PhD and Me: Transcripts: Episodes 5-8
5. A Forced Pause – Mental Health in the time of COVID-19 – Part 2
Welcome (English), Bienvenidos (Spanish), Huānyíng (Mandarin), Ahlanwasahlen (Arabic), Selamat datang (Indonesian)
Matt: Welcome to another episode of PhD & Me: the Third Degree. My name is Matt Clayton, and I’m a graduate student studying Clinical Psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill. I’m joined by three other UNC graduate students Kierra Peak, PhD student Occupational Science, Jamshid Shahir, PhD student in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, and Kelsey Thompson, PhD student in Speech and Hearing Sciences. Additionally, we have Poushali Ganguli, PhD student in Health Economics, who joins us from King’s College, London. For this episode we’ll continue with part two of our discussion on the forced pauses we have taken in response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and its specific implications for mental health. And now here’s Kierra.
Kierra: In this segment of the Forced Pause episode, we will be discussing how COVID-19 has led to forced pauses and how we go about our relationships. And so I present this question to the group. How has COVID-19 paused your relationships or has it?
Jamshaid: So for me, it hasn’t really paused my relationships. I would say it’s kind of been the opposite. I feel like this quarantine has made me prioritize them a lot more. In particular, it’s made me more intentional about my social interactions and prioritizing deeper connections, which from my personal experience, I’ve found very hard to achieve just by texting alone. Before with the busyness of grad school, I’d maybe text my friends every few weeks or so. Now we meet up on Zoom like every other weekend to play online games, or just hang out and chat for hours, I add. I’ve been doing some more house sessions with my friends in my Ph.D program. And overall, it’s been super beneficial for both my mental health and general well-being, not to mention made me feel even closer to my friends, especially with this shared nightmare that we’re all going through.
Poushali: Right, It’s been exactly the same for me. Quarantine’s generally means, has meant different things for different people. But I find in my circle of friends and family, most people have become intentional about their interactions. People really take a lot of effort to get to see how you’re doing, how you’re feeling. I also have Zoom calls weekly, we play games. It’s been great. But I do feel like I miss the everyday interactions I have with people. So I recently moved into new building and I didn’t get to know any of my neighbors before the lockdown. So I missing seeing people in the lift. I don’t feel very connected to where I am right now.
Kierra: Yeah, and that for me is a big piece of COVID for me, even though, on social media and articles, there’s a lot of divide between extroverts and introverts handling this quarantine differently. As a self-identified introvert, I do miss those everyday connections where, you know, I’d interact with the bus driver, who was my favorite bus driver, and she would, you know, freely communicate her frustrations when people cut her off and I had a favorite barista who I would see on certain mornings that I was starting to build rapport with and I was asking her more about when to get the best desserts and which days they would be in because they weren’t there every day. And even just encountering, you know, certain staff members who were around the building, I would stop and say hi to me in my office. All of these, you know, interactions were important for me, as an introvert that works mainly by myself all the time. I don’t get that as much anymore. And that’s truly what I feel like I miss which is, you know, harder to do via virtual, you know, meetups, or something like that… so yeah, those are the interactions I miss the most. And I think that’s extremely likely why I love going to the grocery store on weekly trips because I get those interactions that I miss and relied on during the week every day. But now I can only really get whenever I go to the store where I have to be in and out.
Jamshaid: Yeah, I feel like it really goes to show how everyone be they introverts, like us or extroverts. Or it’s like, at the end of the day, we all like have that social quota to fulfill at the end of the day. It just varies substantially between introverts and extroverts, but nevertheless, like as humans, we all have that instinctual drive to just connect with one another and such and yeah, as you said, like those everyday passive interactions we’d have when with our favorite bus drivers, baristas, or just like spontaneously running into a friend or classmate you haven’t seen in a couple weeks or even months, like, that’s definitely those are definitely the significant pauses, I’ve noticed that we just can’t replicate virtually. Like, for example, from my own personal experience, when I went back on my days on campus, I can remember the casual interactions I would have in the hallway, or elevator with our program administrators from a simple small talk, like just asking about my day, plans for the weekend and so forth. I can also remember some of the staff in the cafes, who asked me about my day and just really look out for me and kind of getting the sense that they had my back and stuff. Like I remember one time where I lost my wallet and I kind soul found it and sent it to the staff who put it in the lost and found forever putting me in debt and gratitude to those wonderful people. And yeah, just as you said, like those everyday encounters just seem to like sprinkle little nuggets of positivity throughout our day.
Poushali: That’s so true about the everyday interactions. I actually miss the things I used to not like very much before. I miss getting on the train. I miss queuing for a cup of coffee. I really, really missed that.
Kierra: Yeah, those are the relationships that maybe we didn’t highlight before, but we’ve been without them for so long we see how important they were to us. So I post that this question towards you guys, you know, how do you think this pause will affect these relationships? You know, do you think there’ll be strengthen, weaken or maintain?
Poushali: I think they’ll be strengthened for sure. This new way of interacting with friends and family and people that we don’t know very well. There’s a new dynamic in the way that we interact. And I think that also brings a new depth to these relationships. Personally, I really hope I remember exactly how much I appreciate all of these interactions after all of this is over.
Jamshaid: Yeah, for sure. I agree. 100%. I am like once this quarantine ends, one of the first things I’m hoping to do is kind of take a week or if possible even two weeks off and go home to see my family and we get to spend time with them no longer having to work. No longer having that anxiety and fear about the virus looming over our heads, and everything, as well as also being able to reconnect with new friends, and, friends still back to my home state, and everything and yeah kind of like as Poushali said like hope we being able to remember these feelings of gratitude coming out of this quarantine and hopefully emerge into a kinder, more empathetic growing as a result.
Kierra: Yeah, I agree with all of that. I think right now, in a way though, like our relationships with our friends and family may be maintained or strengthened. But I think in order to even strengthen those relationships with the people we don’t really know that we appreciate we, like Poushali said, do have to remember how we’re feeling. And you know, do take time to, when things return to maybe not normal, but you know, return to where we can not have this looming Doom over our heads. We need to remember how we felt and how we missed, you know, those other interactions with the people that we rely on and, you know, keep that in mind when they are in need or when they seek, you know, better, you know, services for themselves or, you know, advocate for the rights that they need. When we keep in mind remember, I think back to this time of like, we really miss these people who we rely on who aren’t our family, aren’t our friends, but you know, leave a lasting impact on us.
Matt: Hi, welcome back to our Royster global podcast discussing mental health. This is Matt and I’m here with Kelsey and we’re going to be discussing what has been our transition to working in telehealth in the midst of this COVID-19 crisis. Kelsey, can you give us a brief introduction to your work and sort of what is the context at which you’re coming into telehealth?
Kelsey: Yeah, absolutely. So clinically, I am a speech-language pathologist. So I see all children from one year old all the way up to 30 years old. So not quite children always but a variety of different kinds of cases, including articulation and language, autism, reading comprehension, so kids working on a lot of different things. And I’ve always worked in private practice so that has made the transition a little bit easier, but I am also a doctoral student, and my research area is pediatric feeding actually and so I do see a couple of pediatric feeding clients via telehealth as well. What about you, Matt?
Matt: So I am a third year, about to be third year clinical psychology student here at UNC. So my research is in adolescence, specifically depression and suicide in the context of peer relationships. But I see clients, who are both adolescents and then some who are adults, well they’re young adults, they’re college students. But in terms of the type of work I was doing before the transition to telehealth, it was CBT, so cognitive behavioral therapy for a variety of presenting concerns. So I have a anxiety client, I have a client who’s mostly depression and self-harm related. I have a client who has some more oppositional defiant and conduct related issues, that’s a teenager. So I have a pretty wide client base. I mean, I only see a handful of clients now because I’m still early in training, but very much sort of rooted in CBT and sort of its offshoots, like dialectical behavioral therapy. So it’s and that’s, that’s the context that I’ve been coming into teletherapy. So I guess I’m really curious, I know I’ve had very interesting time, uh, sort of transitioning to teletherapy as my first experience. I’m curious, what are some of the successes I guess you’ve had as well as so maybe some struggles you’ve experienced transitioning to telehealth?
Kelsey: Yeah, it has been a real roller coaster and I was really nervous about the transition, especially with young children. A lot of my kiddos are, you know, preschool age and don’t always attend very well to video that they can walk away or be, I had a session last week where the kid just played with trains the entire 30 minutes and I was kind of there in the background being like, “Hey, what do you doing?” Um, so it’s been really the challenge has definitely been keeping kids engaged and focused on therapy activities, although attendance has been really great. So that’s been an upside kind of surprising one, but because everyone’s home and a lot of other things going on, they have really attended all the sessions. What about you? Have you found the same thing?
Matt: Yeah, I, you know, I didn’t even really think about attendance, but I guess for the families and child clients that really makes it a lot easier for them to get to therapy, especially when there’s multiple schedules, you know, multiple children in the household, it makes a lot easier to schedule. I’ve had, I think, similarly, I’ve had, you know, my relationships with my, my adult clients have to have reign, largely the same, you know, they’re similarly engaged, and I feel like they’re, you know, very much aligned still make therapy work. Whereas with the younger kids, it’s a mixed bag with some, you know, who are maybe more shy in person, it actually is helpful to have it be a teletherapy I feel like they opened up a lot sooner within the session, and we reached that fertile ground a lot faster. Whereas I mentioned I have that sort of more oppositional defiant client and sort of like you’re sort of the trains it’s like, it can be very difficult to behavior manage. I talked about this before we started but, you know, the other day she told me to suck it over, over therapy over the telehealth, I was like, I don’t really know how to respond to this. So, you know, it’s been interesting. Um, and I guess, you know, thinking about that sort of nature of the therapeutic relationship. I’ve been thinking a lot about, you know, whether telehealth is really amenable to this for some, I think it is, like some clients and some types of cases where someone’s not I don’t know, if you have similar thoughts.
Kelsey: Yeah, I’ve definitely seen a mix. I think for some, and especially in this specific situation, it’s been helpful just because I’m like, a little window into normalcy, someone that, you know, was someone consistent before and it’s still consistent now and that’s been really helpful for them. But for younger kids, it’s definitely been, been a challenge. But I think there’s, you know, some real implications moving forward of how we’re going to address this and how things will change. Have you seen that in your field?
Matt: Yeah, I think in general, and this is true, I think for a lot of healthcare fields, but you know, there was this goal of like getting to telehealth and telemedicine within the next 10 to 15 years and then suddenly were forced to just really reconcile with us all once. And so I think it’s great. That’s infrastructures coming in place. I mean, I used to be a teacher in rural Arkansas and I think about how there weren’t any mental health care providers in the local area there and now via telehealth, conceivably a lot of those kids could suddenly have, you know, therapists at their disposal. So I think I think there’s a lot of good things that might come out of this.
Kelsey: Yeah, I agree. We’ve seen, are starting to see some insurance reimbursement structure changes happening, potentially and also for our field, some licensing, discussions also about cross license in different states and how that works. So I think there could be some really positive changes for health fields in general as far as people being able to access therapists so that might be a silver lining that comes out of this. Well, thank you, Matt. And we will be right back for our final segment with the whole group discussing mental health stigma during the Covid-19 crisis.
Kierra: Thank you for joining us as we wrap up our Forced Pauses discussions This episode was inspired by the pauses that have been impacted the many aspects of our lives. Earlier, Poushali, Jamshaid, and myself discussed how the state of the world led to pauses in our everyday relationships, and Matt & Kelsey discussed the changes that have impacted their health delivery services in their respective fields. At this point in the episode, we each wanted to highlight points that we felt were important to discuss in regards to mental health. For my own personal sake, I’ve experienced a bit of FOMO or fear of missing out in the sense that even though everyone’s at home, I am spending more time on social media and I feel as so there’s so much happening on social media at any given time, whether it’s, you know, music battles on Instagram or heated discussions on Twitter, that I can’t really miss any of it. But now it is getting to the point with active protests at the time that we’re filming this in relation to Black Lives Matter where it’s getting to be too much. And I feel as though I may need a break from social media in some points to protect my mental health.
Poushali: Yeah, social media has also been exhausting for me. And but interesting, you mentioned FOMO I feel like I’ve been killed of it. And I was guess I was getting caught on the hamster wheel before because it was easier to speed up and to slow down but actually having all of this time and not the usual things missing from my life work and society that sort of my life revolved around I’ve learned to live about them and have new perspective on how I use social media and the relationships in my life.
Jamshaid: Yeah, I’ve kind of had a similar experience with how I interact with others, especially with Zoom redefining how we all interact with each other. I’ve been feeling exhausted from the constant stream of Zoom meetings to the point where I see any day where I don’t have Zoom meetings as a vacation. It’s also been, it’s also been like a double edged sword when it comes to my personal interactions with friends and family. Where one way, it’s been beneficial for my well being to interact with my friends and family with these audio visual cues and making it frankly, in my opinion, easier to engage in deeper and more beneficial conversations beyond just mere texting. On the other hand, I’m the type of person who values having boundaries between my personal and professional life. So having this shared medium of interaction has kind of watered down the whole experience for me, but interestingly kind of led me to derive enrichment from alternative and rather unorthodox modes of communication, such as Animal Crossing which is quickly become the first world’s default pastime in this quarantine era, where I would occasionally like a visit friends islands and have them meet me, talk to them up to like turnips prices which are essentially the game’s version of stocks and stuff. But yeah, essentially, yeah, it’s been really, but yeah, definitely got me thinking a lot about the way we interact with each other and how these social dynamics are going to evolve after we get out this Covid-19 pandemic.
Kelsey: Yeah, I’ve seen very similar things with the kids I work with, actually. So I’ve seen it, both pros and cons. There is a kid that I work with that takes advantage of the video conferencing platform and by pretending that his side is lagging when it’s not, so that he doesn’t have to do as work. I’ve also had real interesting conversations with my client with autism, about how our social interactions and those social norms and rules have changed between face to face interactions versus video conferencing interactions. So it’s been interesting to see how those relationships have evolved for all of us.
Kierra: Yeah, I think that highlighting relationships during this time is really interesting, especially when I read all of these articles and different sources that discuss romantic relationships and dating in this different world that we’re living in. Though, I am not seeing anyone, I have no interest in dating in this world just because I’m tired of Zoom, but also I am concerned about how people are using these tools and technologies during this time to make those connections and relationships. So I’m guess I’m concerned are people going to use this time and these technologies to maintain and foster meaningful relationships and connections? Or are people going to fall on the other end of that spectrum and just kind of, you know, get used to creating more and more superficial relationships now that there’s more time to do so. And I mean, in a quarantine, in a pandemic, in a stressful time, it’s easy to fall into unhealthy habits. So that’s a concern for me.
Matt: So I think that’s really interesting, your comment about dating specifically, I actually I’m lucky I’m not currently dating during this crisis. But I read an article in The Atlantic pretty recently about how potentially this crisis might be throwing a wrench into sort of what’s become the established norm of hookup culture on these dating apps that I’ve, you know, seen and witnessed firsthand with, you know, friends who’ve been on these where it’s easy to fall into the sort of these, as Kiera alluded to, these sort of toxic relationships, whereas now since there isn’t the ability to enter into a physical relationship with someone, there’s perhaps shifting more towards actual genuine connection over things that are, you know, shared interests or shared passions and potentially there might be sort of a step back from those issues, which would be great. And, you know, I’ve, like I mentioned I luckily, I’m not in that sphere right now. But maybe, potentially, that’s the direction things are going. And I mean, I’ve noticed that in my own personal interactions with just friends and family when saying those words of, you know, you know, “How are you doing?” or “How are you feeling?” There’s now not this sort of expected societal norm of just saying, “Oh, I’m doing great”, or “Oh, you know, things are going okay”. Like now people seem like are actually being much more frank and open about their feelings and their mental health. And I’ve loved seeing that change and my relationships, particularly amongst my friends who, you know, maybe you’re a little bit more, you know, hesitant to share those feelings. And it’s been good to see that that people are becoming more comfortable sharing those. So I’d love to see that continue moving forward.
Poushali: That’s so true. I can agree 100%. I think it’s been the same. There’s been such warmth and concern when people ask how you’re feeling. And in Britain, we’re not known for talking about our feelings but actually people are doing it now and it’s been great. But at the same time, I have to say, I feel like there is an expectation that people expect you to also share the same mental health struggles and I think that’s not necessarily true. So we can, yes, this is a common experience for all of us, but some people are enjoying having, you know, vast stretches of time, find it exhilarating, but others are suffocating from it.
Matt: Right. Absolutely. And I, I really liked you, you made a comment before I think that was and you can correct me if I got this quote right but it was that, you know, we are it’s not that we are all in the same boat but we are all braving the same storm. And I love that metaphor, and I’m going to use that going forward. I just think it’s so it just very aptly describes not just this but like, just in general everyone’s journey on the mental health, you know, of the mental health journey but more broadly and I would be remised to not mention that Kierra, Jamshaid and I are part of a group at UNC called Stigmafree Carolina which is really aimed to sort of destigmatize just mental health more broadly. But also, I think, the means by which we do that is having these sorts of conversations both with like, you know, both in this podcast space where we’re talking about this sort of stuff, but also just in our individual relationships. And, you know, we do a survey every year of the UNC student population, and year after year, the finding is that there is, you know, relatively low levels of personalized individual stigma towards mental health. And that’s consistent across like, various groups. But then on the other hand, there are varying degrees of heightened perceptions of societal or community level stigma towards mental health, which is really, really interesting that, you know, I feel like we’ve made such broad gains, and bringing sort of mental health to the forefront. And instead of viewing it as something that’s wrong with people, it’s something that sort of a ubiquitous shared experience. And so I think, you know, just, I just wanted to bring it all back around this, I think it’s so great to we’re having these conversations, and I really hope that, you know, some of these changes, like even just saying, like, how are you doing and having honest genuine replies to that I hope that this is, you know, moving towards, uh, moving towards, you know, potentially a future where mental health is more of an accepted thing of discussion. And, you know, hopefully that will help people with their ongoing struggles.
Kelsey: Well, thank you guys, for all of your great contributions to this really interesting discussion about how we are doing things differently with the force pause that COVID-19 has brought and how this relates to our mental health. And we’d also like to thank everyone out there for listening as well!
6. Bias, misinformation, and COVID-19
Welcome (English), Bienvenidos (Spanish), Huānyíng (Mandarin), Ahlanwasahlen (Arabic), Selamat datang (Indonesian)
Kierra: Welcome to another episode of PhD and Me: the third degree. Our three hosts for this episode are Sam Eiffert, Danielle Chappell, and Steven Houang. Sam is a PhD student in pharmaceutical sciences at UNC, Chapel Hill, Danielle is a PhD student in pharmacology at UNC, School of Medicine, and Steven is a PhD student in health behavior at the UNC Gilling’s School of Global Public Health. Together they discuss the current dual pandemics in the United States. Now, Danielle.
Sam: So, how has the Covid pandemic changed your research and work?
Danielle: I’ve had to change fields of study and take on more work. My lab is collaborating on a COVID-19 phase 1 clinical trial. Which is really exciting to see your work being appreciated on a national scale. However, it is also stressful as I still have to focus on my doctoral thesis work, as I’m still a graduate school, and I’m also currently writing a review for a book chapter.
Steven: That’s cool. For me, I’m part of the Behavior and Technology lab where we work with human subjects, and our work is considered a dry lab. And two things have happened: we’ve delayed our studies due to having contact with participants, um and also we’re developing health information and materials that need to be updated with Covid and HIV concerns. Specifically, there’s been a lot of misinformation around HIV drugs, and a lot of it goes back to basics. Um, so just reiterating that you need to maintain viral suppression for HIV on top of ban and chain COVID. So that’s an added layer of complexity.
Sam: Yeah, and hand washing has been a big thing lately. Danielle, can you tell us what we know about hand washing during COVID, why do we do it and how does it protect us?
Danielle: Sure, Sam. Hand washing is a form of hygiene and it’s something that’s initially introduced to us when we’re during our toddler years. However, surprisingly, it’s something that hasn’t been reinforced much after that. Um, prior to the covid 19 pandemic, it was common practice for most people to cough or hack into their hands when they’re sick and not practice hand washing or use even hand sanitizer before touching a door handle or their face or something else after coughing. Um, when this pandemic first occurred, public health officials warned the public to practice excessive hand washing, which was a welcome change. However, COVID-19 is a respiratory virus. As beneficial is hand washing is to remove viral particles that are on your hands, it cannot protect a person from inhaling viral particles that are in the air. So yes, hand washing is very important, but also wearing a mask that will help prevent you from breathing out viral particles to prevent others from getting sick is also incredibly important.
Steven: That’s really interesting that the official guidelines have kind of changed or been added on to in the last few months, which I think really confuses people who are trying to do the right thing. So what’s the issue here?
Danielle: Science communication needs to be catered to the audience. We really need to speak to where people are at using the best science. You wouldn’t give a graduate seminar and to the general public, you would give a scientific demonstration that was appropriate to their understanding. Part of the issue too, is the level of scientific literacy in general. How many people in the US ever take a microbiology class? How many people know how to read a scientific article in the context of its field or sub discipline? For example, The New York Times reported in 2017 that white nationalists demonstrated by chugging milk to draw attention to a genetic trait known to be more common in white people than others. Their sentiment was, quote, “If you can’t drink milk, you have to go back,” end quote. But the same adaptation was also evolved among East African cattle herders, the author of the paper has now pointed out how scientists can do a better job at pointing out how their basic findings can be filtered and misinterpreted. I feel like that’s really important, um, especially in terms of health literacy in the US. I mean, we have the experience of going to a doctor and them asking us some questions about you know, things that we might feel or different things that we don’t know a lot about. And so we’re kind of expected to trust doctors in a situation where we don’t fully know what’s going on.
Danielle: Yeah, some people have trust in doctors and some people don’t. There’s also the, um, thought process of get a second opinion. Some people will get a second opinion from their friends or close family members, someone that they trust. Um, a lot of us information that they gain from people they trust, has led to conspiracy theories and pseudoscience and other misinformation.
Sam: Misinformation is a huge issue. Can you tell us about some of the basic science research you’ve been reading and reviewing related to COVID?
Danielle: Sure. There’s been a lot of retracted studies, some due to poor documentation, others due to methodological issues that can affect how valid the findings are. For example, when the CDC messed up their own qpcr primer design and how all testing had to go through only them. So scientists design primers which are pieces of DNA, that are used to amplify and identify specific genetic sequencing. Thus, the primer you’re designing needs to be super specific. And messing up your own primer design is a classic rookie mistake for a molecular biologist. It’s disappointing that this happened at the CDC. And my lab wondered if a summer intern did it. The French study using hydroxychloroquine to treat covid 19 patients was the basis for many other studies was poorly done. And this is poorly done ethically, to study design, data inclusion, interpretation of data, basically everything of what not to do in a scientific study. But most importantly, they left out patients that either died or went into the ICU due to the hydroxychloroquine treatment. They made it look like the drug work when it didn’t.
Sam: Yeah, I mean, even more recently, there were two studies that were published in very high impact journals that utilized a database called Surgisphere. And, once these studies came out, there were some concerns from researchers uh, because no one had ever heard of the Surgisphere database. And it sounded too good to be true, because it included so many participating hospitals, especially internationally. And it turns out it was not a credible source of raw data, and those studies were retracted.
Steven: Wow. So how do you feel about the current pace of COVID research? How reliable is it?
Danielle: Research has been progressing at lightspeed, but there’s some tradeoffs. Some information has been wrong, some research hasn’t had the oversight that we usually have. So most reliable papers undergo peer review, and this process could take months to up to a year. Some of these currently aren’t even peer reviewed yet, and are on preprint sites such as biorxiv. So there’s one study that got published on this site that was not peer reviewed and was so poorly done, it ended up being retracted, it claimed that CoV2, the virus that causes covid 19, was manmade from HIV. And they did this by comparing super short parts of HIV CoV2 and some bacteria and they claimed that they’re related. And it’s like saying, you saw the word “Stark” in one book and “Stark” in another. And so now they’re both “Game of Thrones!”
Sam: Yeah, that’s absolutely not enough context. I mean, we could be in the Marvel Universe.
Danielle: Yeah, most consumers research don’t request raw data to get that content for themselves. Sometimes data sets are shared or, are available, and can be requested with identifiers removed, but we don’t often do that. Science is a process of shooting arrows at a moving target. But it’s also a cutthroat culture. It’s always a race. For example, Rosalind Franklin’s X ray crystallography image of DNA was stolen by Crick and Watson, who are now considered to be legendary for publishing the definitive paper on DNA structure.
Sam: Wow. So this is a lot. How do we address some of this misinformation?
Danielle: First and foremost, you have to introduce reliable new sources. Scientific news sources like the Scientific American, Science Direct. It’s important to look to the CDC, NIH, WHO. They have the most up to date information that is the most relevant for the population. Famous virologists are on Twitter and are posting some great content. UNC is known virologist Ralph Baric, who is working on the COVID-19 vaccine, his lab is on twitter at Baric underscore lab. So check it out. As we’re starting to reopen whether or not it’s a good idea, this has huge implications for many areas. Let’s talk about why we have a high infection rate in the next act.
Danielle: From your public health training, why do you think the US has one of the highest infection and death rates compared to other countries?
Sam: That’s a great question. And there are a lot of reasons. The pandemic has exposed many different societal weaknesses for the US, including our insurance system, social inequalities, and a lack of a strong public health response.
Steven: Sam, I know a lot of your research is with insurance claim data. Um, so how has the lack of insurance or lost insurance impacted COVID response?
Sam: Yeah, so many people lost insurance coverage when they lost their jobs. This is a huge problem. And our fragmented insurance system was a problem even before the pandemic, and now we’re seeing the consequences of what happens when you rely on employer provided health insurance. Something that a lot of people don’t realize is that insurance payers reimburse doctors at different rates. So even before the pandemic, Medicaid actually has the lowest reimbursement rate, and this means that some providers don’t see Medicaid patients, or they only see a select percentage of Medicaid patients as part of their patient population. So this was already an access problem for people who had Medicaid. So can you even imagine what the access problems people are facing now when they don’t have any insurance at all? And really, this is just one small part of the larger social inequality issues here in the US. As a database researcher, uh, we won’t see COVID data in insurance claims for several years, because there’s a time lag between claims and condensing them into a usable source of information. So the fact that all these people have lost insurance is going to really impact the quality of future related future COVID related research in these large databases.
Danielle: Can you talk about differences and conditions for essential and non-essential workers?
Sam: Yeah, let’s start with essential workers. A lot of these people are working at jobs where their employers didn’t provide health insurance. So, there’s a portion of these workers who are actually uninsured. And that was the case even before the pandemic. And we haven’t even been able to provide them with proper personal protective equipment. So, we have these essential folks who are usually low socioeconomic status, and it’s been shown that a large portion of them are women of color. Perhaps you’ve heard that social distancing is a privilege, and it really is because the people who are now considered essential workers don’t have a choice except to continue working risk illness or lose their source of income. This is really been so heartbreaking. The American public has responded with protesting wearing masks, hording paper products and other non-perishables, and it’s really revealed that every person for themselves mindset of some Americans. This is in contrast to many countries who value the common good over individual gain. There’s a strong tension between the individualism and individual health versus what we do to protect the public health and the common good.
Steven: Yeah, so in what ways is COVID-19 uncovering these public health challenges that we haven’t been addressing in the US?
Sam: Well, public health in the US is severely underfunded, and I’m not just saying that because I’m in the field. An example of this is how states conduct surveillance for infectious diseases. So, states rely on local health departments, which again are underfunded, to identify and report cases of “x” disease. The reporting process usually involves a phone call, a fax, or emailing Excel spreadsheets. Then the state health department collects all this information from the local health departments and then reports back to the CDC in the same way, faxes, phone calls and Excel documents and this is the best we can do. So we don’t have real time data, and we can’t have real time data because there’s no system in place, and then there’s no money to run it. And that’s been a huge problem given that we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. There have also been funding cuts for the CDC, and funding cuts for the World Health Organization, and we can’t keep doing more with less. We as students have watched advisors and researchers in the field compete for grants which have gotten harder and harder to get.
Danielle: Have you personally experienced public health funding issues?
Steven: Yeah, I have kind of before coming to grad school, I worked at a public health organization where our entire research and evaluation team was laid off. Um, and it was due to organizational funding, even though we had grants and money coming in, but it was soft money. Uh, and this happened right before I came to the Ph. D program, so it really kind of reminds me of the need to think about stability, whether that’s an academia or an industry.
Sam: I’ve seen this too. I had friends working in state government, and their funding was a line item in the Congressional Budget. It was related to climate change research, so every year when Congress would vote on the budget approval, there was a fear that their funding wouldn’t get re-approved. I also saw this when the Affordable Care Act was getting dismantled. A lot of people didn’t realize, that within the ACA, there was a generous research and public health budget to support state immunization programs, and it funded PCORI, which stands for the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute, among other things.
Danielle: A lot of misinformation I’ve been seeing comes from people who have little faith in scientific research consensus in government institutions. A lot of this dissatisfaction has led us to wonder how we as researchers can do better. Our funding issues aside, we’ve seen such horrible social inequalities. How can we make a difference? What are some biases in your own research?
Sam: That’s a great question, and one of the issues that pharmacoepidemiologists deal with specifically, is how we control for race. We know that racism is a confounder of health outcomes, among other things, but, many times in the data sources that we use, which are insurance claims, race is either recorded as white, black or other. And that’s really missing some of the granularity of different group experiences. Now we still use these variables if they’re available, but sometimes they’re not even in the data at all. And that’s a huge limitation in some of the research that gets put out there.
Steven: Yeah, and I think centering different group experiences is really also a challenge that I deal with in health behavior, um, even though we might not be doing something that is strictly on a CBPR model, that is community based participatory research, we still really want to think a lot, and very critically about how we engage communities. Um, for example, centering the experience of people who don’t have insurance and what that’s like and making sure that our measures and study designs are appropriate. Um, I think that goes a long way to kind of gaining more trust in scientific research.
Sam: Yes. And, you know, the US COVID-19 response has pulled back the curtain on so many societal failures such as our insurance system, who the essential workers are and how we protect them, the privilege of social distancing and how COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities of color.
Steven: So racism has been a long standing issue in the US, and UNC is the nation’s first Public University. It was built by enslaved African Americans. But the first black descendants weren’t even allowed to enroll until the civil rights protests of the 50s and 60s. Various forms of racial bias, which is one of the mechanisms of racism, have persisted well after emancipation. So it’s no surprise that we’re now seeing racial disparities in the COVID pandemic as well, especially around essential workers and the privilege of social distancing.
Sam: So, what have been some of the major points of misinformation for you?
Steven: So my field is population based, and I tend to think about social cultural points that apply to a population. Um, one thing that’s been a huge point of misinformation is this idea of COVID being a great equalizer. Uh, we think, you know, because Tom Hanks and his wife has been infected with COVID, they, you know, it’s kind of the same and we’re all in this together. But the newness of the pandemic hasn’t even settled and we’re seeing racial disparities. Um, and another point of misinformation is kind of our traditional notions of what is essential. And it turns out a lot of positions that are poorly compensated, um have kept our communities going and they deserve to be protected with proper insurance and, like, fair pay. Um, and lastly, we’re kind of dealing with this at UNC too. So like are grad students essential workers? Do we need to go back to work? Um, if so, do we get hazard pay and how do we facilitate safe transportation? Um, so those have been kind of the largest points of misinformation and things that I’ve been thinking about.
Danielle: Globally, we’ve seen a lot of different responses that reveal our cultural practices. From your point of view, having traveled to Taiwan right before the beginning of the epidemic, um what stands, what really stands out to you and how the US is dealing with COVID compared to outside the US?
Steven: Yeah, so I was in Taiwan at the beginning of the year, um, and you’re right. Different countries have had really different responses. And it really reveals our different cultural practices and our notions of legal rights. So, from the point of view for an East Asian country like Taiwan, um, people were wearing masks pretty widely even before the pandemic, um, in public spaces and crowded spaces. And that’s a lesson that we learned from SARS in 2003. But in the US, we really value individual freedoms and actions. And so those have been really hard to protect from a public health perspective.
Sam: Yes, and now here in the US, especially, we are confronting anti-black violence and recent protests surrounding that in conjunction with the pandemic. How can we exercise our rights safely while still protecting ourselves and others?
Steven: Yeah, so really, there have been two viruses: so one is COVID and then two is racism. So there’s this original misinformation about who’s susceptible, who’s susceptible and who’s not, which has now been disproven. So at the beginning of the pandemic, we had a lot of anti-Asian racism and sentiments. And now we have uh the issue of over policing of brown and black communities. And neither of these have been new, and, you know, novel to us, but they’re really rooted in historical oppression. And so the protests spurred by the violent and unjust deaths of George Floyd, Brionna Taylor, and many others the cameras haven’t captured is not really new, um, but we need to remember to stay engaged, but protect ourselves as well. Um, so I know we vote in a few months and it might not be ideal to vote in person, but in North Carolina, if you are registered to vote, you can request a mail-in ballot. Um, and so you can do that with a paper form to request uh, by mail so that you can receive your ballot. And so if you don’t have a printer, you should really push your organizations around you, maybe your town hall, to provide these forms to us so that you can exercise your right to vote. Um, when you’re protesting and using a right to free speech, it’s also really important to remember your rights as an individual versus the public health and collective rights, um, someone else’s right to be protected from exposure. So, just remember to wear a mask and stay distanced.
Danielle: Are there any courses or ways to develop competencies or skills in these areas to help you cope?
Sam: Yeah, so for me personally, I’ve been trying to learn more about the history of racism in the US and stay up to date on the latest in Coronavirus research. I also formed a quarantine pod with a few friends and that means as a group, we decided to only see each other in person. And that’s been really helpful with the isolation aspect of quarantining.
Steven: Yeah, and one way I’ve been coping is looking up resources, whether that’s kind of timing your handwashing by looking up song lyrics that are 20 seconds long, or unlearning racism. Um, I am remembering something that I heard during the training, which is we were healthiest when we fight. Um, and that’s really pertinent to the, you know, virus of Coronavirus. Um, but to resources that address racism that I really want to highlight um, is one is the hollaback bystander intervention. And that addresses anti-Asian sentiments uh, by using, one of the things they use is the spectrum of disrespect. And it really kind of highlights the range of different forms of discrimination that Asian Americans and Asians have faced, and it’s free. You can find it at ihollaback.org. Um the other resource that I like, is Racial Equity Institute. And that’s the one where I heard that, you know, we are healthiest when we fight. They do trainings of different lengths. It’s very data driven, um, and it’s the first step that really changes your perspective, so you can petition your department or your school to fund this so that you can bring a lot more of that perspective to your organization or department. So, I guess to wrap up, we’re relearning how to wash our hands and how to protect ourselves using the latest science. We’re also relearning how to be nice to people and including them as human beings and as a necessary part of our democracy. And in many ways, these problems have always been here, but now they’re at the forefront and they’re really vulnerable to misinformation. This is our new reality. We hope you’ve enjoyed this conversation. Thanks for listening to PhD and Me: the Third Degree.
7. Communicating across disciplines and globally
Welcome (English), Bienvenidos (Spanish), Huānyíng (Mandarin), Ahlanwasahlen (Arabic), Selamat datang (Indonesian)
Ben: Welcome to another episode of PhD and Me: The Third Degree. My name is Ben Lee. I am a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in the Department of Allied Health Sciences. My PhD is in Occupational Science, which is about the health effects of the things that we do in our daily lives. I’m here with my co-host, Bethan Cornell from King’s College London who is a PhD candidate in the Department of Physics.
During today’s episode, we’ll be discussing the importance of language and communication and research and how existing societal norms and biases may affect the very work that we do. And the importance of connecting with people from different disciplines to be aware of, biases, assumptions that we take for granted and how we need to work together to solve increasingly complex problems in today’s society. Our first topic for this podcast concerns the use of gendered language in academia. English will be our case study, but naturally other languages will have the inflections tendencies and biases that are reflected in how they articulate certain kinds of concepts and professions. Bethan has an interesting example to share with us about gender and action at King’s College London, which aims to address some disparities and inequities that exist in certain disciplines such as the lack of women in the natural sciences. So I’ll leave it up to you.
Bethan: Thanks, Ben. I kind of got into this whole field because, you know, I’ve always considered myself as a physicist and I went to an all girls school, you know, obviously I could do science because girls could do everything at the school. And then I get further on in my career and then I noticed people giving me funny looks like saying things to me like, “Oh, how did it feel to be like a woman in science?”
And I’m like, “I don’t know, I am a woman. I am a scientist and a woman in science,” like, that’s how I identify. And of course, I then started doing outreach events. I’d go into like primary schools and say science is great. One of the activities that I did was to say “What does the scientist look like to you?” And without fail, if you go to a Year 3 class in the UK, which is age 8, basically the children draw themselves. You’ve got boys, they draw boys or girls draw girls, disabled students draw disabled scientists, and students of all races draw scientists of their race. Then you go into Year 6, which is only like two or three years later at age 10 and 11. And you say, “What does the scientist look like?” and they all draw Albert Einstein without fail.
It really bothered me like what happens in those two years to tell kids about science and then so I got involved in this project, which is called Gender Action. Its founding partners are King’s College London, University College London (UCL), the University Council for Modern Languages, and the Institute of Physics. And the idea is to basically to see if we can do something about this gap.
Now, it all started out with the Institute of Physics recognising a problem with girls and science. But we really quickly realised there isn’t just a problem with girls in science. There’s a massive problem with getting boys into languages and the arts and humanities. And that’s just as big. If you look at like high school take up of subjects, the disparity between boys and girls in physics is the same percentage, but reversed for boys and girls in the languages. And especially physics, it’s really interesting bits of work where they realised if they went into a school and did an initiative where they tried to get girls to study physics more, it basically didn’t work. But when they went into a school, and they used the whole school approach to tackle gendered language, and gendered learning within that school, not only did the girls started studying physics, but boys started studying Spanish and French and, you know, they started doing drama and history and English.
And it really got me thinking along this whole path of a bigger issue about who’s going to study what subject and it’s all about how we communicate to our young people, and how we communicate as scientists, linguists or whichever discipline you are in more generally. What’s your U.S. take on that? Do you think there’s similar issues where you guys are?
Ben: Absolutely. It’s funny you mentioned languages because I was a massive nerd, and I triple majored to include French alongside anthropology and economics. And more often than not, I think I was maybe in a class of 30 students, there were only maybe four men. In anthropology, I would say the gender ratio is similar in that maybe there’ll be one other man with me as a classmate, and everyone else will be women.
That being said, I think it’s also important to recognize how these imbalances exist. So to give you one example, my current field of occupational therapy and occupational science also suffers from this gendered imbalance between men and women and you have much more women than men. But a big part of this in the U.S. is that men tended to be more doctors and women were expected to participate in the so-called “caring sciences,” and this would include nursing as one example. Because of that structural exclusion in the health sciences, you have more women in OT.
Bethan: it’s interesting though over here, sure more men become doctors as far as I’m aware, but the balance in veterinary medicine is completely the other way around. It’s like 80% female, which is interesting.
Ben: Oh yeah, that is interesting.
Bethan: But I think that’s because I don’t know whether you know, little girls grow up wanting to care for pets. I know that a lot of them go into equine medicine with horses and stuff. I think all of it comes back to what we teach our young people.
So in the U.K. There was this really interesting documentary about an elementary school (or primary school over here), where they tried to make it completely gender neutral. And it was amazing, all the things that they identified that you just wouldn’t even realise day to day, like, the girls’ cupboards were painted pink, the boys’ cupboards were painted blue. The teacher would call girls “darling,” and boys “pal” and “mate,” you know. And it’s amazing how there must be so many things that we do all day that we don’t notice.
I wonder, do you have any experience thinking about like, your life as a graduate student where you see that the language might change outcome?
Ben: So yeah, when I was when I was studying anthropology, we read a very interesting article that was out in the early 90s about the use of certain keywords to describe eggs being fertilised in biology textbooks and what was then considered cutting-edge research in the field. And a lot of the adjectives that were used to describe the sperm entailed a lot of aggression, and the sperm would initiate everything. And the egg was depicted as a static, hapless organism that would then need to be fertilised by this sperm penetrating through its walls.
But scientists have discovered that the egg, in fact entraps sperm and the egg actually has a much greater role in the fertilisation process. Despite these discoveries, the existing terms and discourses persisted for quite some time. And that was one of the main points that this anthropologist had wanted to make. Even when the facts change, the words that we use to describe these facts can be much more difficult to alter and modify because of existing societal biases and perceptions that we have.
Bethan: It’s so interesting you talk about biases. I like to think I try and reflect on this as a researcher. And currently, I’m working on one little molecule, and molecules don’t have gender, as far as I’m aware. I’m fortunate in that I don’t have to encounter this every day.
But I mean, there’s been a lot of talk in the press over here in the U.K., over the last year or so, about the way that research is actually subconsciously gendered. So for example medical trials are mainly being carried on white men. And, you know, this is where intersectionality comes into it as well. Like, it’s not just about gender, of course.
And because medical trials are often carried out on white men, surprise, surprise, they don’t necessarily work for black women, but nobody thinks about these things that much in research, I don’t think. And I wonder how much we really don’t know. I guess gender can be a really spiky topic. Maybe researchers might be ignorant, and they might not want to bring it up or they might want to stay clear of it.
The only time I’ve ever been trolled on Twitter and abused was by sharing a pro-women in STEM post. I got trolled within about five minutes after the post going up by somebody I didn’t know. I didn’t care, but I can imagine that it must really put other people off, thinking about this in terms of the context of their research. That has really damaging consequences, you know, things like car seats not being properly tested for female crash dummies who tend to be shorter, and then rates of injuries are higher for female car accident victims, all those sort of things. I think we need to be much more open as a research community about bringing gender into our research, where it’s important and not being afraid of the consequences, I guess.
Ben: There’s an interesting acronym in psychology that’s commonly used to critique the bulk of existing research. It’s called “weird” – W-E-I-R-D – where research is primarily conducted in Western, highly educated, industrialised, rich, democratic countries. And while I think that particular article was used to critique the lack of cultural representation and how research is done in these very particular countries with their societal norms and values, one could very easily make that argument in a gendered context. Where if you only have women doing research on health issues about for example, older adults, they may not be aware of issues that affect older men such as depression, stigma about sharing their mental health concerns, and how for older men instead of talking about their problems overtly, they may prefer to share their problems and concerns by doing things together.
And I think that’s led to what is known in Australia as the Men’s Shed movement, where once a month or once a week, for example, men will gather upon a shed in an easily accessible location, they will do some woodwork or metalwork and they’ll just catch up and talk to each other about any concerns or good news that they want to share.
Bethan: We have a similar programme in the UK but it’s all through football. But I mean for U.S., that would be soccer. We call it football.
Ben: I mean, I agree. It’s football.
Bethan: Too many words! All this communication…
Bethan: Hi everyone, welcome back to the podcast. So for this segment we’re going to be talking a little bit about languages and specifically why English has ended up being the dominant language and research and what that means for PhD students.
We’re joined by a colleague of mine, Alessandra Crnjar, who’s a PhD student in physics at King’s College. Ale is Italian as well as being a brilliant physicist. He’s having to study English as he goes along. So we’re gonna be chatting to him about what that experience is like. So Ale, how have you found your PhD in England? Is it what you expected?
Alessandro (“Ale”): So I think it’s gonna end up being much better than what I expected.
When I was just about to finish my Master’s, I didn’t have any clear ideas, if I wanted to stay in academia or maybe try to do something else. And I decided to go for academia and just give it a shot because I was highly motivated during my Master’s project by my old supervisor. Essentially, we did a very nice project that ended up being published, luckily enough.
Bethan: Yeah, well done!
Ale: So I decided to give it a shot. I didn’t know what to expect from this experience. But
I was very excited by the prospect of living abroad. And I think that was pretty much something I was always aiming at. I didn’t know about academia versus normal jobs, but I thought that an abroad experience was pretty much necessary for my personal growth.
Bethan: So actually, for you, having to learn English alongside learning science – would you say that’s been a positive?
Ale: Absolutely. Although I would say that where I come from, in Italy, studying English in school is pretty much normal. It’s not something weird. I don’t remember how much per week because it was like, more than 10 years ago now… but I think it was at least between two and four hours per week.
So it’s kind of normal and depending on the type of education that you decided to go for, you could get that even before High School, even in middle school, if not elementary school. I was one of the lucky ones because I got to study English ever since I was in elementary school.
Bethan: That’s really cool. I must say like, speaking as a native English speaker myself, one of the things that I find very frustrating about academia is that I love learning languages. I speak a bit of French and worked in France a little bit. But I never get to practice it as part of my job. And I get quite jealous of, you know, people for whom it’s kind of forced upon them. But I guess some people might see it as quite a big negative.
I also get the flip side where sometimes if I’m lucky and I might win something like your presentation prize, but then I’m the only native English speaker in the room. And I’m a bit like, “Yeah, that’s not really fair on everyone else, because I already have the upper hand from birth with how I communicate.” So I guess I’m simultaneously jealous, but then aware of the extra challenges that you guys must have as well.
Do you think you’re used to English like second nature now? Or do you still find it difficult to write journal articles in English? Would it be easier if you’re writing them in Italian?
Ale: No, I wouldn’t say so. I mean, I’m so used to it at the moment. Of course, I’m still gonna make grammar mistakes when I speak or when I write. I cannot, of course, read a paper as fast as if it were written in Italian, but I pretty much don’t think about it. Also, outside of academia, now I have so many friends and other people I keep communicating with that do not speak a word of Italian, so I don’t have much of a choice. After a while it gets so much, I just get used to it. I don’t really think about it anymore.
Bethan: Ben, what are your experiences, because I know that you speak quite a few different languages and you’ve also studied in lots of different countries. Do you think that the experience of having to do academia in English is universal throughout the world or do you think it changes?
Ben: I studied anthropology as an undergraduate student and because anthropology is about learning about different cultures and different ways of life, it’s almost required of you to learn another language that’s not English. So I did my master’s project, also in anthropology, in India. And thankfully, because a lot of the people that I worked with spoke English, I didn’t have to learn Kannada, which is the local language spoken in the part of the country that I went to.
But, I think much of anthropological research is still communicated and written in English, which I find problematic, because we’re required to learn another language, be it Hindi, Italian, French or German, to work with people in the local communities. The academic work is still done in English.
And I wish there was another way to challenge that norm, where we are expected and encouraged to publish not just in English, but to publish in the local language that we use to communicate with people.
Bethan: Yeah, that’s a very good point. I feel like we’ve talked a lot in this podcast about sort of research communication. And you’re automatically adding like another layer of complexity if you then need to translate research journals so that people can understand them. You know?
Ale, what are your thoughts on this? Do you have friends back home that maybe aren’t as fluent in English and find it difficult to relate to what you’re doing?
Ale: So it’s an interesting question. And I think that the answer is pretty much everything you can think of, in the sense that I can think of friends that despite staying in Italy for most of their lives, they just ended up being very fluent in English for another reason that maybe they had many opportunities to go on vacations and meet people that would not speak a word of Italian anyway. But I can also think of friends that really struggle when they have to communicate with someone that is not fluent in their same language.
Anyway, I would say that the situation is completely different from what you described at the beginning. Learning English is, whether you are successful in it or not, a necessity pretty much so that’s why many people end up being fluent enough in English. While for you learning another language may be just a matter of personal interest, which is completely different.
Bethan: Yeah, absolutely. I wonder what you guys’ thoughts are on this question. What do you think is the biggest barrier in communication? Take my discipline as an example – quantum physics. Do you think the barrier is bigger trying to communicate quantum physics and other sorts of specialist research to the general public? Or do you think the barrier might be bigger between communicating something in English to somebody who’s Italian and doesn’t have a grasp of English and then what happens when that barrier is, you know, doubled because you’ve got language effect, and the discipline effect?
Ale: The first thing I can think of is certainly when somebody is for example giving a talk, or a pasta presentation or something like that, being charismatic is for sure easier if you are trying to communicate in your own language. But at the same time, I don’t even know if there’s a strict correlation. This is something that I always thought. So, English has a very interesting characteristic, which is, it’s a very practical and simple language. Yeah sure it has many exceptions when it comes to pronunciation, but in general it’s a very straightforward language. If I will have to explain the same things in Italian, even if it’s my first language, Italian needs many tenses and many little details that need to be perfectly crafted. So, in certain ways, English, if you’re fluent enough can turn out content now even easier.
Bethan: Interesting. That’s such an interesting viewpoint on it. How does Korean fit with all this, Ben?
Ben: If I think back to my own fields in my old discipline of anthropology and what I currently do in healthcare research, because both of my areas are very small and insular in Korea, it’s very hard for me to try and communicate and articulate concepts that are taken for granted among anthropologists or occupational therapists who speak English, to Koreans because I grew up in New Zealand. And I learned Korean just from reading and talking to my parents. I’ve only had two years of formal education in Korean. I would know very little about whether there are any equivalent terms for, let’s say “occupation.” In Korean, the word for occupation that Koreans use, is the one that you would use in English for jobs or careers. Whereas in English, if I talk about occupation to occupational therapists, they’re not gonna think about jobs and careers. They’ll think about everyday things that matter to you in your daily life that has health consequences. So, I don’t know, it’s tough.
Bethan: It all comes back to that terminology again between disciplines, doesn’t it? So I wanted to do a poster presentation in French. I was at summer school in France and although the school was in English, I was the only English person there and most people were French. We were doing these presentations in different languages to help each other learn. So I realised when I gave my poster presentation in French, actually, lot of the words are exactly the same – like borrowed from English or French. Quite often when I was stuck on a bit of technical vocabulary they were like “Oh it’s just the same.” You know, so maybe it comes back to that whole thing we’re talking about earlier about we have more in common than what divides us, who knows.
Ale: I must say that maybe it could be more challenging for native English speakers to adapt to a situation where maybe a lot of academic people are forming a local environment, and they’re not very much used to an international professional environment. So they can speak English, but although being very professional, they do not speak great professional English, and thus, even if you go out there with confidence, it may be hard to make the most out of it.
Bethan: Yeah, no, it’s a very good point and I find it a shame really that for whatever historical reasons, research seems to be in English. I really hope that it doesn’t exclude people but it probably does, you know, and that’s a great shame. Especially if we’re going towards open research.
Ben: I know I was saying that in anthropology you are always required to learn another language because you are supposed to go into a cultural community that you’re not familiar with, and yet so much of academic anthropology is in English. A lot of local communities, especially Indigenous groups, will often ask: “How does this research benefit our daily lives? This foreigner who comes into our community, learns about our way of life, and then goes back to their home country, and writes about us, without us learning about how we’re portrayed and depicted in research.” So I really do think that, you know, engagement in non-English domains is critical.
Ben: Welcome back to the episode. Now we are going to be talking about how the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has been communicated in our respective institutions – King’s College London and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. So what I’ll do now is I’ll get my co-host Bethan to just share how her institution, King’s, has been communicating to their students and staff about COVID-19, as well as its effects on UK society more broadly, so I’ll leave it to you.
Bethan: Yeah. Thanks, Ben, so it’s a really interesting one. I think certainly as PhD students, or to use U.S. terminology “graduate students,” we kind of lie in this weird subspace between students and staff. So one of the things I found quite interesting is watching the different messaging that we’ve been getting from the student unions, but then also from the research staff point of view. And I definitely think communication is something that all institutions have found really difficult. I don’t know about how it’s been in the States but certainly it was such a mad rush for us to close labs and move teaching online. I think communication is definitely something that maybe if it was to happen again, would have been done slightly differently. But what I have noticed and what’s been nice to see is that as time has gone on and as everyone suggested, the university is getting a lot clearer in its messaging. And I think that is more broadly across the sector as a whole. Okay, what about at UNC?
Ben: I think, much like your experience at King’s, it’s been interesting to see the different kinds of messaging that the university has been sending out to undergraduate students, graduate students, and to researchers. And because graduate students tend to fall into this wayward dual status as students and employees, it’s quite confusing what the university wants from us. The university recently released a roadmap that outlines some of its plans and policies on how our campus will gradually reopen in August, and some of the safety and hygiene measures that everyone is expected to undertake.
But the most confusing thing is people still expect research to go on. Human subjects, clinical trials, so on and so forth. At the same time, we’re also expected to abide by these student guidelines and what’s been interesting is that there have been very minimal guidelines that are exclusively targeted towards graduate students. So if you look at the Carolina roadmap and search the term “graduate students” using the search function on your Internet browser, you will very rarely see it appear compared to undergrads.
So even though we’re still technically students, we get very little official advice from the university as to what we’re supposed to do, whereas from the research side we are expected to gradually ramp our operations back up. And I think that the clash between these two discourses is something that a lot of graduate students have found confusing and frustrating. I wish that the university would be clearer in telling us what we need to do.
Bethan: It sounds like there’s a lot of similarities between where you guys are and over here in the U.K. One of the things that I found quite interesting to watch develop in the sector as a whole over here is, I don’t know about how the funding model for graduate students works in the US, but in the UK although we’re employed – well, we’re students at our university – we’re often funded by different organisations who pay our tuition fees and give us maintenance grants and living costs. And there’s been huge variation in the way that different funders have been communicating to their PhD students – where things stand in terms of people who need extensions of deadlines. Are they going to be funded?
And on top of that you’ve got universities all across the country who are giving wildly different information about when they’re going to meet funders’ requirements. So you might have in one department or one university, 10 PhD students all funded by different organisations, all of whom have to look out for different messaging, and I think the whole situation has really highlighted the disparities across the graduate student network in the UK. The heterogeneity of how funding works and who looks after PhD students has really highlighted that there’s no one central body looking out for us, and it’s something that I hope the sector already takes into account moving forward.
Ben: I totally agree. As a state school, we are expecting pretty severe budget cuts for the upcoming fiscal year. I think everyone who is a Royster Fellow at UNC is technically guaranteed a base stipend level – I assume there’s some legal contractual obligation.
Bethan: Just to jump in there, sorry – but in terms of the theme of communication, I’d be really interested to understand what a state school is in the U.S., because in the U.K., almost every university is a sort of semi-state funded organisation, and are under the jurisdiction of the U.K. government. How’s it different over there?
Ben: I think with private schools, they would still get Federal funding, depending on certain grants, so faculty in private schools would still be eligible to apply for National Science Foundation grants, National Institutes of Health and etc.
Bethan: But you’ve got this two-tiered system over there that we don’t have.
Ben: Yeah, exactly. I guess the other general stereotype is that private schools have large endowments they can rely on. Compared to state schools which would get, I think, a certain portion of their operating budget from the state government, presumably from taxes that people pay.
Bethan: And so that’s why you think state schools are going to be hit particularly hard during this crisis?
Ben: I think so. If you look at the University of California system – by this I’m talking about UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego, those schools – I think California has had budget difficulties for a while. And there’s been rumours about graduate students organising and striking collectively against the UC System so that they can be paid more to meet their cost of living, because California is a pretty expensive state to live in.
Bethan: I think we have slightly different problems over here. So, the U.K. Government sets the maximum fees that universities are allowed to charge, which is 9250 pounds for UK undergrads, but the way in which U.K. institutions make up a lot of their money is by bringing international students who pay vastly more expensive fees. And so I think the reason why there’s a lot of uncertainty in terms of, from the PhD point of view, who’s going to get the money next year is because we don’t know if those international students are going to come, and if they don’t come then there’s going to be real financial problems for U.K. universities.
Ben: Oh yeah, and I think even getting a U.S. student visa right now is extremely difficult, if not impossible because a lot of embassies and consulates have now been closed to non-U.S. citizens. So even if you were to be admitted to a U.S. university, if you can’t get a visa, what are you supposed to do? It makes things immensely difficult.
Bethan: Yeah, just moving on then in the theme of COVID-19 and communication, I wondered whether we could think about what we as researchers can be doing and what we can learn from this process. I don’t think scientists have ever been so prominent in the public eye – you know, social scientists, physical sciences, life scientists, all of them. And I think as young people starting out in our research careers, I wonder what lessons you’ve learned from the communication that’s been going on from more senior researchers to the public.
Ben: That’s a great question, I think we need to do a better job in striking that fine balance between ensuring the material that we publish and communicate is easy enough to understand while keeping intact a lot of the fundamental key concepts. Given the age of social media that we live in, it is not uncommon to see people who are grossly misinformed, who will disseminate statements and so-called facts that are based on these faults.
I’ll give you one example. So UNC has a well-known coronavirus researcher, Dr. Ralph Baric who has been doing research on various kinds of coronaviruses for his entire career. And there’s been some conspiracy theories where people think that his lab to helped develop COVID-19, or the virus known as SARS-CoV-2, in his lab because he collaborated with researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology five years ago.
So because of the connection between Dr. Baric with the WIV, a lot of conspiracy theories now saying, “Put the dots together! UNC is helping develop the novel coronavirus!”
Bethan: It’s not his job really to stand up and say, “Now, this is how you look at facts,” right? “And this is what a fact looks like!”
Ben: I wish the university had been a bit more forceful and upfront in defending Dr. Baric from such conspiracy theories, although I also understand that by giving these theories attention, you may end up having more harmful unintended consequences. So it’s complicated, but I wish the university had drawn a firmer line.
Bethan: Yeah, that sounds really interesting, and we certainly had our fair share of conspiracy theories at the start of this pandemic. But I think one thing I’ve been very impressed by with the scientific and journalistic community in the U.K. is that despite starting off with some conspiracy theories… So the one that we had was this whole story running for about six months about who’s going to build our 5G networks, and the decision was taken that it should be China, despite other countries not necessarily agreeing with that. And then of course when the whole COVID-19 pandemic came out, it was just ripe for conspiracy theories and some.
Some crazy people decided to burn down all of the like mobile phone network masts because they thought they were spreading COVID-19, because they were built by China. It’s completely bonkers. And, unfortunately, a sort of very well known TV and radio presenter kind of supported these theories on live TV. But one thing I was really impressed by was how quickly that person was shut down and ridiculed, and how quickly the debate moved on to really having scientists on all platforms. So you know, in a lot of our major news stations and our broadcasting networks, you’ve got researchers.
I was quite impressed by the sort of industry’s response but having said that, you know, as a science communicator, I look at the way that some of the graphs have been presented. We get a daily update from our government each day with kind of the latest graphs, and some of the way they’re presenting the facts and figures are not okay and getting ridiculed by authorities like this or the national statistics authority. So I guess it’s made me think as a researcher that you don’t have to be patronising to people and change things make them wrong just because you think people won’t understand. And if you’re trying to hide stuff, people spot it straightaway. People aren’t stupid and I think that’s a good message for us to take forward from this.
Ben: Yeah, I think that’s a really important point – not patronising people, but knowing how to inform and educate them. I’ve also seen a lot of infographics, and tweets online about how wearing masks may do more harm than good, how wearing masks are ineffective. And as someone whose family comes from a country – South Korea – that effectively handled SARS in 2003 as well as the novel coronavirus: masks do work. You have to wear them correctly. You have to know when to wear them, how to wear them. And you still need to maintain social distancing.
If you look at the countries that have handled COVID-19 effectively, I guess the other ones I can think of would be Taiwan.
Bethan: Yeah, they all were having high approval ratings as well.
Ben: Masks work! Yeah, I think there’s a delicate balance. I think researchers need to be mindful when communicating their findings with laypeople.
Bethan: Evidence base. And so we’ll go to the evidence base. Well, thanks! That was a really great chat.
Ben: Thank you.
8. How to teach a class during graduate school
Josh: Welcome to PhD in me the third degree. On today’s episode we’re talking about teaching, and more specifically, developing and teaching a class as part of an interdisciplinary team. My name is Joshua Conrad Jackson, I’m a fourth year PhD student in the psychology and neuroscience department at UNC Chapel Hill. I study how culture changes over time and the influence of cultural change on human cognition and behavior.
Kate: My name is Kate Saylor and I’m finishing my fourth year in the public policy PhD program here at UNC Chapel Hill. And I study fairness and other ethical issues that come up in genetics research in medicine.
Chad: My name is Chad Hobson. I’m working on my third year in the physics and astronomy PhD program at UNC Chapel Hill, and I work both on developing new biophysics techniques and instruments, as well as applying them to study mechanical properties of cell nuclei.
Josh: Great. Well, let’s get right into it. Today we’re talking about teaching in graduate school. In the fall of 2019, the three of us taught a seminar for first year students called science and society. The point of the class was for students to learn how science is really done, and the way that scientists must pursue truth within their particular cultural and social context. The class also gave us an opportunity to learn from each other. Since we all came from very different fields. As you just heard, Kate is a bioethicist, Chad is a physicist, and I’m a cultural psychologist, the course ran for a semester, but we probably accrued more than a year’s worth of experiences and trial and error learning from it. We’ll discuss this a little today to reflect on our own experiences, and hopefully help listeners who might be teaching their own courses in the near future. We thought a lot about how to best format this episode, and we played around with a few different options. In the end we decided to do a question and answer format. We all separately put together questions that people have asked us and questions that we wanted to ask each other. We broke these questions into three segments questions in the first segment deal with our inspiration for teaching this class. The second segment questions deal with what it was like to teach the class. And the third segment questions are all about looking back, and involve some advice for students thinking of teaching a class themselves. Hopefully you’ll find these useful.
Josh: And I’ll get started with the first question. So I’ll start by asking this to Kate but everyone can jump in as they see fit. The question is, why did you want to teach a first year seminar.
Kate: That’s a big question. I have always really been interested in teaching and distilling information from a variety of sources into some kind of useful lesson that students come away with first year students are some of my favorite students, always have been, because they’re excited, they’re just starting out. Teaching a first year seminar was really an exciting opportunity for me. And this opportunity to teach with a team was also really appealing, since I didn’t have a lot of teaching experience. I wanted to be able to have a team surrounding me to work together and solve problems, and also just to be able to learn from each other and be inspired by my co-teachers.
Chad: For me, I’ve had a lot of experience with tutoring and being a teaching assistant, and that sort of thing, but I never been in charge of a class, even as a co-instructor. And that was what drew me to this. It was a unique opportunity to actually get up and be in charge of the class. And it was a really great learning experience especially with my career aspirations, teaching in the future,
Kate: Building on what Chad was talking about, I was interested in asking, all of you what your prior teaching and mentoring experience was before teaching this class. So, Chad, do an elaborate on that?
Chad: Actually, in undergrad, I had this wonderful program that was known as the PASS program, which stood for peer assistance supplemental study. And so what we would do is we’d be assigned one specific class for a semester. I would go to all the lectures in a class that I’d already taken and was well-versed in. And then I would hold my own study sessions, test prep sessions afterwards, and I get to see how the instructor taught the material and try and come up with alternative ways because not every student learns information the same way. It was a great experience where you know I got to kind of come up with my own ways of reteaching material to students who need a little extra help. But I still wasn’t the one coming up with the material or design, which is what I was looking for with this first year seminar experience.
Josh: I remember when I was an undergraduate student. I got to guest lecture a class because my whole lab was out of town. And I’ve no idea why they trust an undergrad student to do this but it was a 400 person class, Introduction to Social Psychology. And I was so terrified that I think I may have said “um” every three words. I listened to the recording afterwards and it was just so embarrassing. So I think maybe this class was a chance to redeem myself.
Kate: Yeah, I had done some guest lecturing myself, but also had never designed an entire course. So, this is a real great opportunity to go beyond what you could ever do as a TA (a teaching assistant), or a guest lecturer and someone else’s course.
Chad: In building on what you just mentioned about wanting the experience of designing a course. I came late to develop in this course. So I wanted to know from you and Josh, how did you come up with themes initially and how did it evolve over time.
Kate: So I can start. The idea to teach a first year seminar, and really bring this team together was Josh’s idea initially. aAnd he reached out to me and we started just brainstorming what fell at the intersection of our interests and experience. And we came up with the idea of science and society, that this would really be something that we could all contribute to because of our experience as scientists, and then also our experience of studying culture, studying bioethics from a more 30,000 feet level, looking down at the cultural context of science.
Josh: Yeah, I agree totally with Kate. We had just started with us having conversations about things we were interested in and I think something that can be easy to overlook as a student is how social teaching is and so I think that one thing that Kate and I probably both wanted from the beginning is just to teach someone who we were friends with and who we enjoy having conversations with, especially with first year seminars that’s what they are, they’re just really interesting conversations.
Chad: I actually, as you guys know, got into the group because I met Kate through a mutual friend who knew we’re both interested in this kind of intersection of science and society and so we grabbed coffee one morning and it happened to work out for the best.
Chad: But that wraps up our time for this first segment, and we’re going to take a short break, and coming back for a second segment we’re going to start discussing our experiences during teaching.
Kate: So the first thing that we want to talk about was what it was like to teach as a team. And I’m going to ask you both: were there any challenges that arose because of teaching, as part of a three person team or because of trying to teach an interdisciplinary course? And then also, what were some of the benefits that came out of teaching as a team?
Chad: So, I’d love to go ahead and start on this. One of the challenges, is you’re giving up a little bit of control. So, we’re splitting the class amongst the three of us. And that’s super useful because we get to draw on all of our different areas of expertise, but you also have to be conscious that you’re not teaching every every class section. So for example, if you have a really good discussion going, and you want it to continue, you can’t let that necessarily spill over into the next class because that might be taught by one of your co-instructors. You don’t want to infringe on their time and their topics. So you kind of have to, you know, be conscious that there’s other people with other time, and you have a little less flexibility there. But, you know, the gain of having two other people with such different areas of expertise than you really outweigh that for this course specifically.
Josh: I completely agree with that. I remember when we were first designing this course, and it was either a friend of Kate or supervisor of Kate said “Oh your co instructor, well that’s going to be a lot more work.” And I remember being really surprised by that comment and I still kind of am because I felt it was less work. But I think what they’re getting at is that it can be so much more variable, because co-instructing a class can mean so much less work because you’re collaborating on grading and coming up with design choices that can be really useful. But it can also mean more work if you’re disagreeing about things and putting in more time to try to flesh out differences of opinion and so it’s just there’s so much more variability. And one way of making sure that you’re getting the most out of it is to know the people beforehand that you’re teaching with. But sometimes when you have different views about what the class should be it can be more work, ironically, than teaching by yourself.
Chad: Okay, did you have anything that you thought specifically were pros or cons about having an interdisciplinary course with multiple teachers.
Kate: I think you both covered, really, the main point. I felt like, especially since we are all leading a class for the first time having three people who got along so well and could work well together really just made all of the decisions that we had to make so much more robust and easier, and to know that we were moving in a direction that made sense.
Chad: Along those lines we thankfully never came across any sort of power dynamics where one person was constantly pushing their own opinion over others. We really did a good job of letting everybody have an equal voice but that is potentially a pitfall of having multiple teachers.
Kate: One of the ways that we dealt with those potential power issues or, you know, conflicts that could have arisen is that we ended up assigning one lead teacher for every topic or each class period, and then the others would assist with discussions and bring up points as they were relevant but you really had one instructor up there in front, leading the class. And that I think really helped us, and also helped the students know what they were… who they needed to be responsive to.
Josh: I actually had a question that was really closely related to them that might make sense to ask now, this was about just what’s the best way to split up grading when you’re co teaching a class, so I might ask Kate first, but I’m keen to hear what you both think.
Kate: Yeah, I thought that the way that we did it just, not to just pat ourselves on the back, but I think we came to a really good way of doing it, which was initially, we would assign a third of the projects to each of us for initial grading but then we would share with each other, so that we knew that we were being consistent across graders. And that also helped us to do that more early on, so that we all understood what we… how we were going to grade towards a rubric, and what our standards were, so that later on we didn’t have to do as much of the double grading. But I think that that… yeah, go ahead Chad.
Chad: Oh yeah, no, I think you’re exactly right. Consistency is huge and especially you know, with new students in college, you know, there’s a worry of if you have three instructors that you might be granted easier with one instructor than another. And so it’s really, you get that consistency down early, and again that backs up to what we were saying before about knowing each other, and being able to communicate effectively. Another thing that I think we did well and that’s important to consider is that we each have unique insights and styles of giving feedback that we didn’t inhibit. You know we didn’t force ourselves all give the exact same feedback; we let ourselves, draw on our own expertise. And then we made sure that for the smaller writing assignments we got to grade each of the students at some point. So they got to see different styles of feedback, even though the grades were in line. You know I give different sorts of comments that maybe Josh does and that way they have three different perspectives, looking at their writing, as opposed to just one instructor. And that’s again another huge benefit of having multiple perspectives.
Chad: Okay. So, I have a question that I’m really excited to ask you guys, I guess I’ll ask him first to Josh. This was such a fun experience for me, I wanted to know what the most rewarding moment for you was in teaching this first year seminar.
Josh: I’m not sure if I can put this down to a single moment, but there were just times where I was leading courses, and students would just start discussing whatever the topic was for that week, whether it was genetic engineering or geoengineering or debates about natural selection, and I wouldn’t even need to say anything because they were so into the discussion, and they had some strong opinions and they found the readings interesting. And that was so cool because these were students coming right out of high school, and I remember in a couple of early classes there just being dead silence sometimes at the beginning of discussions. And I think by the end, it was so much more vocal everyone’s weighing in. And I think that was probably, those were the most rewarding moments.
Kate: I would definitely second Josh’s experienced in terms of the rewards of teaching and seeing the students engage with each other. Another really great experience as a teacher was working with individual students on their long-term research papers. So the way that we did that was, we had them develop their project over time through many incremental assignments. And then we worked with them individually and met with each of them individually, throughout that process and seeing those papers evolve and seeing the students respond to feedback and have those individual meetings, was really really rewarding for me. How about you, Chad?
Chad: Yeah, to answer my own question, I remember one class specifically where I was actually by myself because both of you guys had obligations that day. And the work I had the students do was look at a paper that was the basis for a new company that had a lot of issues with their science. And I had them read a paper and try and work through what they thought some of the shortcomings were in that article. And you know what sort of questions they had and whether or not they would trust products based on that, science, and I was really nervous because I was by myself. And then, and the students just blew me away. They did so well. Yeah, they took it upon themselves to really dig in and nailed every point that I was hoping they would get there was just this really rewarding moment of being up there by myself and seeing them actually taking what we had taught them and apply it, and then just come through with excellent work was really satisfying.
Kate: Well we’re about out of time for the second segment although there is so much more that we could say about our teaching experience. So, after a brief break we will be back to discuss our reflections and advice, looking back on our course.
Kate: Welcome back to PhD and me the third degree. We’re talking about teaching an interdisciplinary class. In the last segment will reflect on our experience and give some advice for people considering teaching a class during their doctoral program.
Chad: Okay, so I want to kick us off. In this segment, and I’m going to send this question over to Josh, but Kate, feel free to chime in. So, in retrospect, looking back, was there anything you tried like a teaching technique or something that just didn’t work out, and how did you bounce back from that?
Josh: Yeah, I can remember one class. So, to foreground this this mistake. This was the class we were teaching was about the interplay between science and society so how the public responded to scientific ideas, how scientists had to take into account the public’s biases about certain topics. And one of the first classes I taught was about natural selection and evolutionary theory, and how people responded to some of Darwin’s insights about humans. And I tried to fit in way too much about what natural selection was, and the actual theory behind it. And it really wasn’t… it didn’t fit with the class and at the same time I was trying to talk about how people responded to this and how it was perceived by others. I tried to cram in too much and I remember the first discussion section of that class, just a sea of blank faces, I think I just overwhelmed them. So I guess it just comes with any piece of advice, it’s just that classes are probably best when they’re specific, and when students can really clearly grasp what the theme of the class is. I’m not sure if you have similar thoughts.
Kate: I would say one of the biggest successes that we had was when we did have clear themes for a unit that we could keep coming back to. So, pitfalls were when we were trying to put in material that we thought was interesting, but didn’t necessarily have a clear tie back to our themes. And I felt like we were much more successful if we could say, here’s an example, how does that relate to our first lecture from this unit and the students were much more able to grab on to these connections throughout the whole unit, rather than feeling like they were just, from day to day, going to a totally random new topic.
Chad: And along those lines one challenge I ran into a little bit, was learning to make the distinction between things that I thought were interesting so I’m in physics and I think a lot of things are interesting that a lot of people don’t find interesting, but making sure that I was more focused on what is a student getting get out of this course and how can I, you know, facilitate that in this one class instead of thinking oh I think this material is interesting, I want to share it with them, because they might not be on the same page, and so it’s really keeping the student in mind and the goals in mind when developing each lecture or discussion was really key.
Josh: Chad, I remember something you did really well once. We’re talking about slip ups, but I think one thing that I really loved that you did was, when you did the proof of two plus two, or something or one plus one, to show to check the logic behind the things you assume and I thought that was so cool.
Chad: Yeah, and it was proving that if you add two even numbers together, you get another even number. Which is one of the first proofs you do in a math course.
Kate: What do you think, were the main goals for a first year seminar, more generally? What did we want our students to walk away with? And do you think that we succeeded in giving them whatever those takeaways are? Chad why don’t you to jump in.
Chad: Sure yeah. So there’s kind of two sides to this. More generally, I wanted the students to walk away with some concrete skills that you know were necessarily connected to the material. And that goes along with just practicing their writing, learning to respond to feedback from instructors, learning about just having good discussions, practicing presenting, learning how to read scientific articles that sort of thing. So just those concrete skills were something I really wanted them to get out of this first semester in college. And then, more specifically with our class in general, one of the big things I wanted them to take from it was just to develop confidence in processes that scientists go through. So not to be scared when they open up a journal articles, to be able to take it on read it, digest it and understand what people are even if they have no experience with that feeling specifically because a lot of times, people are intimidated by science and I wanted to get them out of that shell early.
Josh: Everything Chad just said were some of the big goals of this class, and one of the ways we tried to do that was split up classes in terms of different times of days. So we had lecture days, which only happened four times I think throughout the semester where we covered the themes of unit. And we had discussion days for most of our classes which were just getting our hands dirty with the readings and talking about them together. And then we had skills days, which… where we were trying to teach a specific concrete skill like writing or presenting, applying it to something in the unit often. And then the last day was a field trip day where we would go to places on campus that actually gave students the resources to build the skills or to learn more about the topics that we were getting into and I think it helped just break up the monotony of the course, but it also helped make sure that we were teaching these concrete skills, as we also taught the course material.
Josh: I’ll take the next question. And this one is also to Chad, although I’d be really curious to see what Kate thinks. The question is, if you had gone through all of graduate school without teaching at all, would you have done it, and related to this, what were the pros and cons of teaching for people who might find themselves in a situation where they can choose whether or not to teach at all.
Chad: So, this was my exact situation actually I don’t know if you do that or not. But I spoke with our Director of Graduate Studies pretty early on and I had enough teaching experience in undergrad through all the stuff I mentioned previously, to where I didn’t have to do any ta or instructing in graduate school I could have just focused purely on research and I decided to teach I made that choice. And the reason I did was because I had some aspirations of teaching in the future and I think if that’s the career that you want to go for you really need to dig into some of these teaching experiences and look for ones that are a little more out of the box maybe than just doing a TA. But on the other hand, if your career is purely focused on wanting to go into industry or research or something along those lines where you’re not going to be teaching you know it might be good for you to purely focus on your dissertation. But with that being said, there’s a lot of stuff just applies outside of teaching can be interacting with colleagues, like, Josh,
Josh: I completely agree with that to add to the practical benefits of teaching and I think one of the broader benefits, is just that research can often feel really circular, you’re just starting and finishing papers and teaching just feels so much more linear you’re seeing students grasp new concepts build on their previous skills, and it can be so refreshing when, when your life is mostly just sitting in front of the computer writing manuscripts or doing studies if you’re a scientist. So it’s nice to break up some of the circularity.
Kate: I’d actually this jump in a little bit to and say, I completely agree with both of you. And also that just being part of a university community, feeling connected to all stages of learning and producing research is really important to me. So, I want to feel like I’m an active contributor to the civic duty of the university, and part of that is education, educating and inspiring the next generation of scientists and citizens. And that was a big part of our, our course goal as well, like we want these students to go out and be able to contribute in the world and be active consumers of scientific information, and potentially producers themselves.
Chad: Well this is a great conversation unfortunately we’re running out of time. So, I think we’ll end the questions here but we want to say thank you for listening to “PhD and me: the third degree”. We hope you have enjoyed hearing about our experience teaching a first year seminar, and please go check out all the other great episodes in our podcast.