reduce their body size by ~20-30%, put on an extra layer of newly white fur, and all but eliminate their reproductive organs….they won’t be doing any mating when the weather hits -50°C. In response to short days, white-footed mice (commonly found in Ohio), actually reduce the size of their brain to putatively aid in saving energy. Every year, species like these need to radically reorganize their bodies to adapt to their changing environments, or die. This involves changing that ever stable ‘set point’ drastically throughout the year.

I hope some of the examples I’ve described above help provide context for thinking about biological rhythms. I also hope that a discussion of these rhythms in addition to homeostasis will facilitate the implementation of them into early lessons on the natural world. With the increased use of artificial lighting, shift work, and trans-meridian travel, our biological rhythms are being tested in contexts in which we have not evolved. Disruption of these rhythms is only now being appreciated as a contributing factor to many diseases including metabolic syndrome, depression, and cancer.

Nothing is more interesting than discovering the remarkable strategies animals have evolved to survive in their (sometimes) extreme environments. By adding the additional ‘wrinkle’ of rhythmicity in physiology and behavior, animals can exploit environments at one time of day or year that would be dangerous or even lethal at other times! I am excited for the future of the still new field of ‘chronobiology’ (aka the study of biological timekeeping), and can’t wait to see what nature has in store for us next!

Many of the examples I describe above are discussed in more detail in the excellent “Rhythms of Life: The Biological Clocks that Control the Daily Lives of Every Living Thing” by Russell G. Foster and Leon Kreitzman.

Jeremy Borniger is currently a doctoral student in the Neuroscience Graduate Studies Program at The Ohio State University. He received his BA in anthropology with a minor in medical science from Indiana University and has worked with chimpanzeesorangutans and gorillas. In his spare time, Jeremy enjoys playing the piano, scuba diving, cooking, and writing and reading as much about science as he can. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter: @JBorniger

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Beakers, Ballplayers, and Failures

One of the most valuable experiences that I have had while involved in undergraduate research has been that of failure. My participation in research over the past three years has taught me how to fail gracefully, how to handle the emotional and psychological impact of failure, and even how to predict and minimize failure. I am fortunate to have had all of these lessons and experiences before successful experiments become a prerequisite for tasks like completing a PhD thesis or submitting a competitive grant application. I have learned at an early stage in my career that failure is large a part of science. If an individual is unwilling or unable to accept failure as a part of his or her career, it is unlikely that he or she will be well suited for a career in research.

I now recognize that when I entered my freshman year, I had a very idealized view of the process by which scientific progress is accomplished. I had imagined teams of researchers working at furious pace toward curing diseases, innovating new electronics, and better understanding the universe in which we live. After all, the pace of scientific innovation over the past one hundred years can be described as nothing short of incredible. To an outsider, who reads news of treatments and technologies that could hardly have been imagined 15 years ago, science appears to progress with relatively few obstacles and rate-limiting steps. I never could have imagined just how naive I was.

In my high school biology class, I first learned of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), one of the most beautiful, elegant, and ingenious techniques in modern biological research. This technique makes use of the cellular DNA replication machinery to amplify short segments of DNA to incredibly high quantities. PCR underlies much of the biological research currently being conducted and will only grow in importance as the field moves toward more sequence-driven research. Accordingly, when I tried to complete my first PCR, I was stunned to find that it failed to produce any level of DNA amplification.


An overview of the PCR process. (Courtesy http://www.paulvanouse.com/dwpcr.html)

In the years since, I have completed this reaction numerous times, often with great success, but occasionally with the unyielding sting of failure. I have failed for many different reasons, some my fault and some beyond my control. I have failed to add reagents, I have added reagents in incorrect volumes, and I have worked with expired or “cooked” enzymes. Over the past three years, I have come up with checks and systems that work to minimize failure in both PCR and other laboratory procedures that I must complete. I have learned to accept these setbacks and failures while simultaneously working diligently to minimize them.

In many ways, my experience in research thus far has been reminiscent of my experience playing baseball when I was younger. Take, for example, Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox hall-of-famer considered by many to be one of the greatest offensive players to ever grace the game. Despite a Hall of Fame career, a reputation as one of greatest batters to ever play the game, and the publication of one of the seminal works on hitting (The Science of Hitting), Ted Williams was only a .344 lifetime hitter. For every ten plate-appearances, he was expected to reach base on a hit only about 3.5 times. In other words, he was expected to fail 6.5 times out 10, and he is still considered to be one of the greatest players of all time.

Ted Williams’ book, The Science of Hitting

In baseball, as in science, it is not the number, but rather the nature of the failures that ultimately determines the legacy of an individual. Small failures, like botched PCRs or failed crosses, can often be overlooked as long as they do not interfere substantially with the larger project. However, the best scientists and ballplayers alike avoid the large, critical failures. The best scientists often have the foresight to avoid dead ends and blind alleys. Likewise, the best ballplayers are those that can manage a hit in critical situations, even though the odds of reaching base are forever against them. My dad once told me that the best ballplayers are those with the shortest memories—those that work hard to perfect their swing and the variables within their control, yet do not mentally hold on to their failures. I believe that the same is true of scientists.

TylerShimko_HeadshotTyler Shimko is an undergraduate studying and conducting research in biology at the University of Utah. You can follow him on Twitter @TylerShimko

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