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July 2018 Newsletter                                                   Ethan Sanford, editor  

From the Guest Editor

    Hi, Jody Enck back for my last month as guest editor.  Our regular newsletter editor, Ethan Sanford, will be back next month after having successfully completed his A-exam.  As I pointed out last month, we have been trying out a few different things in the newsletter this summer.  June had a different look and feel, and we are following suit this month.  

     This is your newsletter.  We want to use it to provide you with timely news of upcoming events, recent activities, meaningful stories, and program successes.  We want you to be informed, and we want you to take action.  Sometimes the actions we want you to take involve registering for an upcoming workshop or symposium.  Other times we want you to develop a particular skill, to reach out to your friends and colleagues who don't know about the BEST program, or let us know about someone who deserves some special recognition.  We also want your feedback about the content, look, and feel of the newsletter.

     Last month, we heard from just one reader.  This month, I'd like to hear from at least ten of you.  So, please give it a read, and then drop me a note at


5th Annual BEST Symposium

     The Pathways to Success and 5th annual BEST symposium was collaboratively organized and facilitated on June 6th by the Graduate School, BEST program, Center for the Integration, of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CU-CIRTL), the English Language Support Office (ELSO), Career Services and the Office of Postdoctoral Studies. Twenty speakers from academia, government, non-governmental organizations, consulting, law, pharmaceutical and biotech industries, and professional societies shared their career insights, day-to-day work and personal life choices and challenges, and advice for attendees.  

     Registrants hailed from 43 STEM fields, 17 social science and humanities fields, and five institutes and programs from across campus.   Topics covered included: developing an entrepreneurial mindset, navigating employment as an international student, engaging the public via social media, and exploring careers in consulting and industry.  Tips and takeaways from each of these sessions can be found under the "news" button of the BEST program website.  

     Some key messages emerged from all of the sessions, including the need to build transferable skills, build and maintain professional networks, and always think and act like an entrepreneur.


National Academies report urges changes to graduate education in STEM fields

   The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends substantial changes to U.S. graduate education in the STEM fields to meet the evolving needs of students, the scientific enterprise, and the nation. The report describes an ideal graduate education and identifies the core competencies that Ph.D. and master’s students should acquire.

    Ph.D. students "should be provided an understanding of and opportunities to explore the variety of career opportunities afforded by their STEM degrees. Faculty advisers should discuss with their students whether and how a degree will advance the students’ long-term educational and career goals. Industry, nonprofit, government, and other employers should provide guidance and financial support for relevant course offerings and provide internships and other forms of professional experiences to students and recent graduates." 


Advisory Board happenings

The Advisory Board did not meet in June.  Our next meeting will be on July 9th.     

   Here is what Fiona Harnischfeger has to say about being a board member.  "Being on the BEST advisory board has had positive impacts.  You need to be able to convince other people that your ideas are good ones.  This ability to be able to convince people about your vision is a skill that is important in life and in any career."  



Report from the field -- AAAS Pre-Symposium Workshop

By Elizabeth Mahood, PhD student in Plant Biology
     The AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology has been delivering a workshop called “Engaging with Policymakers” for a decade now, and for a good reason.  As it says on the AAAS website, “nearly every major issue facing society has science at its core.”  Yet, a deep knowledge gap exists between the public and researchers—including graduate students and postdocs who are engaged in that research.  How can we start to effectively breach this gap?  How can we best communicate our knowledge so that the public and policymakers can make more informed steps toward resolving important issues faced by society?
     “Engaging with Policymakers”, delivered at Cornell on June 5th, addressed these questions. The workshop leader was Gemima Phillippe, a Communication Associate with AAAS who had broad experience in communicating issues in occupational health to policymakers.  I gained a lot as one of the participants in the workshop.

Gemima Philippe, Communication Associate with AAAS, led the workshop.  Photo from AAAS.  
   This workshop made students think about an imperative part of being a scientist -- how best to present our findings in an understandable way, and with the power to shape the community at large. Participating students were from varied fields, including information science, chemical engineering, and human development.  This diversity among participants emphasizes the need for strong communication skills across all scientific disciplines.  Philippe guided students through this process with information about policy making and science communication.  Best communication practices were relayed throughout the workshop, and included: making sure to facilitate “multi-directional” conversation over lecturing, highlighting the pros and cons of your research, and contextualizing your results so that they address a specific problem facing your target audience.

     Students also were given valuable insight into the world of policy, including information about the substructures that make up certain governmental agencies, and how best to find and communicate with the policymaker that is most likely to be receptive to your information.  Workshop attendees also gained valuable experience communicating their research in a succinct and coherent way to their peers.  We also discussed how to turn our research findings into policy changes.  This workshop is very helpful for anyone who wishes to learn more about science-based policy in general, or who needs practice shaping their research into a meaningful and understandable message.


News From the Humanities

Don't want to be a research professor, but still want to work in higher education?  Check out this article about digital humanities.

Wonder how satisfied graduates are after getting a job in the humanities?  The Humanities Indicator project of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences has the answer.


Is there a difference between the ideas of "participation" and "engagement"?

     The BEST program empowers PhD students and postdocs to engage in opportunities to broaden their experiences in science and scholarly training.  Given the day-to-day time demands on grad students and postdocs, many people, from BESTies themselves to their faculty supporters, have legitimate concerns about whether involvement in the BEST program takes too much time.  Just about everybody agrees that the program has many benefits, but is the trade-off in time really worth it? 
     The short answer is that of course it is worth it.  The reason is that BEST goes beyond mere participation in an activity to engagement with a new possible future.  The idea of “broadening one’s experiences” doesn’t mean just doing more activities.  It means facilitating “meaning-making” and deepening the understanding that emerges from the training to which BESTies are exposed.  At its core, the BEST program is about engagement.
   In his book, “Communities of Practice,” Etienne Wenger describes engagement as being one of the most important processes affecting learning, and that learning is much more than the accumulation of knowledge.  According to Wenger, engagement is all about being actively involved in negotiating meaning from participating in our job-related activities.
What does that mean in a practical sense?
     Engagement allows us to explore and learn from the question of why somebody in a given career does what they do.  In grad school or as a postdoc, we all learn technical skills.  If we simply align those activities to follow the procedures as we are told, we can become marginalized from the very professional community we are trying to enter.  Seeking answers to “why” allows us to deepen our understanding and provides us with a better chance of being innovative or improving the procedure in some way. 
     Engagement also allows us to expand our imaginations about what our future possibilities may be.  Our imaginations are constrained, in large part, by our lived experiences.  We could learn to play guitar and go to a live concert, but neither of those experiences can really help us imagine what it would be like to make a living in a rock band.  In many ways, the same holds for grad students and postdocs.  We know how to do research, and we’ve been to conferences, but do we really understand what it means to use those skills in the career of our choosing?
     The BEST program facilitates engagement in ways that go way beyond participation.  Sure, the program increases awareness of particular careers by allowing BESTies to participate in a wide variety of activities.  But, it does more than simply provide an a la carte list of activities people can attend.  The BEST program facilitates and empowers engagement in that BESTies take on roles of planning activities, inviting and hosting speakers, finding various kinds of support for others to get involved, and reporting out what they got out of these experiences.  Whether it is through an internship, the creation of a panel of professionals dealing with intellectual property rights, a focused trip with policy advocates in Washington D.C., or entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, or some other individualized and very personal experience, the BEST program allows its participants to engage with professionals in a wide variety of careers. 
     The program allows BESTies to take a test drive with a given career so they can better imagine what it would be like to invest in that future.  It encourages the kind of face-to-face interaction through which knowledge can become understanding.  Broadening one’s experiences means a lot more than just doing more activities.  The kind of engagement facilitated through the BEST program complements and enriches the other kinds of academic training the PhD students and postdocs receive.  Academic research training is intended, in many ways, to nurture a young professional’s career development.  The BEST program provides another, complementary medium in which someone’s career might germinate and grow. 


New Dean appointed for Arts and Sciences

Excerpted from the Cornell Chronicle (see full article here). 

   Ray Jayawardhana, a distinguished astrophysicist, science communicator, and academic scholar has been appointed as the 22nd Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences according to Cornell Provost, Michael Kotlikoff.  "Professor Jayawardhana is both academically distinguished and has outstanding experiences in academic leadership," Kotlikoff said.  "He is also someone who bridges disciplines easily, having trained broadly with substantial background in humanities and the communication of science."

Dr. Ray Jayawardhana, new Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.  Photo credit: Cornell Chronicle.

   The appointment of the new Dean could bode well for the BEST program.  His broad background in humanities and science communication embodies the principles on which the BEST program is founded.  His public statements about his appointment also reflect these ideas.  
   "I am humbled and excited to join the truly outstanding and incredibly vibrant academic community at Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences," Jayawardhana said.  "It will be an honor to serve and support scholars from a broad range of disciplines who explore - in a variety of ways, through a variety of lenses -- the human condition and the world around us, engage with the biggest issues of our time, and empower the next generation of critical thinkers and action leaders."


Upcoming Events

July 9.  Fellowship deadline.  Insight Data Fellows program.
July 16 BEST special seminar on a career in industry post DVM and PhD
July 25  Science on Tap . "The science of plants and sustainability: lasting food supplies and telling environmental time."
August 1 Fellowship deadline.  National biosafety and biocontainment program.  Fellowship starts January 2019 on NIH campus in Bethesda, MD.
September 7 Policy Fellowship deadline. Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Fellowship program.  Fellowship starts January 2019 in Washington, D.C.


BEST Success Story

You are more than what you do 

     Being a PhD student or a science researcher is a lot more than just the work you do in the lab.  In many ways, that is what you do, but it doesn’t tell the whole story of who you are.  It’s easy to get so immersed in your research that you lose yourself in it, and not do anything else.  BESTie Gael Nicolas, PhD student in Biochemistry and Molecular Cell Biology sums it up this way: “The BEST program is really good at making you more aware of yourself as a person with interests beyond academia and even beyond science.”



In this issue...

From the Guest Editor
Annual BEST Symposium
National Academies urges changes to grad education
News from the Humanities
Report from the field - AAAS Workshop
BEST Methods - participation or engagement?
Advisory Board happenings
Member Spotlight
BEST Blog - Build vital skills
New Dean for Arts and Sciences
Upcoming Events

BEST Success Story
Parting Shot

Member Spotlight on Rick (Ruisheng) Wang

   Rick is a 3rd year PhD student in Biomedical Engineering.  He successfully completed his A-exam just last week!  Rick's research focuses on developing rapid point-of-care diagnostics for infectious diseases (Dengue, Chikungunya, and Zika) as well as antibiotic resistance.

   Here is what he has to say about his future plans: "After my PhD, I plan on pursuing a career that puts me at the intersection of technology and business.  I don’t have a specific career path in mind.  So, I am exploring opportunities in areas such as consulting, entrepreneurship, and venture capital.  In my time outside of lab, I have been cognizant of the need to develop and accumulate business skills and knowledge through experiential opportunities, and that is an aspect of professional development of which the BEST program has been very supportive."

   "For consulting, the BEST program helped reboot the Cornell Graduate Consulting Club, and I am currently the VP of alumni relations.  The BEST program provided support for fellow BESTie Silvia Zhang and me to travel to the 2018 Duke/UNC Consulting Case Competition, in which we won first place against other top Ivy League schools and was a great learning and networking experience."

   "For entrepreneurship, I partnered up with fellow BESTie Madhur Srivastava to commercialize a piece of his PhD work – a proprietary algorithm that can be applied to improve MRI image quality and reduce scan times.  For venture capital, I am working as a fund manager alongside Johnson MBA students at BR Venture Fund, a student-run venture capital fund that invests in promising early stage startups.  The BEST program provided support for me to independently pursue a financial modeling certification, which proved to be useful on numerous occasions.  For me, he BEST program has been an invaluable resource for career exploration and professional development."

From the BEST Blog -- Explain science to kids to build vital career skills

by Janani Hariharan and Cassi Wattenburger
   Communicating science to an audience of non-scientists is hard enough when they are adults, but what if your audience is a group of children? This was the dilemma we faced when we volunteered to sign up at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC. The conference spanned two floors of the Walter E. Washington Conference Center.  It featured hundreds of booths, spanning NASA’s projections of city lights on a giant globe to a booth that let you touch a real pig’s inflated lung. It was thoroughly awe-inspiring as well as exciting to be part of something so large and all-encompassing.  It also gave us a lot of hope to see the different ways in which people were trying to make STEM appealing and accessible to kids.

    Our booth had a rotating display of cool microbes. We switched out between protists and bacteria in the termite gut (Trichonympha, Spirochetes), root nodules (Rhizobium), lichen (fungi, algae), and some aquatic microorganisms such as Spirulina, Anabaena, diatoms and desmids. The last samples were undoubtedly the icing on the cake, and they brought out the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, especially when we explained that they could perform photosynthesis and probably ‘taught’ plants how to perform this reaction. This reminded us a bit of how we got into microbiology in the first place, by looking at stunningly beautiful slides under the microscope.

Glowing desmid surrounded by Spirulina.  

  The benefits of doing outreach, particularly extended trips such as this one, may not seem obvious at first. So, why is this important to you, as a busy grad student or postdoc?

   Summarizing your research in simple words in a short amount of time is a learned skill. You have to be prepared to offer simplistic (though not inaccurate) explanations for complex phenomena, or you'll see their eyes glaze over. If you can explain basic scientific principles to a kid, you stand a great chance at succeeding with another scientist, policy worker, politician, or layman.

   Conversations work better than a lecture. Most children don’t have the social grace to fake interest or pretend like they know what you’re talking about. Starting with a “Do you know what bacteria are?” or “Have you ever seen a lichen?” usually sparks more interest and opens the floor to dialogue. Poster presentations at conferences work well this way since backgrounds vary even among scientists.

Kids can really get excited about science.

   Think on your feet. You’d be amazed at some of the insightful questions children and their parents can ask. Being caught off-guard, and being able to responding gracefully, is great practice for when it happens in your work
   Don’t take it personally!  No matter how enthusiastic or encouraging you are, some kids are just not going to engage. Your audience at a poster or talk can be a mixture of rapt and nodding-off faces too.

Some kids like taking time to look through microscopes, others don't.

   Get comfortable with being comfortable. Being engaged and hands-on for hours at a time can be draining, albeit satisfying, especially as an introvert. It can be necessary to settle in for some quiet time afterwards, at the expense of networking or sightseeing. Extended outreach events are a great way to get comfortable relaxing while traveling for work, to preserve both sanity and endurance.

   You might just discover alternate career paths that were previously unappealing, like teaching. If you’re already a BESTie, then you’re probably someone who’s open to new experiences anyway! 

An earlier version of this blog post appeared here.


Parting Shot

BEST alumna, LIz Wayne, and BEST mentor, Mark Bayer, exemplifying the BEST kind of mentoring at an event at the University of North Carolina.
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