Get to Know: Bert Tanner, BPS Early Careers Committee Chair

We recently spoke with BPS Early Careers Committee Chair Bert Tanner, Washington State University, about his research, his time on the committee, and the years he spent as a gymnast.

tanner-bertWhat is your current position & area of research?

Assistant Professor, Department of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience, Washington State University

I study muscle biology and teach physiology to undergraduate, graduate, and veterinary students. Research studies within my laboratory focus on normal, mutated, and diseased proteins that influence muscle contraction. We often integrate mathematical modeling, computational simulations, biochemical assays, and biophysical system-analysis to investigate complex network behavior among muscle proteins. We use these findings to describe and illustrate molecular mechanisms of contraction that underlie muscle function at the cellular and tissue levels.

What drew you to a career as a biophysicist?

I studied Physics as an undergraduate student at University of Utah. The last couple years of my undergraduate studies I got the opportunity to further explore bioengineering and computer science, and I participated in a summer research experiences learning about computational biology, remote sensing, and environmental biophysics. Through these experiences, I became increasingly interested at using mathematics, physics, and computation to better understand and describe biological processes. Through a series of injuries, I started learning more about physiology and became increasingly curious about different applications where mathematical modeling could help illustrate complicated, dynamic processes at the molecular, cellular, and organismal levels.  This led me back to graduate school, where I ultimately began studying muscle biophysics.

What do you find unique or special about BPS? What have you enjoyed about serving on the Early Careers Committee?

I love the rigor, diversity, and plasticity of the Biophysical Society, as well as the annual Biophysical Society meeting.  I’ve been attending and presenting at the national meeting since 2004, and I am really impressed by the high-quality science and constructive engagement of many society members—many of whom have become great friends and colleagues over the years. I also really appreciate the strong commitment to training young scientists in a rigorous, difficult field that is demonstrated by the BPS and its engaged membership. I enjoy being a member of the Early Careers Committee because it is a platform that enables education and programming for early career biophysicists via the newsletters, society webpage and blog posts, and annual meeting events.  These early career biophysicists are among the best and the brightest minds in the world, and our committee feels it is critical to help them learn about the myriad career paths where their skills will make an impact: academia, industry, small business, national laboratories, science writing and education, public policy, etc.

Who do you admire and why?

I admire many people from many different walks of life, but I often think most of the people that have impacted my education in a positive way. This includes a handful of teachers from elementary, middle school, and high school, all of whom made a really big impact on my thinking and career choices. Just like the impact these teachers made on me, other teachers work tirelessly to educate students each day; the well-being of our society greatly benefits from their efforts.  A second tier of people that I really admire are the approachable, engaging, unselfish, and constructively-critical mentors or colleagues that I get to interact with each year.  These people inspire me to try and do my best each day, and to treat people kindly.

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What do you like to do, aside from science?

I love the outdoors and to exercise. When I can pair these two up, it is even better.  My favorite hobby is skiing, just being out in the snow and gliding down the mountain, trail, or path is fantastic.  The past few years I’ve spent all my spare skiing-time on the ‘magic carpet’ teaching my son how to ski.  He is 5 now, and getting pretty good at the ‘blue squares’.  On our last ski day in Spring of 2016, my daughter (then about 18 months old) even skied by herself for about 60-100 feet.  She loves skiing and spent most of her first couple seasons skiing in a backpack on my back. I cannot wait to watch her keeping up with her big brother soon.

What is your favorite thing about living in Washington?

The diversity of the outdoor activities.  My family and I get to live in a small town and I get to work at a Pac-12 university with wonderful colleagues and great resources to pursue my research.  However, we are only 30 minutes to 2.5 hours away from world-class white water rivers, camping, hiking, backpacking, and pretty good skiing.  This accessibility to nature, and the diversity of options is really special to me and my family.

What is something BPS members would be surprised to learn about you?

I was a gymnast until age 18.  I loved it, but it took a lot of time and I decided not to pursue it as a collegiate athlete.  However, it was pretty fun watching some of the fellow gymnasts that I’d trained with, and competed against as I grew up, perform in the Olympics over the past 15-16 years.

Do you have a non-science-related recommendation you’d like to share (book, movie, TV show, etc.)?

The recent Zootopia movie has a classic and wonderfully painful scene with sloths running the DMV.  For a quick laugh (2-3 min segment) you should check it out on YouTube.

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What Happened to Mentoring: Offering Solutions

Marina Ramirez-Alvarado, Mayo Clinic, and a member of the Biophysical Society’s Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women, considers the state of mentoring in academia in this three part series. Read parts one and two.

We’ve already addressed the often-present disconnect between mentors and mentees that can leave students wanting, and some of the factors contributing to this situation. Today, I will talk about what can be done to improve mentor-mentee relationships.

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For mentors. Spend some time thinking about your mentoring style and history as well as your own mentors’ style and your history with them. Are you turning into your mentors the same way we turn into our parents? Do you like your mentoring style? Have you been in touch with your former students lately? Did you have fallouts with most of them and afterwards generally avoid each other at meetings? Would you join your laboratory as a student? Would you recommend yourself as a mentor to yourself as a student?

This may sound sappy but here it is: are you happy when mentoring? Are your students happy when they work with you?

Have you asked yourself why do you train students? What do you gain? What do you offer them?

For institutions. Training students should be considered a privilege and not a right. Professors should be evaluated in their role as mentors in anonymized exit interviews from graduating students. Institutions should offer continuous education options and mentoring for all faculty members that may present them with areas of improvement in their mentoring style as has been published about recently (Acad Med. 2014 May;89(5):774-82).

When a mentor/mentee relationship is established, every student and advisor should write together the expectations from both sides as a requirement to initiate research in that laboratory. Thesis advisory committees should discuss mentoring issues separately with each the mentor and mentee, to avoid conflicts of interest.

For students. Students can also contribute to reverse the rate of poor advisor/mentee matches. Senior students must be open and talk about the issues troubling them with junior students; they will make students aware of things that junior students should know so that they will be better prepared. Student support groups provide a safe environment to share and troubleshoot with peers. There is increasing evidence that these support groups can make a difference for many students by helping them avoid isolation.

Mentoring in academia is a tradition that is as individualized as each of us and simultaneously as general as the advancement of science and knowledge. Successful mentoring for all students is an undertaking that will take time and effort from everyone involved. The need is great and we should all rise to the challenge.

The author wishes to thank Dr. Estefanía Mondragón and Prof. Gabriela Popescu for their helpful suggestions to this blog.


 

Interested in becoming a mentor or mentee? Biophysical Society has partnered with the National Research Mentor Network [NRMN], an organization that matches mentors with mentees across the biomedical, behavioral, clinical, and social sciences.

Visit NRMNet to learn more and access FREE virtual mentorship, grantwriting coaching groups, mentorship training and more professional development programs and resources through the National Research Mentor Network, funded by the NIH.

 

What Happened to Mentoring: A Disconnect between Students and Advisors

Marina Ramirez-Alvarado, Mayo Clinic, and a member of the Biophysical Society’s Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women, considers the state of mentoring in academia in this three part series. 

Last week, I wrote about a disconnect between mentors and mentees that often leaves students in the cold. This week, we delve into what creates this disconnect.

Lack of communication between advisors and their mentees. The lack of communication between advisors and mentees plays a role in the problems within the swim or sink approach. In this model of training to become a scientist, you have to follow unstated secret steps to “guess” what your advisor wants because he/she is not talking to you and telling you exactly what is expected of you. In some cases, the lack of clarity about expectations happened throughout the PhD training; in others, it got lost along the way over the years. Sometimes, it just took one disagreement and the student went from being on the “good guy list” to the “evil/dumb list.”

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Differences in the way students are treated in public and in private. In this scenario, there is a disconnect between what the advisors do and say in public, during committee meetings and public seminars and what they do and say in the privacy of their offices or the laboratory. The students get a mixed message from the advisor that is very confusing and totally draining. Which message to trust? The one shared in public or in private? The positive or the negative one? For the advisor, it only takes seconds to convey a mixed message; for the student, it takes months, sometimes years to figure out what to believe, what to trust and what to do.

Advisors acquire tremendous power and control over their students. They learn what makes their students tick and use it to their full advantage. In the process, it is not uncommon that the training of the student, as well as their personal and scientific growth are not a priority.

Should I stay or should I go? dilemma. When communication between student and advisor is broken, the student receives mixed messages and the student’s training has been compromised, the student may find him/herself stuck with a project, an advisor, and a thesis project they are no longer fulfilled by. The possibility of leaving this laboratory to start again would mean getting farther behind in the training, so many students in this situation decide to stay. As a student, you are at a disadvantage by pursuing either option.

Student isolation. Many of these students are isolated and feel that they are the only ones suffering this weird treatment. No one around them is talking about these problems, so they do not feel as though they can—or should need to—reach out to anyone. Some students feel ashamed and don’t talk to anyone because they believe it would just make themselves more vulnerable to more abuse and mistreatment. What they don’t realize is that by talking to other students and in some cases, other faculty members supportive of their cause, they will begin to solve these complex issues. The simple fact that other students have similar problems and that there are faculty and students that care about them can make a difference in the life of a graduate student in trouble.

A culture of silence and lack of accountability. Students usually do not report mistreatment from their advisors, even in extreme cases where the mistreatment would qualify as harassment or abuse. They do not report because they fear retribution from the mentors, who will play a huge role in their ability to graduate and their scientific lives for years to come. They don’t report it because the graduate school education system in the US does not hold advisors accountable for bad mentoring. A future national mentoring evaluation system would allow institutions to have guidelines for best practices and accountability measures.

First year graduate students join laboratories and senior students do not feel comfortable warning them about the issues associated with their discontent. This perpetuates the trend of popular laboratories having lots of students despite bad mentoring. First year graduate students sometimes choose an advisor by following the example of other students who are doing their theses in that laboratory. What they do not realize is that each student is a unique individual and a perfect student-advisor match does not mean another student will find success with the same advisor.

Graduate students need to know that a very successful laboratory with lots of funding does not guarantee a successful PhD experience for every student.

Next time: What can be done to address these issues?

 

The author wishes to thank Dr. Estefanía Mondragón and Prof. Gabriela Popescu for their helpful suggestions on this blog series.

What Happened to Mentoring: My Views on Why It Is Sometimes Lacking

Marina Ramirez-Alvarado, Mayo Clinic, and a member of the Biophysical Society’s Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women, considers the state of mentoring in academia in this three part series.

We have all heard the horror stories, the juicy gossip shared over coffee or beer. “The mentor from hell,” “nightmare on PhD street,” “Angel in public, evil in private”… Little did I know that these stories were occurring constantly, in subtle, grayscale ways around me and causing anguish, attrition, discouragement, depression, loss of confidence, and loss of scientific human power in academia.

The word Mentor in magazine letters on a notice board

Let me start by saying that I have had great mentors throughout my academic career. None of them were perfect. We had our bad moments, but overall, my experience with them was very positive. One of my mentors lived in a different city and I only saw him one day per week, but he had set up a co-mentor for my undergraduate thesis who helped me with day-to-day issues. When I saw him, we had great conversations and he left me recharged and ready to go for the next week. Another mentor is probably one of the brightest minds in my country of origin; he allowed me to grow on my own and provided a great environment for discussion. I have never had group meetings like the ones he organized. I had a mentor who is a genius and a caring individual that taught me how to write, how to plan successful projects, and to move science forward. He also offered his help and flexibility in times of personal need. Another mentor gave me the freedom and the resources to help me become an independent scientist and showed me her way of juggling a personal life with a scientific one.

As an assistant professor, I was eager to start interacting with students, to train them, and mentor them to become better scientists than me. I got involved in as many student-related activities as I could. I joined thesis committees, I welcomed undergraduate and graduate students into my laboratory, and I taught classes. The students got to know me as an accessible, friendly professor. Let me get this straight, I am not perfect… I have had my share of bad matches with students and personnel in my laboratory. I am not the best mentor for every student. My approach when things don’t go well is to put it out on the table, talk about it, and avoid the blame game (towards the student or myself) and to learn from every experience and move on.

And that brings me to what started happening next. The graduate students from other laboratories who knew me from classes, lectures, thesis committees, word-of-mouth, etc. started coming to my office, confused, in tears, discouraged, with their self-confidence in tatters… Some of these students had started doubting every decision they were making, feeling very confused because their advisors were not supporting their efforts. They were treating these students as the worst scientists around and they were threatening them that they were never going to graduate because they were dumb. Students that normally work 12-16 hours per day were labeled as lazy when they stayed home because of a car/home repair issue or an illness. Students’ ability to perform experiments were questioned when results did not fit a mentor’s hypothesis. The students describe 180 degree changes in the attitude from the mentors that kept happening… one moment, the mentor was ‘nice and supportive,’ the other moment, the mentor was critical, cruel, mean, sometimes abusive. Some students reported receiving subtle threats, passive aggressive threats, and then straight-in-your-face threats.

Involvement in a national program focused on mentoring made me realize this these first hand stories were more than personal accounts, they were part of a national phenomenon.

I started asking myself “Why are advisors behaving this way with their students?” I realized very quickly that many of my colleagues had been “raised” in a sink-or-swim atmosphere, where they were left to their own devices. They were subjected to constant humiliation as a way to “build character” and “grow up” academically, their self-confidence attacked and their commitment to research questioned the first time they worked at a less-than-frenetic pace. I saw that my colleagues were simply “raising” their students the way they had been mentored, because in many cases, they did not know a different way.

There is a perception that to be successful you have to be utterly miserable, overworked, abused, and constantly doubting yourself. Well, let me tell you. That is not true. I live in a very different world where successful scientists care for their students and help them thrive. You do not compromise the quality of the science by treating your students in a kind way. The sink or swim system may work for certain people, but clearly does not work for all.

Over the next weeks, I will delve deeper into this issue, looking at what the disconnect is between mentors and mentees and how the problem can be solved.

Stay tuned for: What creates the disconnect between mentors and mentees?

 

The author wishes to thank Dr. Estefanía Mondragón and Prof. Gabriela Popescu for their helpful suggestions on this blog series.

How Do I Prepare My Poster? How Do I Give a Talk?

Sections of this article are adapted from the article “Do’s and Don’ts of Poster Presentation,” by Steven M. Block, published in Biophysical Journal, Volume 71, December 1996.

Congratulations! Your abstract has been accepted for the 60th Annual Meeting of the Biophysical Society and your poster has been scheduled in with thousands of others during the meeting. What do you do next? How do you prepare for the presentation? What can you do to stand out from the others? Even if this is not your first presentation, it is important to keep certain things in mind while preparing your poster and presentation.

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First, consider how your poster will look—the size, colors, font, and flow of it. Think of your audience—people walking through the poster hall, glancing around for interesting topics. Most important on your poster is the title. The title of your poster does not need to match the title of your abstract. In fact, it’s best that it doesn’t. Your abstract title is probably long, incredibly descriptive, and possibly laden with jargon. But you are trying to attract people to come over and read your poster, so keep the title short, snappy, and to the point. Make sure someone can get a general idea of your topic just from reading the title – and make sure they can read the font from a reasonable distance.

Once you’ve lured readers to your poster, you want to make sure they can actually read the text you’ve so painstakingly put together. Fonts smaller than 12-point are just too small for a poster—14-point should be used as a benchmark for the absolute minimum font size (think fine print), and the main text should be 18-20 point or larger (the title should be even bigger). If your text doesn’t fit at that size, consider editing your text, not decreasing the font size. While we’re talking about fonts, keep in mind that poster presentations are not the right place to experiment with fun, fancy fonts (save those for e-cards to your Nobel Prize celebration!). Use fonts that are easy to read. If you want to move from the traditional Times New Roman, stick with something equally basic, such as Baskerville Old Face, Century Schoolbook, or Palatino Linotype. Make sure whatever font you choose works well with any equations or symbols you use. Once you’ve selected a font, keep your choice (and size) consistent throughout the poster.

You may want to draw readers to you by making your poster a bright color, or adding patterns or some other loud visual cue. There’s nothing wrong with a little color in your poster, but keep it professional (avoid neon hues, unless they’re relevant to your research), and keep it readable by making sure the colors contrast well—if you want a navy blue background, your font color should not be deep magenta.

Now that you’ve settled on the basic font, size, and color choices, it’s time to lay out your poster. Break your presentation into logical sections that easily flow from one to another, to help your reader follow your research. Start in the top left, moving vertically first, then left to right. Make sure to include any additional authors towards the beginning of your poster and any relevant references towards the end—it is very important to give credit to everyone involved!

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With your poster finished, it’s time to prepare your actual presentation. You’ll want to stick around near your poster for as much time as you can to engage with readers, answer questions, and of course meet and network with other scientists interested in your research. Definitely plan to camp out by your poster for at least the hour that you are scheduled to present. Keeping in mind that most people will only stop for a moment, and even those who linger will only do so for three to five minutes, put together an “elevator speech” with the top points you want to make and practice it! To help develop your presentation, test it out on a colleague or labmate to get feedback on your clarity and delivery.

Engage curious parties in conversation, but be careful to not badger anyone, or to be too engrossed in any one conversation (thus ignoring everyone else). You can always schedule a follow-up with very interested individuals if needed. If you have them, bring business cards (or paper and pen) to share your contact information with anyone interested in follow-up.

If you come prepared with a well-designed poster, a few key talking points, and copies of any necessary ancillary materials, you can hang your poster and then let your science speak for itself!

Does crying at work mean you’re incompetent?

Susy Kohout, Montana State University and a member of the Biophysical Society’s Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women, explores the perceptions surrounding crying in the workplace.

There always seems to be some news story making the rounds about women in STEM and whether they have what it takes to succeed. One of the common arguments supporting the idea that women are not as competent as men is the idea that women cry more often. Crying is often presented as an automatic disqualifier for success in science. If you cry, the thinking goes, you couldn’t possibly design a cutting edge experiment or successfully manage a lab. Instead, you are perceived as weak or overly emotional.

Our society looks down on perceived weakness and crying is definitely considered weak. Women have been called “the weaker sex” for centuries. Really though, crying is a normal physiological response to emotions. Some people cry only when sad or upset; others cry when happy. Crying in a professional setting is often thought of as a career killer. If you cry at work, the perception is that you are unstable or incompetent. In reality, a wide array of emotions may come up during working hours – especially in times of stress. For many people, crying is a normal release valve for these feelings.

If you are crying at your lab bench every day, it may be a good idea to think about why that is, and consider seeking help from a mental health professional. We are all human beings first and scientists second. As human beings, we sometimes need help. There is no reason to be ashamed of asking for it from an expert, just as we go to our colleagues who are experts in other fields when our research takes us in new directions. More commonly, crying at work is a result of normal stress or frustration. Getting upset at failing experiments or interpersonal conflicts is completely normal.  We have all been there. Remember, those tears are not a sign of incompetence.

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So, what should you do if there are tears at work? I have been the one crying and I have been on the other side, watching as someone is crying in front of me. Neither side is comfortable. In my own experience, acknowledging the situation is a helpful way of moving forward for both parties involved.

While in many cases, someone crying in the workplace would like nothing more than for their colleagues to ignore the tears, ignoring the situation is not always the best course of action. I prefer acknowledging the tears, particularly if I’m in a conversation when the tears start. I ask whether the conversation should be rescheduled. If the person crying says yes, then I postpone the conversation. If they say no, then I proceed with the conversation without the added concern of the elephant in the room. That acknowledgement and offer of a reprieve often goes a long way to helping the person in distress calm down. Acknowledging—without judgment—a person’s need to express his/her feelings can lead to a more positive outcome than leaving them to cry in silence, assuming their colleagues are judging them as weak or overly emotional.

The next time you encounter someone crying, acknowledge the crying as a natural emotional outlet rather than a sign of weakness. You’ll be surprised how your own reaction can improve an uncomfortable situation. The next time you find yourself becoming emotional and crying at work, recognize that it is a normal response and don’t berate yourself for it. Instead, figure out the cause, address it and ask for help if necessary. Empower yourself.

Ellipsoid Localization Microscopy

Cover 109-10 FinalMulti-layered protein coats are used for environmental protection, sensing, and interaction by many micro-organisms, including spore-forming bacteria and viruses. It is potentially very useful to measure the order of protein layers in these microbes, because this may indicate the function of different proteins — for example, which proteins form the outermost layers that protect the spore from lytic enzymes, and which hold the structure together?

Electron microscopy studies have established the order of some coat proteins, but the nature of the process is invasive, time-consuming and expensive. Conventional optical microscopy of fluorescent fusion proteins is non-invasive and highly practical, but lacks the resolution to distinguish adjacent protein layers. We have developed a computational technique that allows the ordering and size of coat protein layers to be determined from fluorescence images captured on a traditional wide-field fluorescence microscope.

The cover picture shows a wide-field fluorescence image, cut through to reveal a superresolved reconstruction produced by our ellipsoid localization microscopy method. We first model the spore coats as fluorescent ellipsoidal shells, and simulate the image that would be recorded by a microscope. The parameters of the model, such as position, average radius, aspect ratio, and shell thickness, are iteratively fit to the real image data, allowing us to determine the dimensions of protein shells to a precision better than 10 nm. This identifies the order and geometry of concentric protein layers and produces results consistent with previous electron microscopy studies, where available. Furthermore, our model also includes a parameter for the tendency of proteins to localize more heavily towards the poles, enabling a measurement of structural anisotropy. These parameters can then be fed back into our image generation pipeline, with the effect of optical blurring removed, producing a super-resolved reconstruction of the fluorescent protein shells. The cut-through line in the cover picture visually demonstrates that the sizes and orientations of shells are found correctly.

This ellipsoidal localization microscopy is our first development in a wider class of fluorescent shell localization techniques being developed in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, University of Cambridge. You can find more information about our research here.

  • Julia Manetsberger, James Manton, Miklos Erdelyi, Henry Lin, David Rees, Graham Christie, Eric Rees