Well, here we are! New lab, new students, new fish (almost), new website (coming soon)...
My first semester at Georgia Southern has been fast and furious! I knew this semester was going to take a toll on me, but I didn't expect it to be this hard. Mostly what I mean by that is that there doesn't seem to be enough time to do everything, and that I am constantly feeling overwhelmed by how many things need to get done. For anyone interested in what it's like being a new faculty, I'm going to describe some of my experiences with and insight into teaching, research, and service below.
My biggest hurdle has been teaching, as I expected. But not in the ways I expected. The teaching part itself has been easy, and fun most of the time. The hard part has been getting the technology to work. I've had to learn a new classroom management system (similar to Desire2Learn but modified), figure out how to use clickers (with both the physical clicker and the cell phone app), figure out how to integrate the online pre-lecture interactive quiz offered by the textbook company, and do it all while maintaining clear expectations for students and the correct grades in the gradebook. Oh, and I have 237 students.
I came in enthusiastic to expand young minds and I was genuinely excited that so much science was at the forefront of our societal consciousness, thinking it would be interesting to talk about these topics in class. I also thought it would help keep students engaged and that this would be my way of making a difference. I had a grand vision of this being a truly academic pursuit, but I learned quickly that I was trying to do too much at one time. For example, I thought it would be interesting/fun/engaging/helpful (all the above) for students to do very small writing assignments after lectures to help them process the information and relate it to their own thoughts. This lasted about 3 assignments until it imploded on both of us. It was far too much work for me, even if I only gave each student's assignment 30s of my time. At the same time, the students weren't sure of the grading expectations because the assignment was slightly different each time. So my vision of a simple, reflective, low stakes formative assessment quickly turned into an online multiple choice quiz. I was a little disappointed, but realized this was far too much to take on in my first semester, especially given all of our technical difficulties early on.
I am also fighting with the beast of complacency. I am teaching a lower-level non-majors course and many of my students are seniors. I have been told multiple times that if they can pass their upper level majors courses they should be able to breeze through my course. But I don't see it that way. Regardless of their major or class, I want them to think. If they haven't had to do that yet, and they're seniors, then my job is even more important. If they're freshmen, now is the time to learn. I don't care if they remember the difference between telophase and anaphase. But I do care that they understand that meiosis is one reason why we have variation in populations and that is the seed for evolution. If I didn't push them, they wouldn't be learning, which is what they're paying me to help them do. They haven't yet realized that reason and logic transcend a non-majors biology class, but I still have about 8 more weeks and 2 more exams to help them realize that.
That's been about 60% of my time. What have I been up to the other 60%? I know, that's 120%, but that's what I feel like I've been doing. In fact, I downloaded the app savemytime to help make me more conscious of how I'm spending my time, and for the past 7 days, I have spent just over 61 hours working (teaching + research + service + other). Fortunately I have been able to balance that with "life" for the most part. "Other" is my time spent sleeping, an average of about 8.5 hours/night, not too bad. Of those 61 hours this past week, I have spent about 58% of my time on research (don't tell my department chair!). This is mainly because I am preparing to go to Trinidad to collect guppies, and have had to squeeze in more time to organize that. More on that below.
So what do I mean when I classify my time as "research"? Well, ordering equipment and supplies (which, as it turns out, is not as easy as you might expect), organizing the lab and making it functional, hiring and training a lab technician, interviewing undergraduate volunteers and training them, getting most of the above people certified to work with my fish through the IACUC, interviewing potential graduate students for the fall, building a fish room, and submitting IACUC amendments (because I decided to expand on my guppy project). Essentially, most of my research right now has been lots of paperwork and emails.
We're also planning a trip to Trinidad. By "we" I mean myself and Emily Mahoney, my first undergraduate researcher, and Elizabeth Young, my new lab technician. We need to stock the lab with guppies for a few projects, including the guppy kits. Emily and I will be traveling to Trinidad over spring break, and it has involved lots of coordination between the two of us, the university, and the appropriate contacts in Trinidad (permits and lodging). Apparently professors don't take undergraduate volunteers out of the country often, and pay for it from startup funds, so the University wasn't quite sure how to handle us. Luckily that's ironed out now and we'll be leaving in just a few days. I'll post more on that once we get back.
For now, we're prepping the fish room. We need to set up space for quarantine tanks for the new fish, permanent recirculating tanks for long-term housing, and a breeding setup for guppies that will be used in the guppy kits. Below is a photo of the breeding tank setup, where the two tanks on the left will be connected using an overflow box on the top tank (to send water to the bottom tank) and a water pump on the bottom tank (to pump water back up to the top tank). We're going to house a pike cichlid predator in the bottom tank and high predation guppies in the top tank. This setup will allow the guppies to "smell" the predator, but will ultimately keep them safe from being eaten, and will allow us to maintain the high predation phenotype indefinitely in the lab. The other two tanks will not be connected, and will house low predation and domestic guppies.
The last bit of my time has been devoted to service. This includes everything from being interviewed by a student for an English class essay to involvement on a master's thesis committee, interviewing potential undergraduates for scholarship applications, and being a committee member for one of the faculty searches. That last one has been the largest commitment, and I now have a much better appreciation of the search process than when I was an applicant (not that long ago). I can save that discussion for later, but one of my major insights is how stochastic the process is, and how many random factors are involved.
The moral of the story:
From what I have said so far it may seem like I have been thrown to the wolves, but that's not entirely the case. The other faculty in the department have been incredibly supportive and have even stopped by my office or taken me to lunch to check on me and see that I'm doing ok. I can't even express how much this means to me! They have included me on things as simple as collecting trips and helping to identify fish caught on campus to things as significant as a collaborative research group initiative. Although I am feeling overwhelmed by my commitments already, it's incredible to feel so included and supported. Even though some days I feel like my head is going to explode and my eyes are going to fall out, I truly am happy and I know how lucky I am to be a scientist and do all of the things I love and get paid for it.