Thursday, September 27, 2012

Faces of science: The outdoors, the Olympics and science

This is the second of a series of blogs about women in science at the University of Wyoming, as we initiate our new NSF-funded program.Throughout the year we will be blogging about women in engineering, earth sciences, biological sciences and beyond.
Have you ever wondered what Olympians do after the Olympics? Some probably relax, others probably look for new interests, but Laramie’s Olympic skier, Sarah Konrad, is a scientist. Sarah works in science labs at the University of Wyoming helping to conduct various research projects about the environment. Currently, Sarah works in Dr. Neil Humphrey’s geology lab constructing sensors to measure glacier movements. Glaciers happen to be Sarah’s area of specialty.
“I was into the outdoors long before I was a scientist,” Sarah says. “And that interest naturally progressed towards geology and glaciology.”
Rock climbing and mountaineering initiated Sarah’s interest in glaciers and now she helps to understand the way glaciers work in Greenland.
“The more we understand about how glaciers work and how they respond to different changes in the environment, the better we can understand how fast the water held in the glacier ice will get into the ocean and affect sea levels,” Sarah says.
Understanding how fast glaciers are melting is an important part of understanding climate change and its effect on people and where they choose to live. People disproportionally live near the ocean and this population will be the first to notice sea level changes. This problem is part of the reason Sarah loves being a scientist: it challenges her to think about solutions.
 Sarah’s favorite part of being a scientist is being able to think about things, such as climate change, creatively and understanding how things work. One of her current projects outside of Dr. Humphrey’s lab is creating a book about all the energy resources in Wyoming. This wouldn’t be any book, however. It would be a road-side guide to Wyoming’s energy resources that would use surface infrastructure (such as wind turbines or pump jacks) to explain everything in straightforward terms how Wyoming’s energy production works. Right now, Sarah is looking for funding to help her research Wyoming’s energy field.
While Sarah is a scientist, she continues to be a phenomenal athlete. “Science and sports complement each other really well,” Sarah says. “I’ll be out on a long run or bike ride, and it’s some of my best thinking time.”
Sarah Konrad at the Torino Olympics in 2006
While she was an Olympic athlete, Sarah realized that although skiing was her passion, she longed for the intellectual stimulation provided by scientific work.
 “I’m curious and I like a challenge,” Sarah says. “Those three years I was training for the Olympics I didn’t do any science at all and I missed it so much! I mean, I’d still read and have some sort of intellectual stimulation, but I really like having more involvement and having some sort of outlet for figuring things out. It was a relief getting back into science. It felt really good to get the balance back.”
Sarah balances her love for both science and physical activity by dividing her day between the two. Part of the day she works in the lab, and the other part she trains for her next athletic goal. Over the summer, Sarah trained for a two-day event, the Steamboat Stinger in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Most people do one or the other of the events, but Sarah decided to do both the 50 mile mountain bike race and the 26-mile marathon trail run.
“The real challenge was doing them back to back,” Sarah says.
Sarah’s athletic passion keeps diversity in her life, which she says is the key to both science and any career. “Take college electives to heart,” Sarah advises new college students, especially women. “Because even if you think you know what you’re going to do, it’s just such a good time to be exposed to new things.”
Exposure to new things is what opened the doors to the field of geology for Sarah. She started out as engineering major, and happened to take a geology class, which changed her whole career path.
“Until you’ve been exposed to an awful lot of things, you can’t judge what you want to do because you don’t know what choices are out there,” Sarah says.

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photo credits: USBA

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Faces of science: The balancing act of life, science and family

This is the first of a series of blogs about women in science at the University of Wyoming, as we initiate our new NSF-funded program.Throughout the year we will be blogging about women in engineering, earth sciences, biological sciences and beyond.

Dr. Sylvester with her two daughters several years ago.
 Dr. Anne Sylvester has a lot on her mind. Between teaching, researching, and the duties of an EPSCoR director, as well as her life outside her career, she rarely has a dull moment. Fitting everything in and maintaining her energy and enthusiasm comes from years of practice- practice at balancing, practice at making decisions, practice at getting everything done.
“I really think the balancing act came from choosing to have a career and choosing to have a family,” Dr. Sylvester says. “Maintaining the family nucleus was really important and you just can’t do that if you have a nine to five life. We’ve always had a twenty-four hour life.”
A twenty-four hour life means that the balancing act is never finished. There is always something else to do, someone else to talk with, another place to go.
 “You have to be willing to have no boundaries,” Dr. Sylvester says. “I have no time boundaries, I have no distance boundaries. If I need to be somewhere, I get there. If I need to work at a certain hour, I do it.”
Balancing a family and a career would have been nearly impossible if it had not been for the support system surrounding Dr. Sylvester, especially when her daughters were young. Her husband, Dr. Steve Herbert, supported her every step of the way. They divided time, making sure that they had dinner together every night, as a family, and that they both went to their daughters’ events. They adapted their schedules to maximize family time, and worked to ensure that they could both have science careers and life outside work.
“I think that the support of others is very important,” Dr. Sylvester says. “I owe an enormous amount to my parents, who helped us throughout our lives. I learned that concept of boundless enthusiasm from my mother --  she showed me that anything is possible and she always supported both Steve and me every step of the way, even though my parents lived far from us. If we had an emergency my parents would appear at the door to help or provide advice that taught us that hard work and creativity solves most problems.”
Choosing to have a career and a family came with hard decisions, especially as a young mother, Dr. Sylvester recalls. She remembers dropping her daughters off at daycare and asking herself, “What I am doing?”.  At times, she questioned her decision to be a scientist and a mother, but never enough to deviate from the path she had carved out. Instead, she made choices that allowed her to be both a scientist and a mother, without sacrificing things she would later regret.
“You have to make little decisions that have a big impact,” Dr. Sylvester says. “I made a decision when my children were young. I said, ‘You know, I have my whole life ahead of me to travel, so I’m going to turn down seminar invitations, I’m not going to travel as much so it does not impact my children,’. Those are the little decisions you make along the way, and I have no regrets whatsoever.”
Dr. Sylvester’s daughters are grown and in college now, but her life remains as busy as ever. The philosophy she lived by when raising her children is the philosophy she continues to follow. She approaches each and every activity with the same mindset: stay focused, work to completion and atten to one thing at a time when possible.
“I think the concept of multitasking is overrated,” Dr. Sylvester says. “I think that it is more important to think about single action activities that are highly focused rather than dividing attention into so many pieces. The biggest danger of juggling a lot of things is rushing.”
For someone looking to follow a path like the one Dr. Sylvester has made, it might look a little intimidating. How do you even start?
“Don’t have anyone tell you this is the way to do it,” Dr. Sylvester says. “I think there is no one path that works, that’s my first piece of advice. There are many, many ways to achieve a dream or a goal. I think you really have to work with your environment, your people, your structures. Everybody has to look at what works for them and find the support structures. If the structures aren’t there, you have to make them.”
Dr. Sylvester with her 'field family' and eldest daughter.
Today, Dr. Sylvester advocates for more family friendly work environments in universities. She remains keenly aware of the choices parents face when it comes to families and careers. Little by little, work spaces are becoming more family oriented, and Dr. Sylvester is reassured. In the future, the challenges she faced won’t be as severe. This is positive, especially for young women looking to follow in Dr. Sylvester’s footsteps.
To these young women, Dr. Sylvester says, “Anything is possible.”

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photos courtesy of Dr. Anne Sylvester

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Research, teaching and outreach: A day in the shoes of an EPSCoR director

The following is part one of a two part story featuring EPSCoR director Anne Sylvester. These two stories are the first of several blogs about Wyoming EPSCoR and the University of Wyoming. This first story is the start of stories featuring EPSCoR personnel and their roles in merging science, education, research and outreach. Next week’s story will start off a series of blogs about women in science at the University of Wyoming, as we initiate our new NSF-funded program. 

Dr. Sylvester researches maize genetics
Most people probably don’t see the connection between corn genetics, classroom instruction and outreach projects, but Dr. Anne Sylvester does. For her, research, outreach and education have always gone hand in hand, and corn genetics is her area of expertise.
“For some of us, research is critical to our teaching,” Dr. Sylvester says. “For me, research and teaching are highly intertwined.”
As a professor at the University of Wyoming, she has the opportunity to both research and teach. As the director of Wyoming EPSCoR, she has the ability to ensure that the science fields at UW are reaching out to the public, from elementary school all the way up.
“I have a deep seated commitment to promoting science and moving it into the public sector, to explaining what science is all about at all levels, and to drawing students into the science fields,” Dr. Sylvester says.
The key to doing this lies not only in the commitment to reaching out, but also in the excitement scientists as individuals have for their research and field. Dr. Sylvester found this excitement following graduate school, in the fields of molecular biology and genetics. She has always been interested in plants, but it was genetics that allowed her to begin answering the research questions that inspired her to become a scientist.
 “I became particularly interested in and moved towards maize or corn genetics after graduate school, when I was looking into a post-doctoral program,” she says. “I wanted to work with a genetics system because I felt that it would allow me to really investigate the molecular biology behind the questions I was interested in.”
Today, Dr. Sylvester’s passions for genetics carry over to all aspects of her work at UW. Her passions for her research turn into her passions as an instructor.
Dr. Sylvester has corn fields in Colorado and Hawaii
“I love teaching,” Dr. Sylvester says. “The most rewarding aspect of teaching is thinking of ways to teach something that will convey your own interests, your own excitements and your own passions for science, and bring out those same emotions in your students.”
Dr. Sylvester sees inspiring her students in science as an essential part of her role as an instructor. “Teaching is a mission. It’s a mission to bring information about science to students who are going to help change the world,” she says. “Students need to get excited by science so that they can learn it.”
Dr. Sylvester’s personal philosophy regarding her classrooms and her labs caught the attention of Bill Gern, Vice President of the Research and Economic Development Office at UW. In 2006, he asked her to become the associate director of EPSCoR, which eventually led her to become the director.
“On my own NSF funding, I have always worked with Native American students through a tribal college in Montana,” Dr. Sylvester says. The outreach and diversity Dr. Sylvester cultivated in her labs fits with UW-wide efforts to build strong programs in Wyoming.  Today, EPSCoR joins others at UW who work with tribal colleges, community colleges and high schools throughout Wyoming in order to encourage students at these schools to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields.
“I’ve watched EPSCoR transform individuals who have recognized that science is no longer individuals forging their own path,” Dr. Sylvester says. “Now science is highly collaborative, interdisciplinary and integrated with education, and that’s the goal of EPSCoR in my opinion.”
Being a professor, researcher and director simultaneously has its challenges, but the work never ceases to interest, excite and engage her.
“Being involved in what I see as absolutely cutting-edge science is my favorite part of being the director of EPSCoR,” Dr. Sylvester says. “I love my job. I think that an academic career is the best there is because of the fact that an academic environment promotes constant learning and education.”

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photos courtesy of the University of Wyoming

Friday, September 7, 2012

Stem with no root bears no fruit: Dr. Chris Emdin challenges instructors to think outside the box

Dr.Chris Emdin, September 5th

How can our education system engage students in science? This is the question Dr. Chris Emdin asked himself when he was in seventh grade and interested in science, but discouraged by the interactions in the classroom. In the years since junior high, Dr. Emdin, among other pursuits, has set out to find a better way to draw students into science, and his journey brought him to hip hop.
“The culture of young people, whether you like it or not, is hip hop,” Dr. Emdin told Utah teachers and researchers on the CI-WATER grant Wednesday night. “Hip hop is a cultural phenomena and it’s not going away.”
Dr. Emdin’s speech Wednesday night was part of the CI-WATER Symposium in Salt Lake City, Utah September 5th-6th. During the day, while researchers, industry leaders and EPSCoR personnel gathered at the Natural History Museum of Utah to discuss particulars of the grant, Dr. Emdin visited local schools to encourage students and instructors alike to reconsider their approach and views on science education. His speech later that night focused on showing how students can be engaged in science through hip hop, social media and the culture of the youth’s generation.
“I am purposely here to challenge,” Dr. Emdin warned his audience, and acknowledged that at some point in his talk he would probably offend everyone. And from there in launched into an anecdote that emphasized the problems our current education system has with engaging students in science. He called into question the practices of classrooms and the purpose of research.
“Why are we talking about this stuff?” Dr. Emdin asked, after telling his audience about a local girl, in a good school, who did not want to be there because she wasn’t engaged in classroom activity. “We’re talking about this stuff because we can do all the science we want to, create the most amazing models that we like, and if we’re sharing those models and those innovative ideas with other people like us, who are able to succeed in school, in spite of school, not because of it, then what’s the point?”
For the researchers on the CI-WATER grant, this question rang home. Part of the grant’s focus is outreach and education, and sharing research findings with the public, from elementary school students all the way up to parents and grandparents.
The purpose of research, Dr. Emdin said, should be to share the passions the researchers have, with students like the girl at the local Utah school, who felt distanced from her science education. Sharing the passions and positive aspects with students is essential.
“The reality is that a lot of people who are successful have been successful not because they are super special and smart,” Dr. Emdin said. “It’s because they’ve had a couple of experiences with a couple of people that allowed them to see themselves as scientists.” Researchers and teachers alike need to encourage these experiences to happen in the classroom.
How can teachers do that though? Through hip hop.
A stem with no root bears no fruit, Dr. Emdin said. Our current science education bears no fruit because it ostracizes creative and artistic minds and it weeds out students who aren’t good at math or who think in different ways. About this, Dr. Emdin asks, “Who is going to innovate? Who is going to be creative? Who is going to be the Einstein with the crazy hair who walks around and just doesn’t care?”
In order to find a root, hands are going to have to get dirty. Teachers and instructors are going to have to change their perceptions about what makes a successful teaching environment. “A quiet class is not necessarily a good class,” Dr. Emdin said. “What I’m telling you is that the most dysfunctional classrooms and the most effective classrooms look very, very similar.”
What’s the difference between a dysfunctional, loud classroom and an effective, loud interactive classroom? The focus of the interactions. This is where hip hop comes in.
Hip hop can help create this root by making science cool. “The general perception of scientists has to shift,” Dr. Emdin said. We have to eliminate the nerd perception and allow students to embrace the scientist within. More than changing the perception of scientists, hip hop offers teachers and researchers four hip hop elements than can drastically change science classrooms.

1. Mc (emcee) - voice inflections, gestures, metaphors and analogy on the part of the teacher; be the rapper and focus on engaging students with body language
2. Gr (graffiti)- graffiti can be a form of art and is a form of visibility, so bring art into science  and fame; give students school wide visibility for their accomplishments in science
3. Br (break dancing) - movement is essential; have students get up and move, even for just 35 seconds
Hip hop dancers preform at the CI-WATER Symposium
4. Dj (deejaying) - let students play with the technology and tools of the science lab; let them play and experiment with the tools before having students use them in an assignment

“I argue that each of these elements has to be part of every single lesson,” Dr. Emdin said. In addition to incorporating these elements into every lesson, Dr. Emdin challenges teachers to reconsider their position in the classroom. “Often times we categorize ourselves based on where we’ve been positioned...(teacher, researcher, scientist, innovator)…We fail to recognize that in order for us to really get to the point where we can disseminate scientific ideas with a kind of passion, we have to be all of those things at the same time.”
In the course of an hour and a half, Dr. Emdin showed teachers and scientists alike ways to improve science education and engage more students in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields. He left his audience with his challenge: meet this generation of students on their cultural terms, not the cultural terms of the instructor,
More on Dr. Emdin’s ideas about science education and hip hop can be found in his latest book Urban Science Education for the Hip HopGeneration

By Kali S. McCrackin

Photo credits Kali S. McCrackin