From research to the classroom: My experience as a guest lecturer

Each year, an HPL alumna offers current graduate students an opportunity to gain teaching experience by giving a guest lecture for one of her undergraduate courses at nearby Washington College. There are few traditional teaching opportunities available to me because I am part of a graduate program that does not have any undergraduate students and because I am located at a research lab, rather than on a college campus. Therefore, I immediately volunteered to teach a field methods lecture and lab on sediment dynamics without having any teaching material planned.

I was not completely green going into this teaching opportunity. I was actually a teaching assistant for an introduction to geology laboratory while I was working on my Master’s degree, where I was responsible for guiding students through their weekly lab assignments. Therefore, I knew I was going to have to dedicate some time to preparing a lecture and laboratory activities to reinforce sediment dynamics concepts.

However, unlike the geology laboratories I previously led, which were designed to closely follow the introduction to geology lectures, I did not have any template lesson plans or assignments. I started to think about all of the field and lab work I have done while I have been a graduate student at Horn Point, and what methods I could teach these undergraduate students that would give them a taste of my research on sediment-vegetation interactions.

A beautiful day for some field work!
A beautiful day for some field work!

I decided I wanted to go out in the field and have students perform a grain size activity, estimate underwater plant coverage, and measure current velocity. Each of these things could have been covered in their own individual labs, so the tricky part was condensing all of these activities down to the ~4 hour lecture+lab window.

I wish I could say that I knew exactly how to design a lesson and lab plan that seamlessly integrated these activities, but I have very little experience developing my own course content. Therefore, I turned to the Science Education Resource Center (SERC) at Carleton College for ideas on how to develop the lecture and lab.

SERC is an incredibly useful resource for developing teaching materials in Earth Sciences, and I found templates for lab activities and assignments on measuring grain size and current velocity, which meant I was 2/3 of the way there! I took pieces from each of the lab templates and wrote out my own lecture+lab set that integrated water motion, plant density, and sediment motion.

Although I felt prepared (at least on paper), I was a little intimidated by the idea of presenting my research (in lecture+lab form) to environmental science students. However, these fears were quickly put to ease as I went over the answers to the pre-lab assignment I gave them to help orient everyone to sediment dynamics.

I was impressed by how confident the students were when speaking up in class, and how thoughtful their discussions were to open-ended questions. They came fully prepared and eager to go out in the field and collect sediment cores and observe seagrass beds from a kayak.

Looking for seagrass
Looking for seagrass

I remember when I took labs as an undergraduate student, the work was not always shared equally. However, I was pleased to see that in this class, each student took on part of the responsibility, and diligently reported their findings in their lab notebooks. They quickly realized that grain size, sea grass coverage, and current speed were not uniform over our field site. In fact, the seagrass was little difficult to find, as the water was quite turbid.

By the end of the day, the students successfully completed all of the lab activities, and found that grain size tended to be smaller (i.e. more muddy) and currents slower inside seagrass beds than in bare patches.

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Wet sieving to determine grain size.

Although I considered the day to be a success, I did get a small taste of how challenging it can be to develop and teach a course, and how important it is to be able to carve time out of my schedule to really prepare. But it was all worth it when I heard someone say “this lab was fun!”

Wade-In for water quality

Whoa…it is August, and to be honest, this summer has been jam-packed for me. However, unlike the previous summers where I was busy doing fieldwork or analyzing my samples in the lab, my goal this summer has been to communicate my research. As I discussed in an earlier post, I am trying to become more involved with science outreach, and have been on the lookout for new opportunities to share my research with a non-academic audience.

Fortunately, my outreach mentor helped me connect with a man who does a lot of work promoting clean water in the upper Chesapeake Bay. After a quick email introduction and brief overview of my research, he recommended a few community outreach opportunities that he thought would be appropriate venues to share my work.

In particular, he invited me to have a booth featuring my research at two “Wade-In” events in the upper Chesapeake Bay. The “Wade-In” was inspired by former Maryland State Senator Bernie Fowler, who has been monitoring water quality in the Patuxent River since the late 1980s by measuring how deep he could wade into the water in white sneakers before he could no longer see his shoes.

Cecil County Wade-In
Cecil County Wade-In

These wade-ins turned out to be perfect events to talk to people about my work, learn about other environmental organizations that promote clean water, and see people excited about environmental stewardship.

I set up a display titled “What’s mud got to do with it?”, where I showed people how smaller sediment particles (aka “mud”) reduce visibility in the water column more than larger particles (aka “sand”) because it takes them longer to settle. It was really fun talking with people who stopped by my booth about why clean water was important to them and it was especially cool to have people of all ages participating in a demonstration I set up, where they would shake up water bottles filled with mud and sand to see which is worse for water quality.

Image Credit: Rupert Rossetti
Image Credit: Rupert Rossetti

Eventually it was time for the official wade-in where all attendees were encouraged to walk into the water until they could no longer see their feet. It was great to hear people yelling that they could still see their toes as they walked farther away from shore.

I can still see my feet!
I can still see my feet!

The official measurement for the first wade-in I attended was 26 inches, while the second one was 14 inches. These events were only one week apart, but the conditions on the two days were very different. The weather at the first wade-in was calm, though it had rained the night before, while it was very windy at the second one. Rain can cause soil runoff from the land; however it did not seem to adversely affect the water clarity much at the first wade-in. On the other hand, the wind at the second event stirred up the mud, which caused the water to be cloudier.

The weather conditions at both events tied in perfectly with the message about how different sized particles have very different effects on water clarity. And although there is not much we can do to control the weather, I really wanted to stress what we can do to reduce the amount of soil that makes it to the Bay. For example, planting trees near waterways helps hold soil in place so that it is not as easily eroded.

It was refreshing to see large crowds of people at both events, and I loved listening to people tell me stories about how they have seen positive changes in water quality in the upper Bay recently, such as the expansion of seagrass beds.

I often find that because I am intimately involved with my research, I sometimes struggle to see the bigger picture in how it can help us better understand and protect our environment. However, connecting with people at these wade-ins helped me zoom out and see how we can share our work with others in order to achieve a common goal of improving Chesapeake Bay water quality.

 

 

Making my voice heard

First of all, I am really excited that so many people use different forms of digital media to communicate their science. I believe it is a useful tool for learning about cool science topics, and can provide a more accessible way to digest technical findings. I have certainly found myself spending hours reading through IFLScience or SouthernFriedScience articles and perusing science subreddits (Binge-reading you can feel good about!).

Those are just a few examples of popular resources that present the science without the jargon, and I think they prove that it can be a useful forum for getting people excited about science.

Therefore, when I was thinking about ways that I could share my research with people who are interested in Chesapeake Bay health, I decided that keeping a blog would be a great (modern!) platform to document my progress, with the added bonus of improving my writing skills.

I have found that writing this blog is rewarding, and it has been a great way to reflect on what I have accomplished (or not accomplished) with my research. However, it has come with its own set of challenges. For example, many popular science blogs/forums often produce articles regularly (daily!), and I struggle coming up something to write once a month. But to be fair, these blogs/forums report on multiple topics and usually have several people contributing to them. However, I have learned that blogs are more effective if you post frequently, and actively promote them.

Another challenge I have faced is figuring out whether my message is being heard (or…read). While blogging does have the potential to reach people who are not local, but interested in the research, it is not as direct as giving a public lecture or working with volunteers.

Washington College Environmental Science major, Rose Adelizzi, working with sediment samples.
Washington College Environmental Science major, Rose Adelizzi, working with sediment samples.

I am fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate with a great outreach mentor who works with Maryland Sea Grant Extension Program. I shared my concerns with her, and she told me that the blog is a good way to share a story, but she also encouraged me to seek out teaching and community outreach opportunities.

I have found that the further I progress in my research, the more I want to share what I have learned with people who care about environmental science. Therefore, I have tried to take my mentor’s advice, and become actively involved in science outreach by giving tours around the Horn Point Lab, volunteering for career days at schools, working at a science display table at local festivals, and training volunteers on the equipment I use in my research.

The people at these events vary in age and science background (among other things), and my goal is to make sure that everyone learns something about Chesapeake Bay water quality. My outreach mentor has stressed the importance of understanding who my audience is in order to craft a message that resonates with them.

Currently, most research projects incorporate an outreach component, and I have noticed that many of these programs are targeted to the “general public.” While it is a convenient term, the “general public” does not really exist, because people in the audience are usually there for a more specific reason. For example, when I share my work, I am usually talking to a group of people who may not be experts in things like sediment dynamics, but they want to learn about how sediment from the Susquehanna River impacts water quality in the Chesapeake Bay—whether it be for educational, professional, recreational, or aesthetic purposes.

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Teaching budding scientists about sediment cores at Horn Point Laboratory Open House

As I have become more involved with these various outreach activities, I have learned that there are many different forums to share my research. I have found that the best way to ensure that my voice is heard is by asking people directly why water quality is important to them, and then making a connection between my work and their interests. These stories are often great conversation starters, and hearing anecdotes about fishing on the Susquehanna Flats, or how people would cross the Conowingo Dam every day to get to work, or how people have seen more seagrasses over the past five years than they saw for over 30 years has made my research so much more meaningful.

Keep on moving forward…

My accomplishment from last week was so tangible, well technically digital, and such a huge milestone for me to reach in my graduate work that anything I have done this week pales in comparison. But, the important thing that I have to often remind myself of is that I am making forward progress.

Actually, since finishing up my manuscript, I have found that I have more time to take inventory of all of the research that I have completed and determine what still needs to be done. So this week has been all about getting organized and outlining my goals for the rest of my dissertation research.

It turns out that this is good timing on my part (or more likely, a good research program design), as the next step towards my degree is to defend my research proposal.

I am in the early stages of writing my research proposal, and am currently gathering background information on sedimentation in the upper Chesapeake Bay, of which there is a lot! Although I have found it a bit daunting to try and pull together all of the important sedimentological studies in the upper Chesapeake Bay, it has helped me become even more excited about my work and the story it will tell! Stay tuned!!

Manuscript successfully submitted!

I just submitted my first publication as first author! When I began writing this manuscript in summer/fall 2016, I had no idea where it was going, or how I was going to tell an interesting story with my data. There were plenty of days where I was frustrated with the process of writing, but fortunately, my advisor was very supportive, and helped keep me motivated (and on a schedule). Sure, I still have to wait on the reviews, and will then have to submit revisions, but I think seeing the email in my inbox that says “Successfully received” is reason enough for celebration!

Connecting audiences to the bigger picture

Well, it’s that time of year again…the pre-holiday sprint to try and squeeze as much work into 2016 as possible. For me this has included a final class project, two conferences (one in San Francisco!), an end-of-the year research report, and finishing up my first manuscript. Because each of these things requires me to communicate my research, often to a broader audience than my lab group, I have realized that is time to step out of the weeds and share the bigger picture.

I do believe that there are appropriate times to share the more detail-oriented side of science (i.e. methods and results), but as I have learned in my science writing and communication class this semester (huge thanks to Elizabeth North and Jacqueline Tay), it is important to find my research narrative.

I study sediment, and over time I have learned that “mud” can be a hard sell, especially because it lacks, for some people at least, the charisma of say a sea turtle. Personally, I have been a huge fan of mud since I was a child, but I recognize not everyone sees its appeal. However, my goal whenever I give a formal presentation or am informally asked what my research is about, I try to find a connection between my work and audience.

Specifically, I study how sediment interacts with plants in the upper Chesapeake Bay. Most people I have spoken to living in the Chesapeake Bay watershed care about Bay water quality, and seagrasses can actually help improve it. Seagrasses physically obstruct water flow, and create regions of more stagnant water, which allows sediment to settle out of the water column and prevents it from being eroded. My approach is to address the water quality concerns first, and to then suggest that seagrasses are a natural filter.

Seagrass_sediment
Schematic on sediment-vegetation interactions

I have not won everyone over on this story though. Once I was speaking to a group of people about my work, and someone told me that they found seagrasses to be a nuisance. I was surprised, and a little discouraged, because I had devoted a huge amount of time to understanding how they benefit water quality. They told me that the plants get stuck in their boat propellers when they are fishing. I can actually relate to this. When we were in the field, we had to periodically clean off the propeller, and sometimes drag the boat to avoid turning on the propeller (seagrasses grow in shallow water). While I do understand this annoyance, I tried to convey that one of the reasons seagrass beds are some of the best fishing spots is because they are important nurseries for fish and crabs. Removing the grasses would also likely remove these habitats.

Bagging up seagrass samples

Overall, most people have been supportive of my work, and several people even shared how excited they were to see seagrasses flourishing in the Bay this past summer. I enjoy hearing these anecdotes because it shows me that my work really resonates with people, and that maybe my research is not such a hard sell after all.

3..2..1..Write!

I am at the point in my research where I have collected all of my data for the Susquehanna Flats project, and am working with my advisor on our interpretation of it. In other words, it is time to start writing.

Writing a paper for a scientific journal is hard. Actually, writing in general is tough, and it is a skill you have to continuously nurture in order to improve (so I’m told). Although I have been in school most of my life, and I have written my fair share of papers, I was not sure how to start this process of preparing a manuscript for a scientific journal.

I am not ashamed to say that I Googled “How to write a scientific paper?” Fortunately, there are a plethora of online (and print) resources available on this topic. I found an article by Borja (2014) that was particularly helpful for overcoming my writing inertia. He explained that although we structure an article following the IMRAD format (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion), the writing order is different: methods, results, discussion, and introduction.

With this newfound insight, I was inspired to open a word document and start writing. After staring at a blinking cursor on a blank document for an embarrassingly long time, I decided I should probably talk to my advisor. I told her I had all of my data and that I thought I was ready to start writing, but I was stuck on how to start. Her advice was straightforward: just start. She said that it is common to feel self-conscious about writing, but no one needed to see my first draft. She said silence that inner critic and get words onto paper.

Following the writing order from the Borja article, I started writing up the methods section. I did not focus too much on writing style or varying up my sentence structure, I just wrote out all of the data that was collected from the Susquehanna Flats, and the methods that were used to obtain it.

I then moved onto the results section, which was a little more challenging for me. As I discussed in my last post, I was obsessive about making sure my data were “right.” Once I felt confident with my data, after spending long sessions with my spreadsheets, I wrote down all of the results I had.

Addressing the “why” question in the discussion section has been a struggle for me. I knew there was a really interesting story about sediment-vegetation interactions on the Susquehanna Flats, but I was not quite sure how to frame it. To help sort through my ideas, I started writing in a full-blown stream of consciousness mode. I wrote down what I knew about the area, what patterns I saw in my data, what could possibly explain those patterns, and questions I was not really sure how to answer. It was a big mess on screen, and it did not come together into a cohesive argument, but I at least had something written that I could edit.

Writing is a daunting task. Although there are numerous tips on how to start writing, the most important advice I received was to just write. On the days I worked on my methods and results section, I was able to write several pages in one sitting, other days I managed to have a net loss of words. However, I consider any change to my document progress.

I recognize that my manuscript will undergo several iterations before I submit it for publication, but I think I am off to a good start.

 

I have confidence in…my data

One of the more difficult aspects of being a graduate student, for me, has been interpreting my data. In one of my previous posts, I discussed my struggles with interpreting how much sediment was accumulating on the Susquehanna Flats each year. We collected this sediment two years ago, and I am still trying to tease out what this data is telling me.

In a sediment core, the oldest sediment is at the bottom and the newest is at the top. I use a naturally occurring radioisotope (element that decays over time) to determine the age of sediment throughout the core. The radioisotope is only incorporated into the sediment when it is at the surface, and “older” sediment is eventually buried by “younger” sediment. As time passes, the radioisotope decays at a known rate.

Sediment core collected at Susquehanna Flats. Youngest sediment at 0 cm (silver meter stick) and oldest at ~190 cm (tan meter stick)

Although the actual method for determining a sediment accumulation rate is a bit too esoteric for this post (though if you are interested in learning more, I am working on a paper on this topic!), we should see a trend where the radioisotope activity (kind of like chemical concentration) in the sediment decreases with depth (age).

Unfortunately, my data did not exactly conform to this trend. While the activity at the top of the core (youngest sediment) was much higher than at the bottom of the core (oldest sediment), the activity in the middle of the core seemed to bounce around a bit.

However, this variability was not entirely unexpected. The trend described above would be present in environments where sedimentation rates are constant and there is little sediment mixing. Sediment accumulation rates on the Flats are strongly dependent on the amount of sediment that is delivered by the Susquehanna River, which is not constant from year to year, and mixing by animals, waves, and currents.

After reading some papers on flood event sedimentation, and spending probably way too much time staring at my data, I reported my preliminary results to my advisor. My first question was “is this right?” Very wisely she told me that the data is “right”, but that it is important to be confident in my interpretation. She asked me what evidence did I have for my results, and told me that it is necessary to be able to defend my answers, which is why we use other evidence to verify our results.

For example, I examined the sediment for a man-made radioisotope, which first appeared in sediments in 1954, to determine sedimentation rates since then, and noticed that these rates agreed well with the sedimentation rates I calculated using the naturally occurring radioisotope. I also compared calculated sediment ages in the cores to large Susquehanna River flood events, and found that the depths of the core that corresponded to these major flood events contained very muddy (small particle sizes) sediment, as would be expected.

VB3_EventLayers_137Cs
Flood Layers (blue) and man-made radioisotope horizons (red) in the sediment core

I did find it reassuring that different lines of evidence led to similar results; however, I still think interpreting data is difficult, but I believe that I can now confidently defend my interpretations.

Summertime = Lab time

The end of a semester is always a busy time. This spring has been an extremely busy time for me as I have wrapped up final projects, papers, and presentations, and participated in three different sampling “cruises.”

I would never say that there is much idle time in graduate school; there is always something that needs to be done: fieldwork, lab work, paperwork, etc. When I first started my graduate work at Horn Point, my advisor told me that if I ever found myself without anything to do to come see her – this has never happened.

I have to admit that leading up to my comprehensive exams I was pretty selfish with my time, and I neglected lab work in order to study. I also substituted some of the time I would normally be working in the lab to prepare for the Atlantic Estuarine Research Society (AERS) conference in March, and to finish up a final project for a class I was taking this spring. I reasoned that much of this “neglected” lab work could wait until the semester was finished, when I would have more time.

Well, now the semester is over, it turns out this “extra time” that I thought I would have eludes me. Although I have been incredibly efficient with the “old” work, it turns out that I did not really account for the “new” samples I would also have to process this summer.

Conowingo_core_extruder
My core extruder set up — on the Conowingo Reservoir

Our spring field season has been quite busy, and I have queued up a lot of lab work. I went on three different field excursions during April – to the Conowingo Reservoir, Lakes Clarke and Aldred (on the lower Susquehanna River), and the upper Chesapeake Bay.

The cruise on the Conowingo Reservoir was a perfect field day: sunny and not windy, and we may have sampled in record time! Conversely, we sampled Lakes Clarke and Aldred on a day in April that the sun disappeared for a month. It was a long, cool, and misty day. But I did learn that a couple of my field comrades (Dr. Jeff Cornwell and Mike Owens) are boat MacGyvers, and can start an inboard motor like an outboard motor with a piece of string! The next day, we sampled the upper Bay on the Research Vessel Rachel Carson, which was another long, cool, and rainy day.

By the end of April, my sediment haul totaled 14 short cores (~20 cm) and 7 long cores (~1 m), and I immediately started processing these samples in the lab.

Longcores_rain
Hauling our long cores back to the lab. Photo credit: Sairah Malkin

This influx of samples certainly motivated me to become more organized, and create a detailed lab work calendar to help me stay on track. However, the most valuable lesson from this experience was how to craftily start a boat. I am (mostly) kidding! I now know that summer time does not equal more time, but means that the work responsibility is shifted away from coursework towards lab work.

cut_longcore
Cutting long cores in the lab. Photo credit: Judy O’Neil

At least my advisor can rest assured that I am staying busy!