PFTF Fellows 2015-2016

2015-2016 Professors for the Future Fellows

Successful Strategies for Mentoring Undergraduates in Research

Hagop Atamian

UC Davis provides excellent resources and opportunities for undergraduate students to acquire the skills that are vital to success as a researcher. The Undergraduate Research Center helps students find appropriate research opportunities in many disciplines, however, many undergraduate students independently volunteer in research projects and their efforts go undocumented. The graduate students and postdocs are usually assigned as supervisors for undergraduate student training efforts in different groups or labs. Unfortunately, the university does not have the means to record their service and acknowledge their efforts in this important university mission. The purpose of this project was to work towards the development of centralized database to gather information from Principal Investigators (PIs), Direct Supervisors, and Undergraduate Students involved in undergraduate research training on campus.

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Grant Writing Workshop Series for the Social Sciences

Lauren Berger

Newly minted assistant professors are often expected to write and apply for external funding for their research and/or to support their graduate students. Despite this highly publicized expectation, many graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in the social sciences are not introduced to the grant writing process. As a result, many early career social science researchers and scholars struggle to write their first grant application. For my PFTF project, I coordinated a workshop series on grant writing for social science graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.

The first workshop, “Part 1: Introduction to Grant-Writing,” was led by Dr. Belinda Martineau, the Grant Writer with the Institute for Social Sciences (ISS) at UC Davis. Dr. Martineau offered an introductory and broad overview of different grant mechanisms, the availability and appropriateness of funding opportunities and resources, the structure of the scientific review process, and the types of projects that ultimately get funded.

The second workshop, “Part 2: Effective Grant-Writing Strategies,” included a panel of social science faculty who have been successful at obtaining grants and fellowships.  Dr. George Barnett (Distinguished Professor of Communication), Dr. Giovanni Peri (Professor of Economics), and Dr. Charles Walker (Professor of History) discussed best practices, researching and understanding the priorities of the funding agencies, communicating with program officers, writing to the reviewers, their personal approach as a grant or fellowship reviewer, and considering the broad implications of a research program.

The final workshop, “Part 3: Writing an Effective Research Proposal,” was led by Dr. Suad Joseph (Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies). This workshop included a two-hour presentation outlining and discussing the basic components of a research proposal: (a) Statement of the Problem; (b) Review of the Literature; (c) Statement of Need; (d) Statement of Significance of the Research; (e) Theoretical Framework; (f) Method/Design; (g) Time Table; (h) Budget; (i) Abstract; (j) Vitae; and (k) Bibliography.

Across the 3-part workshop series, 48 individuals (75% from the social sciences) attended at least one event. Approximately 70% of the attendees were graduate students, while 20% were postdoctoral scholars. The workshops were also attended by Institute for Social Sciences (ISS) staff, UC Davis library staff, a Visiting Scholar, an Assistant Project Scientist, and a Professor.  A review of both quantitative and qualitative feedback suggests that all three workshops were well-received and additional grant-writing workshops were requested for future academic years.

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Fitness and Wellness for Graduate Students and Postdocs

Christy Cahill

The need to strike a balance between work and self-wellness is relevant to the lives of graduate and postdoctoral scholars.  Fitness and wellness are important components of coping with the competitive and demanding nature of our profession, but herein lies the problem: in a profession that demands so much time and energy, how can we (1) even justify spending time on fitness and wellness, and (2) make fitness and wellness become a lifestyle rather than an intermittent goal?   

To address this challenge, I created and implemented a three-part workshop series for graduate students and post-doctoral scholars in partnership with the UC Davis Athletic and Recreation Center (ARC).  The purpose of the workshop series was threefold: first, to introduce current research on the benefits of fitness and wellness; second, to link the research to exercises that can be done at the ARC, at home, or at the office; and third, to create a network of graduate students interested in pursuing a holistic approach to finding a work/life balance. 

The three workshops were (1) Intro to Strength Training, (2) Intro to Cycling, and (3) Intro to Lower Back and Core Strength.  Overall, approximately 50 graduate students and postdocs from 20 departments attended at least one workshop.  According to the workshop evaluations, participants appreciated the emphasis on form and technique in a slower pace environment.  In addition, participants also appreciated the handouts I created with sample workouts, music, and alignment/breathing cues.  We ended each workout by setting goals and sharing strategies and ideas for obtaining fitness goals.  Almost all participants wrote one specific fitness or wellness change that they will make as a result of the workshop series.  

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Controversial Subjects: The Limits of Free Expression in the Classroom and Beyond

Jordan S. Carroll

The headlines are filled with stories that challenge professors and graduate student instructors to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable speech. Responding to these debates, the Controversial Subjects workshop series explored how professors might best address sensitive or contentious topics in the classroom as well as in their careers as public intellectuals.

The series included three events. The first workshop, “Teaching Troubling Topics,” focused on methods graduate students could use to present potentially disturbing material while still respecting the needs of a diverse student population that may include trauma survivors. “Teaching Political Controversies,” the second workshop, provided an opportunity for instructors to discuss strategies for teaching politically charged topics. The final event, “Graduate Students and Public Controversy” featured a panel discussion interrogating how debates about acceptable academic speech fit into the broader context of the changing profession, new media, contemporary politics, and the post-recession university. Overall, this series was aimed to improve teaching effectiveness while offering a forum for graduate students and faculty. Individuals from a wide range of disciplines attended the workshops, including representatives of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.

The Controversial Subjects workshop series was carried out with generous help from Simon Abramowitsch, Dr. Arnold J. Bloom, Christy Cahill, Dr. Bai-Yin Chen, Dr. Teresa Dillinger, Valerie Feldman, Dr. Elizabeth Freeman, Dr. Bruce D. Haynes, Sawyer Kemp, and Duane Wright.

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Using Failure to Succeed

Elizabeth Crachiolo

All academics fail.  Unfortunately, we are much more likely to discuss our successes while we hide or ignore our failures.  This can lead to a situation, particularly for graduate students, in which our failures seem unique and our efforts misguided, and in which we don’t learn from our mistakes.  Hearing about others’ failures—particularly those we see as successful—and learning how they have overcome them is a positive way to learn how to cope with and use the inevitable disappointments we will face.

In the spirit of attempting to find productivity in failure, I organized two events.  The first, “Using Failure Productively: A Panel,” consisted of five professors at different stages in their careers and from different disciplines who shared their experiences with failure, as well as advice for coping with it, and responded to questions from the audience.  What emerged was a picture of failure as ubiquitous and maybe even necessary for academic work.  The second event, “Succeeding Through Failure: Learning to Fail Productively in Grad School,” was an interactive presentation by Steve Lee, the Graduate Diversity Officer for the STEM disciplines.  Dr. Lee described research by Carol Dweck and others suggesting that one’s response to failure is a critical factor in forming productive habits and mindsets.  He also invited the audience to reflect on their own habitual responses and formulate changes they might make in order to cultivate resilience and creativity in the face of failure.

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Supporting Interdisciplinary Research at UC Davis - The 2nd UC Davis Postdoctoral Research Symposium

Nicky Creux

The inaugural interdisciplinary postdoctoral research symposium was hosted by Dr. Kajala as her PFTF project in 2014/2015. With approximately 800 postdoctoral scholars performing and publishing original research at UC Davis, Dr. Kajala’s main goal was to highlight and celebrate the excellent postdoctoral research carried out by this significant sector of the UC Davis research community. The daylong event was a great success bringing over 100 UC Davis postdoctoral scholars from diverse disciplines together to present their research and share ideas. As an active participant of the first symposium and by reviewing all the positive feedback received, both from other postdoctoral scholars and faculty members, it was clear that this symposium was a valuable showcase of postdoctoral research and facilitated interdisciplinary networking.

For my PFTF project I chose to work towards establishing this as an annual event and I hosted the 2nd UC Davis Postdoctoral Research Symposium on 18th May 2016 at the UC Davis Conference Center. This event was well attended with over 200 attendees, the majority of which were postdocs, and the atmosphere was very conducive to networking. Several participants commented that networking with fellow postdocs across disciplines was the best part of the day. In addition to the fantastic talks and poster sessions we included two career development panel discussions. The first was on Patents, Copyright and Spin-offs, which included prominent speakers from the university and surrounding spin-off companies. The second panel was focused on Social media in research and this panel housed a lively discussion with communication specialists and strategic initiative coordinators. The feedback from the panel attendees was mostly positive and participants felt there was a great deal of interesting and useful information presented.

This year we also included information tables for societies that support postdocs including PFTF, FUTURE, Postdoctoral Scholars Association (PSA) and the Postdoc Union. As the next step to securing this event as an annual fixture I included members of the PSA on my organizing committee and Dr Molly Foote, a 2016/2017 PFTF fellow and PSA chair, will lead the 2017 organizing committee. Strengthening the ties between the PSA and Postdoctoral Research Symposium will help maintain continuity for future events and hopefully the symposium will continue to go from strength to strength in the years to come.

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A Bootcamp for the Statistical Programming Language R

Michael Levy

Science increasingly requires computational competence, but computing education has not kept up with demand. This week-long intensive introduction to the programming language R aimed to help fill that gap.

The bootcamp was built on the Software Carpentry model of short, welcoming, intensive introductions to computational tools. Software carpentry, however, typically has student: instructor ratios below ten and introduces three major tools in two days. Here, I adapted Software Carpentry strategies and tactics to provide a deeper introduction to R over the course of a week with a student: instructor ratio above 50.

The course was designed for students with little-to-no experience with computer programming. By the end of the week, students understood the importance and mechanics of computational workflows, were able to manipulate data efficiently and reproducibly, and could make publication-quality graphics.

Learning a programming language is like learning any other language -- you have to do it to learn it. You make mistakes, and you learn by fixing them. Unfortunately, "getting unstuck" is a learned skill and can be endlessly frustrating for beginners. This course had students work on increasingly open-ended challenges throughout the week, with the instructor and assistants available to help and to demonstrate how to help themselves. Mornings were lectures mixed with short  exercises; afternoons hade students work on short analysis projects to solidify understanding. The exercises and projects progressed from highly structured to open-ended so that students not only learned R syntax, but also computational problem solving.

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​​Interdisciplinary Instruction: Designing a Course, Creating a Syllabus

Sarah Messbauer

Designing and proposing courses is a fundamental part of being a successful teacher, but it is a process with which most graduate students and postdocs have little to no experience. This two-part workshop series was designed to address that gap by giving participants insights into the course proposal process while at the same time integrating information on interdisciplinary instruction—an increasingly sought-after teaching skill at institutions across academia.

Part one of this two-part series provided workshop participants with the opportunity to hear about first-hand experiences with interdisciplinary course design from faculty at UC Davis. In this facilitated question and answer session, panelists from across the humanities, social sciences, and STEM fields discussed their motivations for developing their courses as well as some of the most significant benefits and challenges of teaching courses of this type. In doing so, workshop participants were given a clearer picture of how the interdisciplinary course design process works from start to finish, including details on subjects as specific as how to develop an idea, who to contact to help them develop their course idea, when it’s appropriate to involve a co-teacher and how to find one, and how to put all of this together into a successful course proposal application.

In part two, participants applied the information they were given in session one as they outlined course proposals for their own interdisciplinary classes. Working both independently and in small groups, participants first brainstormed interdisciplinary course ideas based on subjects of interest to themselves or their disciplines. Next participants were guided through a rough syllabus design process using backwards design principles, which allowed them to both identify and plan for the potential challenges in mounting their specific classes. At the conclusion of the workshop, participants were provided with a range of resources for further developing, proposing, and teaching their courses at UC Davis and elsewhere.

Based on the response to these workshops, there is a keen interest in interdisciplinary course design among UC Davis graduate students and postdocs. In conversations with interested participants, many expressed a sincere appreciation for a workshop series that focused on providing attendees with the opportunity not just to learn more about the philosophies of interdisciplinary instruction, but also to apply that knowledge directly by creating course proposals of their own.  

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Guiding Undergraduate Scientific Writing: Teaching Strategies for Mentors

Anna Perry

In the sciences, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars frequently mentor undergraduates seeking research experience. As mentors, we are asked to guide these students as they write abstracts for research conferences, honors theses, or fellowship applications. However, the art of scientific writing can often entangle these mentor-mentee partnerships in a minefield of theories and jargon, with subtle nuances difficult both for undergraduate researchers to master and for graduate or postdoctoral scholars to articulate to their mentees. Due to students’ diverse backgrounds and variation in writing proficiency, mentors may also need to develop different strategies to help individual students. Although many graduate students and postdocs excel at writing, few receive formal training for teaching writing skills to others. Thus, young academics may struggle to provide feedback on rough drafts, without making the pages bleed with red correction ink. Mentors that donate their time may also not have contact with a broader teaching community or receive institutional support beyond their own lab groups. Without formal training and support for mentors, neither mentors nor their mentees fully benefit from their interactions. 

To train graduate student and postdoctoral mentors to give effective feedback on undergraduate scientific writing, I conducted a series of interactive workshops. These workshops focused on the following topics: (1) How to Give Effective, Time-Efficient Feedback on Scientific Writing; (2) How to Teach Undergraduates to Write Well-defined Hypotheses and Predictions; and (3) The First Abstract – Helping Undergraduates Summarize Their Research. This workshop series gave 28 mentors an opportunity to receive formal training in writing instruction from expert panelists representing several different programs on the UC Davis campus, including the University Writing Program, the Center for Educational Effectiveness, and the College of Biological Sciences.

I also created a new website with advice and teaching materials designed for mentors working with undergraduate researchers on scientific writing projects (now hosted on the “Teaching and Mentoring” page of the GradPathways website: This site includes a concise guide to existing campus resources, where mentors can seek support or recommend additional writing services to their undergraduates. Finally, I collected data from 55 graduate students and 14 postdoctoral scholars to help guide future professional development opportunities for mentors providing guidance on scientific writing projects.

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Playing to the Crowd: Making Yourself and Your Research More Accessible

Marc Pollack

Public speaking is an integral part of any the life of any academic. Most students, post docs and academics experience this chiefly in insular groups, presenting complex research to experts in their fields. However, this practice usually places the content of a given presentation above its construction and delivery, two aspects that are, perhaps, even more important for broader audiences. Even the best research is only impactful when it is conveyed well, and when it comes to acquiring funding and getting media attention, effective delivery is essential. As such, researchers have to bridge the gap in understanding between themselves and the general public. And with programs like the Grad Slam competition, students have very real opportunities to present complex topics in a digestible, interesting fashion. Unfortunately, improving public speaking often takes a backseat to other goals. The result is that many researchers are plagued by persistent fears of public speaking. When they do speak, their presentations are often laced with problematic and distracting tics that interfere with their messages. Researchers also need the tools to keep audiences engaged, and the knowledge of how to adapt their speaking to a variety of speaking times, in order to disseminate their research effectively.

To provide students and post docs with an accessible means for improving their public speaking, I offered two workshops that covered the topics of public speaking anxiety, effective speaking habits, and the organization and presentation of both short and long speeches. Each of these workshops was 2 hours long, and during that time, attendees were asked to express and face long-standing fears of public speaking, practiced avoiding distracting speech habits, and crafted and delivered a short, three minute speech on their research. Each of these sections included lessons I had personally learned, not only from my history in public speaking, but also in preparing for this specific presentation, as I used many of the same resources I referenced in my slides. Though these sessions were both small, with five attendees each, the small size of the group allowed for individual attention and pushed even the most reticent in the room to speak. Feedback was positive, each student went home with a sheet of resources to use in improving their public speaking skills, and most attendees requested that I send them my slides afterward.

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Developing a Graduate Student Peer Mentorship Program

Matthew Savoca

Academics often cite graduate school as the best time in their careers. And yet, despite all the wonderful things graduate school has to offer, there will also be stressful, overwhelming, and unnerving moments. The causes are innumerable and unique to each person, but have no doubt, every graduate student will encounter them; the question is, how to get though it?

For me, having a great support system of family and friends has been critical; however, an official peer support structure for graduate students at UC Davis is lacking. For this reason, as my Professors for the Future service project, I initiated a graduate student peer mentorship program, using the Graduate Group in Ecology (GGE) as a pilot group. Over the year, I organized three workshops and monthly discussion-based meetings where a collection of highly motivated GGE students, interested in enhancing their mentoring skills, have been preparing to become peer mentors for students entering the graduate program next year.

Thus far, I have connected peer mentors with prospective student mentees so the incoming cohort of GGE students will be prepared to hit the ground running when they arrive in Davis for the first time later this fall. By the end of the year, I will have also created a peer-mentorship training toolkit that other graduate programs can adopt and use to develop their own peer mentorship systems. My hope is that this program will be continued after I graduate and will augment and improve the recruitment and retention of early-stage graduate students in the GGE and UC Davis as a whole.

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Research Assistant Fair: Connecting Graduate Students with Undergraduate Research Assistants

Jenny Van Wyk

Graduate students often struggle to locate dedicated undergraduate research assistants; simultaneously many undergraduate students are unaware of research opportunities on campus.  A survey of graduate students (n=60) in the life science programs revealed that: 65% had never hired an undergraduate, 50% were unaware that students could work for course credit, and 45% felt unable to locate high quality students.  Respondents current methods for recruiting assistants are: emailing entire undergraduate majors, recruiting students directly from classes they TA, and word of mouth.  Simultaneously, undergraduate students who would benefit from research experience struggle to find positions.  A survey of Environmental Sciences undergraduate majors (n=125) revealed less than 20% of the students had considered research, 15% had heard of the URC, and only 10% felt equipped to locate research positions interesting to them on campus.  It is apparent that this disconnect exists for graduate students in the life sciences research on campus.

To address this and facilitate the job search, I organized a two-hour job fair focused on recruiting undergraduate research assistants. It was held in April 2016 during UD Davis’s annual Undergraduate Research Week.  Over 350 undergraduate students attended, seeking research opportunities on campus.  Informal interviews revealed that some students attended simply to learn more about what research is going on on campus.  Thirty-two graduate student and postdoctoral researchers hired for 68 jobs and presented their research.  They recruited on average 12 students for formal interviews later.  Research posters were used to demonstrate the scope of research, and facilitated scientific discussion.  However, the poster requirement was optional in an effort to increase beginning stage graduate student participation. In addition to facilitating research collaborations, graduate students gained experience in science communication by presenting their early stage research before it was ready for presentation at scientific meetings. Undergraduate attendees learned about the variety of research at UC Davis, and began to find their own purpose and direction within the academic milieu. This type of conceptual exposure is limited in undergraduate coursework, and provides an opportunity for students to develop valuable research interpretation skills. This research fair complimented current resources provided by the URC and Aggie Job link.

The benefit of this style of event was clear.  In order to streamline it, narrowing the scope of research being presented is suggested.  The primary critical feedback concerned the breadth of research topics and interest overlap. Presenters whose research fell outside the umbrella “life sciences” term, felt as though the number of students who attended that were interested in their sub discipline were too few. In future iterations, I suggest it is scheduled biannually in accordance with quarterly registration for credit (Fall) and summer research opportunities (Spring).  Additionally, having abstracts of the research jobs available before the event was requested by numerous undergraduates, either because they could not attend but still wanted to apply, or to identify which opportunities were most inline with their interests. This event was quite exciting, and I look forward to continuing my work on it to make it a recurring event.

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Expanding the Graduate Ally Coalition: Making a Sustainable, Year Round Ally Network to Support Graduate and Professional Students

Erica Vonasek-Eco

The Graduate Ally Coalition (GAC) is a graduate and professional student run ally network that was formed in 2009-2010 as a Professors for the Future Project. Since its formation, GAC aimed to increase graduate student peer support and retention by training graduate students as allies in social justice issues, skills, and campus resources as apply to graduate student life at UC Davis. To achieve better peer support, GAC’s short term goal was to have an openly identified Grad Ally in every graduate group and school that could act as peer support for members of their group and built ally training around that goal. For the past few years, GAC has offered only a fall quarter ally training, which limits GAC’s recognition and engagement with the graduate student community.  
The goal of this PFTF project was to develop a year round program for members of the Graduate Ally Coalition. The year round program consisted of a 1 day Introduction to Graduate Allyship workshop, monthly socials, a winter quarter seminar on developing graduate student allyship, and a year end celebration. The Introduction to Graduate Allyship workshop introduced participants to the core skills of allyship: concepts (language, social identities, power, privilege), community agreements, community development, and bystander intervention.  The winter quarter seminar built on the training from the workshop, diving into concepts and skills and examining them in the context of graduate student roles and ascribed social identities. The year end celebration, in partnership with other graduate student oriented programs, celebrated the year’s work and achievements.

Approximately 165 graduate students participated, combined across all GAC programming. Feedback from participants was generally positive, with a majority reporting learning of a new idea or skill. Over the coming summer, GAC will review the programming and feedback from the year in order to improve and better serve our community. 

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Overcoming the Anxiety of Teaching in the US Classroom: Positioning, Readjustment and Self-appropriation of the International Teaching Assistant

Zhen Zhang

ITAs, short for International Teaching Assistants, are an essential body of graduate students on the UC Davis campus. Within the framework of 2020 initiative, more and more international graduate students are joining our UC Davis community, bringing in their international educational experiences as well as adding many dimensions of student diversity to Davis. At the same time, international teaching assistants are in need of support in many venues: English as a second language; cultural unfamiliarity and misunderstanding; anxiety over difficult questions; teaching controversial topics; and creating a sense of mutual support among ITAs.  In addition to domestic graduate students’ potential anxieties and excitement over teaching an undergraduate course for the first time, international graduate students usually experience many more intense anxieties when teaching in a less-than-familiar US classroom setting. Just to name a few moments that an international TA might find challenging: a total different dynamics of the US classroom compared to the one of his/her own country, inherent fear of making English grammar mistakes when explicating complex ideas to native English speakers and lack of confidence in dealing with unexpected situations in a classroom.  All these issues are infinitely amplified if he/she were not previously informed about them and if he/she could not find anyone to talk to.

To address these concerns, I organized two workshops.  The first focused on the topic of the ITA’s positioning before entering a classroom. Rather than addressing the common issues of being a first-time TA, this seminar placed emphasis on the ITA’s identity. For example, whether or not one should disclose one’s international identity to the students so that they would “forgive” you more; how to eliminate the anxiety that generates from your English accent; how to bridge the “knowledge gap” between the students and the ITAs because of different systems and expectations of education.  The second workshop focused on how to adjust oneself to fit into the role of being a student and a TA at the same time. The seminar was conducted with no deliberate bifurcations of domestic and international TAs. I invited some faculty members and postdocs, who had gone through the graduate school successfully, to share their experience with other TAs. In addition, ITAs and domestic TAs conversed with each other so that ITAs become aware that they are not alone in terms of the anxieties.

My project aimed to answer the questions that ITAs might have before the actual teaching practice and to help them ultimately overcome these anxieties when the challenges do come.

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Additional Fellow in 2015-2016 Class - Withdrew for permanent position

Jeff Kessler


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