Idea for a new year: Workshopping grad student proposals for fun and profit

While the rest of humanity celebrates the passage of 2016 and start of a new year, as ecologists we are not quite halfway through our fiscal year. For northern-hemispherists, field work wraps up in August, we spend September learning to take regular showers and don reputable clothing, then turn our attention to the queue of grant deadlines that peak in January and trail off toward the spring. Our seasons are out of sync with the rest of the world (“No eggnog, thanks – am finishing a proposal later tonight”), which means planning ahead is fundamental not only for success but arguably for survival.

One of the deadlines that creeps up every year is the NSF Graduate Research Program Fellowship (GRFP), that highly competitive but career-changing opportunity that funds several thousand graduate students across all disciplines in the United States each year. Even if you aren’t a graduate student, chances are you know or are advising students who may apply for the GRFP this October. We wrote a paper for those eyeing this opportunity, with the specific aim of helping students collect themselves (literally) to learn proposal writing skills. In The benefits of workshopping graduate fellowships: a how-to guide for graduate students and early career scientists”, we lay out step-by-step guidelines by which  graduate students (or advisors) can organize grant-writing workshops, leveraging the knowledge and skills at their institution toward the most competitive applications possible. 

The paper is based on 4+ years’ experience implementing this workshop at UW’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. It started as a brainchild of two labmates, both of whom had learned the immense value of mentorship in writing their own GRFP proposals: the workshop grew organically when we found ourselves overwhelmed with requests for help from other students and giving the same advice (often at the last minute). Knowing that there was much to be learned simply from the process of writing proposals and essays, and that students were putting in dozens if not hundreds of hours into applications, we decided to organize an optional graduate course to support applicants.

The course ultimately evolved to a non-credit workshop with a schedule that can flex based on GRFP deadlines each year, but the fundamental elements have remained the same: a student-led course around proposal writing with mentorship at its core. The workshop provides benefits such as fellowship-specific advice and a timeline for writing, but the component that students overwhelmingly value the most is being part of a small group that includes senior graduate students (often previous NSF Fellows) and post-docs for providing peer-reviews of essay drafts. This structure also spreads out the work in reviewing essays so that no one person is overly burdened, keeping the workshop sustainable over time.


The road less traveled – proposal writing with support of peers and mentors helps clarify ideas, improves writing, and teaches the fine art of peer review. Plus it’s just more fun this way. Photo: Jirka Matousek.

Although it was initially prompted by a desire to harness some of the annual GRFP chaos for a greater good, the benefits to workshopping proposal writing for graduate students have proved immense. Applicants gain early exposure and practical experience in grantwriting, collaboration, and peer-review, skills that typically are learned toward the end of graduate experiences (if at all). The workshop structure also helps level the playing field for applicants, who may have inconsistent support that depends on who happens to be in their lab at the time, or, in the case of post-baccalaureates, if they have any connections to help support their applications. Lastly, while GRFP applications are a painstaking process, the group approach can definitely help boost motivation and confidence: when we surveyed participants about workshop components, they ranked “Support of my peers” as highly as “Expert panels”.

For students or faculty who might like to see something like this in their department, now is the perfect time to start putting the wheels in motion for a typical fall GRFP deadline (deadlines this year are Oct 23-27, 2017). Even without organizing a workshop, the article also has plenty of advice for individual students contemplating a GRFP application or faculty who mentor students every year in crafting applications. Happy writing!

Bi-coastal support for California faculty in the #CSUStrike

Photo courtesy of the California Faculty Association

Photo courtesy of the California Faculty Association

Any time a individual or organization take a stand, there is bound to be disagreement. We all have opinions based on our own world view and lifelong cultural, social, and political influences. Despite what the recent Presidential debates may have you believing about the strength of arguments, the most persuasive statements come from those who take the time to thoroughly review all available information, critically evaluate the evidence at hand, and make decisions based on this synthesis and evaluation. In advance of the impending #CSUStrike across the California State University system, Professor @JacquelynGill of the University of Maine has done just that. In her most recent blog, she provides a comprehensive look at the current issues faced by faculty nationwide and details some of the arguments in support of our movement for fair wages and our hope that our state (and Nation) will once again value our public university system. On behalf of the CSU faculty, thank you, Professor @JacquelynGill.

Changing with the times: The Future of Forestry Degrees?

IMG_2324Our forestry program at Cal Poly, along with many other programs nationwide, is looking to the future and working to identify programatic changes that will support the ever-evolving industry while also engaging the students these industries will be dependent upon in the future. Forestry programs have seen diminishing enrollments over the last few decades despite the ample job opportunities available to graduates. So, what gives? Well, cultural, social, and political drivers along with an increased understanding of ecosystem dynamics is challenging forestry programs to be innovative and to alter the structure of the curriculum.

At Cal Poly, we are working to identify the drivers of student interest and hoping to make changes based on these interests. Please help us make progress and positive change by participating in this survey:

Reposted from:

Small step for scientists, large leap for science communication

It’s said that many hands make light work, but could that be true for science communication too? In an opinion piece in PNAS that came out last week (Kuehne and Olden 2015 ), we propose that lay summaries – published online alongside traditional abstracts – are an efficient and needed science communication option in a changing media landscape. Communication of research is undergoing radical and rapid change through ever-increasing reliance on the internet, resulting in a shift from traditional top-down knowledge transfers to a “media ecosystem” (see figure below). Within this ecosystem, widespread adoption of lay summaries could substantially bolster current science communication efforts by creating reliable and direct pathways between scientists and diverse audiences including journalists, policymakers, resource managers, and the general public. We argue that it wouldn’t hurt interdisciplinary communication between scientists either! PNAS 2015 Mar 112(12) 3585-6, Fig. 1

Although lay summaries should enhance science communication across all disciplines, the need for broadly accessible research results is paramount in ecology and the environment. So we are taking this opportunity to urge journal editors and publishers in these fields to provide the platform for publication and incorporate requirement of lay summaries into their peer-review process.  If you support the inclusion of online lay summaries we hope that you’ll join us in signing an open letter to major ecology and environmental journals which will be sent on April 10th.


Lauren Kuehne and Julian Olden

University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences

Lessons learned as a first-year faculty member

By Sarah Bisbing


One of my ecology students showed her gratitude with a succulent terrarium. Awesome.

As I prepare to start my second year as an Assistant Professor, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the highs and lows of my first year, the successful changes I made over that year, and my strategies for success going forward. I’ve shared some of the lessons I learned as a first-year faculty member over at Small Pond Science. Some of them are pretty common cries from new faculty, but these are a few things I wish I had known (or accepted) before starting my first year. Check out the post here.

An American postdoc in Europe

In January of this year my boyfriend, Andre, and I packed up our house in Fort Collins, CO, dropped our dog, Ginger, off with my mom and moved out of Colorado and the country. This marked the beginning of an international tour, and we were excited. Andre headed to live with his brother in Canada, while I flew solo to Germany for a three month position. We then met up in May in the Netherlands where I began a 2 year postdoc. The last 8 months have been enlightening, exhausting, and overwhelming. While we still haven’t figure everything out, we are having an amazing time. Here is our story, and a few tips for anyone embarking on a similar adventure- punctuated with a few on my instagram photos.

Andre and I, just visiting the #Colosseum in #Rome in the rain #nbd #postdoclife

Andre and I, just visiting the #Colosseum in #Rome in the rain #nbd #postdoclife

Continue reading

Science communication in grad school: should you or shouldn’t you?

Taking part in education and outreach events: time well spent or a distraction on the way to a thesis?

Science communication in graduate school: time well spent or a distraction on the way to a thesis?

Spoiler alert: I am going to try to persuade you that all graduate students should engage in science communication.  In fact, our Freshwater Ecology & Conservation lab – made up of 3 master’s and 2 PhD students, 1 post-doc, 1 research scientist, and 1 early career professor – wrote a hot-off-the-press journal article in Conservation Biology about how graduate students can (and should) do science communication. But we know that grad students don’t have time to read any more papers, so a “Cliff Notes” version seemed in order.

If you are reading this blog, you may know something about science communication, by which I mean (very generally) talking about research to audiences other than scientists. Maybe you even have an opinion about it, something like “I wish I knew how to do that better”, or “If only I wasn’t so busy”. Or maybe you already dislike this post, because “I’m still learning how to DO science – I’ll figure out communicating it later!” Continue reading