Biochem Blogs

Biochemistry blog, science writing

A few words about classroom etiquette




I’ve noticed over the past few years as electronic devices become more prevalent in our society, that students are now bringing the devices to the classroom, particularly laptop computers and smart phones. Most times these devices are welcomed into the class as professors incorporate online materials into the traditional classroom lecture. The devices are viewed as great tools to assist the instructor as well as the student, through downloading online lecture notes, videos, problem sets and the like. The electronic devices are also filled with many apps that do not pertain to the current topic taught in the classroom, however, so in addition to their use in the learning environment the devices may also present distractions to the student, and student behavior while using electronic devices can be distracting to the instructor and to other students. As we start a new year at the University, it seems appropriate to mention expectations and etiquette for electronic devices and student behavior in the classroom.

1. Students who attend lecture should be prepared to focus on the material presented by the instructor. Many students don’t know that faculty spend countless hours outside the classroom discussing curriculum, teaching methods, and student performance. We take your education very seriously, and we expect that you will too.

2. Cell phones should be turned off during lectures. Unless your instructor has a specific use for smart phones in the classroom, I can think of no reason why a student should have a cell phone in the class. I’ve observed students texting, checking email, visiting social media sites, watching videos, and listening to music during lectures. If you are doing these things with your smart phone, then you are not focusing on the professor. It is also very distracting to the professor to observe that students are more interested in looking/listening/responding to whatever is on their phone than they are in the class discussion. In my own class, I’ve observed students receive phone calls during class, and rather than turn off the phone, the student answered the call while exiting the lecture hall. In case you are unaware, these behaviors are rude. They distract the entire class from focusing on the lecture. Turn off your phone before entering the classroom.

3. Attend class. In my experience at NC State University, students who regularly skip class do not do well in their courses.  There are approximately 35 hours of lecture time scheduled during a semester for a three credit lecture course. Two to three of those hours will be dedicated to examinations, so students can expect ~32-33 hours of lectures by an instructor. At our current tuition rate of ~$700 for a three credit course, the student pays approximately $22 for each hour of lecture ($700/32hours), not including extra fees added to tuition payments by the university. In addition, NC State University is a state institution, so the citizens of North Carolina subsidize college education through their tax dollars. One should note that the tuition is paid before the start of the semester, so one assumes that students will attend ALL classes since they are paid up front. If you think that you can skip many of your classes, learn the material on your own, AND have a successful career at university, then you are mistaken. If you are the type of student who can skip class, only take the exams, and make an A in the class, then you are very, very rare. But, guess what? You are being rude by not attending class. Some day you will need recommendation letters for your future endeavors, and then you will learn that the boorish behavior has consequences.

4. Be on time for class and plan to stay until the lecture ends. Whether the class is held in a large lecture hall or in a small conference room, students who come to class late, or who leave class early, are distracting to the instructor and to other students. If you are unaware, perpetual tardiness and exiting class during a lecture is rude. If you can’t be on time to class or if you have to leave class early, then you should discuss the situation with your professor before the class. Don’t be surprised if your professor locks the door a few minutes after class starts to prevent late arrivals.

5. Laptop computers. Some instructors require students to use laptops during class, while some instructors prohibit the use of all electronic devices. A few instructors use a middle ground where they tolerate laptop computers in the classroom. If you use a laptop computer in the classroom, then you should use it only for materials pertinent to the course. Students are tempted to engage in social media while in class. Although this behavior on a laptop computer is less disruptive than similar behavior on a smart phone, the student can not focus on the course material while simultaneously engaging in other topics online. In my opinion, there is little difference between students who regularly skip class and students who spend most of their lecture time participating in other online activities.

As noted above, faculty spend many hours developing curricula because we want students to be successful in their endeavors upon graduating. This is our job. We take your education very seriously, and we expect you to as well. If you don’t want to be here, then don’t be here. You were accepted to the university while other students were not, and one can assume that they want to be here but don’t have the chance. Faculty assume that you are here because you want to be here. If this is true, then attend lectures and be present and open to learning. Engage in discussions with faculty and fellow students, ask questions during class, attend office hours, and learn the material.

As I explain to my students, some of whom also work outside jobs while attending university, if I were to visit their place of employment and act rude to them or their fellow employees, then I would expect them to say something to me about my behavior. If you behave in class as I’ve described here, then don’t be surprised if your instructor says something to you about your behavior.

I spent the day with Patrick Stewart

christie cade

Christie Cade I'm on ScienceSeeker-Microscope

I spent the day with Patrick Stewart.  Not the actor, though both are from England. Patrick Shaw Stewart, to be more specific. He’s one of the founders of Douglas Instruments Ltd. and was here to show us the Oryx, a robot designed for automation of microseeding in crystallography. I had never done microseeding before, much less with a robot, so it was really exciting to experience.

In crystallography you have a tray which has several wells in it. In the bottom of these wells is a reservoir solution which contains a precipitant. In a hanging drop experiment, the wells are sealed by glass cover-slips (such as those for microscope slides), and a protein drop hangs from the bottom of the cover-slip. In a sitting drop experiment, the protein drop sits on a pedestal in the well, and the well is sealed with packaging tape or something similar. In both cases, the protein drop contains protein mixed with a small amount of reservoir solution, which causes the drop to have a lower concentration of precipitant than the reservoir solution in the bottom of the well. Water slowly leaves the protein drop to try to equalize the concentrations of precipitant in the bottom of the well and in the drop. Eventually protein crystals form in the drop. These crystals can diffract x-rays and the diffraction pattern can allow us to solve a structure of the protein. Check out Peter Nollert’s excellent blog on protein crystallography for more information.

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Listening sessions for strategic planning

Clay Clark

Clay Clark – @biochemprof I'm on ScienceSeeker-Microscope

As some of you may know, NC State University is undergoing one of the largest restructuring endeavors in the history of the university. Several academic departments currently in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) are moving to the new College of Sciences (COS). Other departments in COS will include those already in the college of Physical and Mathematical Sciences (PAMS).

Left in CALS will be our department, Molecular and Structural Biochemistry, and Plant Biology – the two remaining departments from the “Life Sciences” side of CALS – and several faculty from other departments who will not be moving to COS along with their department.

As part of the restructuring at NCSU, CALS is undertaking a strategic planning process and will produce an action plan by June of this year. The plan will then be implemented starting next academic year, July 2013.

In order to gather input for the strategic planning process, Dean Rich Linton and his team will hold several “listening sessions” around the state of North Carolina in order to get input from college stakeholders. The first sessions begin next week, on Monday January 7, 2013.

We need your help.

While traditional agriculture departments have clear “stakeholders” in their state commodity groups, the stakeholders for Life Science departments are less clear. How do we in Life Sciences define our stakeholders when our primary research projects focus on fundamental (basic) mechanisms of plant and/or animal growth and development? Unlike the traditional agricultural departments, Life Science departments do not utilize lobby groups or contain boards organized around specific applied research outcomes.

So, who are our stakeholders? Undergraduate and graduate students? Alumni? Current and former faculty? Staff? Research scientists in North Carolina and throughout the world? CEOs and other officers of biomedical, biotechnology, or agribusiness companies? Funding agencies?

Yes. All of the above. But, funding agencies are unlikely to provide input into the strategic planning process, so we need your input. If you are a student, former student, post-doctoral associate, research scientist, science teacher, CEO, CSO, member of the staff, or simply someone who has an interest in the future of the college, then please visit the strategic planning website at the link below, and give us your opinion.

 A New Chapter: CALS Strategic Plan 2013

The website provides a timeline for events in strategic planning and a link to the survey (**Take Our Stakeholder Survey**). The few minutes you spend will be invaluable to shaping the vision of Life Sciences in CALS. In particular, your input will help to shape the future of the Biochemistry Department in the newly restructured college. Using the information you and others provide, several working groups will construct the blueprints for restructuring CALS.

If you live in North Carolina and can attend any of the listening sessions, then we would welcome your comments in person. A list of dates and registration information can be found on the same site.

An invitation from the Dean, with specific insight requested, is reproduced below.

December 20, 2012
CALS Faculty, Staff, Students, and other Stakeholders: As you probably have heard by now, on December 11, 2012 the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) embarked on a new college strategic planning process. The steering committee and Department Heads have been involved in early planning sessions with our strategic planning consulting firm, Tecker International, LLC. This is an exciting time in the CALS as this process will provide many opportunities for engagement and involvement by faculty, students, staff, stakeholders, alumni, donors and other supporters in charting the future direction we take as we tackle the significant societal challenges facing our state, nation and world.

Later today, an announcement and invitation to participate in this process will be sent via multiple email lists. We encourage you to carefully review the information you will receive and find ways to interact with this process via listening sessions, working groups and other opportunities that will be provided in the coming weeks. You will see that we will be conducting listening sessions on campus and across the state to solicit input and ideas. We hope that you will take advantage of this opportunity to be involved in the process. After the listening sessions are conducted, working groups will be established to focus on specific issues and challenges related to the future of the College.

This is a critically important process for the College as we have the opportunity to develop a strategic plan and also an on-going process for strategic visioning that will allow us to have greater impact in our state, nation and world.

Thanks for all that you are doing to make the College and University extraordinary. We look forward to working with you as the process unfolds in the coming months.
Richard Linton
Dean of CALS

Apps for the academic: Checking in with the iPad

Clay Clark

Clay Clark – @biochemprof I'm on ScienceSeeker-Microscope

I’ve had my iPad2 for about a year, and I find myself using it more and more for work-related activities as I try to move to a more “paperless” existence. Based on a discussion recently on Twitter, I thought that it might be useful for my students (and others) to see a list of apps that I use the most, and why. I’m a scientist and an educator, so I tend to use apps that I find useful for my work. I note that I don’t use the iPad much for games, and when I do, the games tend to be solitaire or the like. So, if you are looking for iPad games, I suggest you look here or here. I also note that I don’t have an iPhone, so my apps are not optimized for use with both devices.

This list is divided into four categories: Productivity, Protein Visualization, Social Media/Others, and Miscellaneous. Apps that I use on a daily basis are denoted by an asterisk (*). As you may note in the descriptions, the list is a work in progress, so please leave comments and let me know how you use your iPad (or other device) at work.

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Setting priorities as a new faculty


Clay Clark

Clay Clark - @biochemprof

So, in the past year (or two) you’ve been through several interviews for faculty positions; you’ve finally been offered a tenure-track position; you’ve been given (or at least promised) a nice start-up package; and you’re ready to start your new job as a junior faculty at Research U.

You’ve now been at your new job for three months, and you’re still unpacking boxes. You spend a lot of your time trying to convince graduate students to take a chance on you and join a new lab. You’re ordering equipment, dealing with vendors, secretaries, and administrators. And, you still think that you have time to do experiments. Based on the stories you’re telling yourself about lack of production in those three months and the extrapolations you’re making into the future, and realizing that you have only 5-7 years before you come up for tenure, your life is now very stressful.

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Advice to young scientists: 110 characters and a URL


An open letter to my graduate students and post-docs 

Clay Clark

Clay Clark - @biochemprof

Dear Students and Post-docs,

I’ve learned a few things as my career in science has progressed from graduate student to post-doc to assistant, associate and finally professor. I’d like to share some of these pearls of wisdom with you in hopes that you’ll be able to use them during your journey as a scientist. I post these suggestions here because, although I see you working diligently in the lab, we haven’t had enough time recently to drink beer together and have this discussion.

Favorite Belgian Beers

Great Belgian Beers

A few years ago, when I was in graduate school at Texas A&M University, I was involved in a protein folding project. This was a new project started by my advisor, so there was a sense of urgency to spend the time required to learn new techniques in order to collect data, to attend classes and seminars, and to learn material on broader topics related to our work. This also helped me develop a passion for science. You too should develop a sense of urgency. JAYFK recently posted a blog entitled “5 Things you should know before dating a scientist”, and I repost point #4 here. Although this is a very funny and irreverent look at science, there also is good advice in this particular blog:

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Build a bridge for research sustainability


Why bridging funds are critical in today’s funding environment

Clay Clark

Clay Clark

By Clay Clark – @biochemprof

I’ve just returned from study section in Washington, D.C., where I and twenty-two other scientists met to review grants submitted to the National Institutes of Health. As a bit of background into the process, I receive the grants about six weeks before the meeting, and I spend countless hours reading and critiquing the grants. A grant proposal receives a score based on several criteria and is given an overall impact score between 1 (high impact) and 9 (low impact).

Based on the initial scores from three reviewers, the top half of the grant proposals are discussed by the study section. Following a summary of the proposal by the three reviewers, and questions by the panel, the proposal receives a score from each panel member. The proposals are then ranked against other grants in the study section and given a percentile score. Confusing? I invite you to read a thorough description of the review process here. NIH also has a series of videos that explain the process.

One conclusion that I’ve come to over the almost six years of reviewing grants for NIH is that universities should give serious consideration to bridging funds. I’ll define “bridging funds” as money supplied to a researcher when his grant did not get funded or renewed, so long as the researcher is productive and is attempting to get the grant funded or renewed.

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Learning to talk about science so that your grandma understands


Or, how to follow advice from valued colleagues

Clay Clark

Clay Clark

By Clay Clark – @biochemprof

As scientists at a Research I institution, we professors are called upon to perform many functions. NCSU Biochemistry has about 400 undergraduate majors, one of the largest biochemistry programs in the country. Yet, we have only twelve tenure-track faculty, one of the smallest biochemistry departments in the country.

We’re able to educate a large number of undergraduates and maintain a vigorous graduate program because we have faculty who have transitioned to teaching and who work hard to maintain excellence in the teaching programs while other faculty maintain strong research programs, but who also teach.

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