Research in the classroom

Now that I am back from my internship at the Smithsonian, I have enjoyed getting back into some of my normal campus activities, including participating in workshops through the UC Davis Graduate Teaching Community. Last quarter, the theme of our weekly series was career preparation and professional development. Below is a brief summary of the workshop I organized on incorporating research into teaching.

One thing graduate students (and academics in general) must navigate is their duality as both teachers and researchers. While we may often consider teaching and research as separate entities, there is increasing emphasis on bringing these two facets of academic careers together in order to better serve students, achieve the broader goals of universities and granting institutions, and increase our own productivity.

We first took some time to think about and discuss our answers to these questions: “Is there a relationship between teaching and research? How would you describe that relationship for you personally?” Although our group generally expressed a positive and synergistic relationship between teaching and research for us personally, the truth is that most studies fail to find any significant correlation between a person’s research productivity and effectiveness as a teacher. If the aim is to have researchers bring something special to the classroom gleaned from their activities in that field, we need to do more than just have researchers teach. Instead, we need to consciously create research-led course design.

As a group, we worked together to brainstorm different ways to incorporate research in the classroom and placed them along a continuum (inspired by some of the material in the PowerPoint presentation linked below). On one hand of the continuum are teacher-focused activities. Here, students are an audience as the instructor shares information about past or ongoing research, in the field in general or in their own lab. This approach is useful for covering required course material without simply presenting material as immutable facts. Instead, this approach emphasizes the process of science and the accumulation of knowledge through research. The other end of the continuum is occupied by student-focused activities, were students themselves are actively engaged in research. These activities include in-class labs, literature projects, and other experiment-based learning exercises where students gain hands on experience formulating and testing hypotheses, synthesizing information, and presenting their results.

How does this all tie in with this quarter’s theme about job preparation and career development? Personally, I have been interested in this topic since I began developing some undergraduate course material incorporating products from my own research—with some success but lots of room for improvement! However, as we have spent time thinking about teaching portfolios and job interviews these last few weeks, it has become apparent that this is a topic every graduate student interested in an academic job should be able to address. Just looking up some common interview questions is evidence of this: “Tell us how research has influenced your teaching“ or “In what ways have you been able to bring the insights of your research into your teaching at the undergraduate level?“ or simply “How will you involve students in your research?” Although the answers to these questions will (and should) be different for each one of us, the benefits are universal; students in inquiry-based courses leave with increased confidence in course material, more positive attitudes towards research, and a higher interest in pursing future research (compared with a “cookbook” course; see Standford example linked below). For us trying to straddle the teaching-research divide, incorporating research into our teaching can increase our own engagement, productivity, and fundability. For instance, well-planned class projects may lead to publishable results and can be incorporated into major grants as evidence of the broader societal reach of our academic activities.


Example of a course redesign at Stanford:

PowerPoint about a case-study in Ireland incorporating research into the classroom:

This blog is cross-posted on the GTC blog:


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First published paper from my dissertation

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My first-first author paper from my dissertation research titled “Body ram, not suction is the primary axis of suction feeding diversity in spiny-rayed fishes” is going to be published in the Journal of Experimental Biology. You can check out the advance online article here. This is a large comparative kinematics paper that grew out of work I was doing to figure out how exactly feeding in syngnathiforms is weird–or if it is even correct to think of it as weird! Specially, syngnathiforms like seahorses and pipefish do this movement called “pivot feeding” when they are capturing prey. Basically, they quickly rotate their entire heads upward towards the prey item, which brings the mouth closer to the prey even though the body is relatively motionless. Then they capture the prey at the last moment with fast and powerful suction. You can see an example of this behavior in one of my trumpetfish videos here.  Specially I wanted to know exactly how pivot feeding in syngnathiforms is different from “normal” suction feeding and whether the amount of jaw ram used during pivot feeding is unusual or extreme, especially compared to other oddballs like the slingjaw wrasse.  It turns out that pivot feeding does allow syngnathiforms to occupy the extreme jaw ram area of prey capture space, and trumpetfish and shrimpfish used the highest proportion of jaw in the entire dataset, even beating out the slingjaw wrasse.

I spoke about this work at SICB 2015 and JMIH 2015, and those that went to both talks will have noted how the focus of this project slowly changed as we realized that the data revealed new insights into prey capture behavior across all spiny-rayed fishes (acanthomorphs) and not just within syngnathiform fishes. For instance, we found that jaw ram is an important component of prey capture behavior for many fishes, including some fishes traditionally thought of as high suction feeders, such as sit-and-wait ambush predators. In fact, sit-and-wait ambush predators such as stonefish and frogfish had very similar prey capture behaviors despite not being closely related, meaning that his type of prey capture strategy is highly convergent across spiny-rayed fishes. This project reinforced for me why comparative biology is so exiting and such as powerful tool: instead of just describing something about the group of fish I am currently focused on, we were able to learn more about them and about the diversity of all suction feeding fishes.


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Internship at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

This fall I am collecting data on syngnathiform fishes at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. My internship is through the NSF GRIP program, which is an exciting opportunity that has only been recently extended to NSF GRFP fellows. Thanks to NSF, I have been able to relocate to the Baltimore-DC area for 3 months, allowing me to be immersed in the collections and collect a large morphological dataset. The museum of natural history has an immense fishes collection (over 388,000 cataloged lots) and their online records indicate that at least 4,000 of them are for syngnathiform fishes, so there is quite a bit to keep me busy!

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SICB poster: modification of the hyoid apparatus in Syngnathiformes

Photos went up for the 2014 SICB meeting and I was in one! This year’s meeting was held in Austin, TX, and was probably my favorite meeting location so far (compared to JMIH in Minneapolis and SICB in San Francisco). As seen in my photo, I gave a poster highlighting some recent work I have been doing–comparative morphology of the hyoid apparatus in syngnathiform fishes (pipefish, trumpetfish, coronetfish, etc.) based on segmented bones from micro-CT scans. I had a fun time with the poster and enjoyed talking with everyone that stopped to discuss my research. Thinking back on the poster and the feedback I received from the judges from the division of vertebrate morphology, it became very obvious that this work will  be much more fulfilling once I have the other half of the story–how the differences in morphology relate to functional differences in feeding. I am working hard on this very question and hope to present this work in a talk at SICB next year. I have my work cut out for me!


Special thanks Corey Jew for taking a great photo (and many more amusing photos!) of me with my poster.

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Beyond the research: science outreach in my community

For some reason the winter quarter always seems to rocket by. This year has been no exception, thanks in part to a shipment of some awesome fish for filming, continuing micro-CT projects,  and recruitment events in my graduate group. However, a number of events I have participated in over the last couple weekends have been adding to the busyness in a very rewarding way. I decided to write a blanket blog about my activities, in part to increase awareness about the organizations I am involved with, and also as a benchmark for myself. It has taken a while, but I feel like I finally found some outreach events that I truly enjoy in the Davis-Sacramento area.

Davis Science Collective: The science collective is a partnership between UC Davis graduate students in the sciences, the Yolo county library, and the public. The main goal is to promote scientific literacy and enthusiasm through interactive events in the Davis community. We kicked things off this year by tabling at the Davis public library on January 26. A number of students from my program and I pulled our favorite science books from the collection (both adult and kids sections) and displayed them at the front entrance, discussing scientific reading with library patrons and encouraging them to include a science book in their stack of rentals that day. Over a dozen books were checked out from our table, ranging from topics in astrophysics to neurobiology to a kids book all about seal biology. This is a reincarnation of what was the Big Read: Open Access Science book club, which–while it did encourage the public to read a scientific book–did not generate the interaction and cross-group discussion as we had hoped. This first tabling event was a big success based on the number of people who stopped to talk with us and take out books.

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Outline slide for my talk. Photo (c) Sarah Longo.

Invited lecture for the Sacramento Aquarium Society: On February 1st I gave a public talk for the Sacramento Aquarium Society about my graduate research. I spent about half the talk discussing who syngnathiform fishes are and what makes them special from a morphological, ecological, and evolutionary perspective, including my research on their unusual feeding mechanisms. I then switched gears to talking about my recent field work in the Philippines collecting syngnathiform tissues for a molecular phylogeny. This part was the most fun since I got to share some of my favorite goPro footage from my dives. I hope all talks are like this, since I had a lot of fun, and I was super impressed by the insightful questions that my audience asked during and after.


The public checking out the fish collections on display in the Fish and Wildlife Museum

UC Davis Museum Biodiversity Day: On February 8th, I participated in the annual Museum Biodiversity Day. Like last year, I managed the fish collections exhibit for the Museum of Fish and Wildlife. During the week leading up to the event, I pulled some of my favorite fish from the museum’s research and teaching collections, focusing on California fishes–but with some oddballs thrown in (like an American paddlefish!). On the 8th, the specimens are removed from their jars so that the public can touch and investigate the fish up close. The hands-on aspect of my exhibit is always a big hit with kids who are often surprised by how fish feel–like how squishy a torpedo ray’s electric organs are or how hard the armor of seahorses and pipefish are. No, not all fish are slimy or scaly! In truth, I have way too much fun at this event because I basically get to nerd out about cool fish with hundreds of families all day. However, the event is truly a great way to show the public the usefulness of museum collections for both teaching and research.

A skate and a torpedo ray for morphological comparison

A skate and a torpedo ray for morphological comparison

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Flipping the classroom: making our classrooms more like labs


The UC Davis Graduate Teaching Community discussion series is in full swing again this quarter. Our topic:  students as partners in learning. This week I will be presenting a workshop focusing on a new and exciting trend among educators: flipping the classroom.

The aim of flipping the classroom is to reverse the traditional teaching paradigm. Instead of a teacher giving lectures in class and assigning homework, basic introduction to knowledge and concepts is done at home by students through readings–or increasingly through online prerecorded lectures in the form of videos, podcasts, or screencasts. This allows classroom time to be for more “homework-esque” exercises such as group projects and problems sets, except that now students have the aid and immediate feedback from their peers and teachers. For those of you familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy, the flipped classroom is essentially inverting the normal pyramid scheme of teaching. Students do the foundational but lower-level learning tasks at home (knowledge, comprehension), then come to class where exercises and discussion guide them to achieve higher-level learning goals (application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation).

The benefits of being flipped: There are some impressive statistics out there showing that the flipped classroom can have a big positive impact on student grades, as well as overall retention and graduation rates. The key to the success of the flipped style is the encouragement of active-learning in the classroom. Teachers usually spend all their class time lecturing, covering basic concepts, then send students home to apply this information through homework assignments. Most teachers would agree that students only really learn the material once they review it and apply it in these homework activities. However, students have many activities and distractions vying for their attention outside of the classroom. In addition, it is very easy for group-work to turn into copying without teacher supervision, and confusion about material may take a while to correct if the student encounters the problem outside of the the classroom.  Instead, when students are doing problem sets and working in groups in the classroom, the teacher can manage the time and attention spent on each exercise, provide immediate feedback, and make sure that all students are progressing in their individual understanding.

Integrating technology: One of the major reasons that the flipped classroom style is taking off is due to the increasing wealth of resources available for educators and students to make and access learning materials online. As an undergraduate at Cornell and a graduate student at UC Davis, I have taken multiple classes where all introduction to concepts was done via screencasts (powerpoint slides with the prerecorded lecture synced) or a combination of assigned books readings and video lectures available online. Some of these resources were created by the lecturer themselves, while others were links to freely available material such as Khan Academy videos. After I felt confident with the basic concepts in these online materials, I would proceed to the more “hands-on” portion of the coursework–labs supervised by instructors and TAs or guided practice problems.

The importance of partnership: On one hand, flipping the classroom  requires students to take a more active and equal share in their own learning by doing the required readings and viewings before class. Students that do not come prepared to a flipped classroom will not be successful. They will not be able to ask questions about concepts they didn’t understand, apply information, or achieve the more advanced level of understanding teachers are aiming for because they are missing the basic foundation. In a normal classroom, students usually do fine in the classroom whether or not they have done their homework, since the homework doesn’t affect their ability to sit and listen to the next lecture (although their chances of understanding the new material and getting a passing homework grade are still in danger). 

Secondly, since educators aren’t spending all of the class time lecturing, the flipped classroom gives teachers more opportunities to involve students in the classroom learning process. Depending on the type of course, grade level of students, and creativity of the instructor, this partnership could take a variety of forms. Perhaps each student is required to present a 5 minute summary of the homework readings and watchings to the class during the course of the semester. Or maybe students are broken up into groups to discuss questions expanding upon the concepts in the reading, while the teacher moves between groups to facilitate discourse and challenge ideas where necessary. In-class debates, experiments, skits, reenactments, and demonstrations with students as the primary participants and the teacher as motivator and facilitator become possible.

Flipping it in the sciences: As a scientist and science educator, I think about how the concepts covered in GTC meetings apply to the type of courses I have taken in the past and will teach in the future. Interestingly, I realized that most lab-based course components are essentially already flipped. In the typical chemistry or physics lab, the student is expected to master the scientific concepts outside of class (usually through readings in a lab manual). Labs are obviously all about practicing and applying concepts–higher-level learning that follows from basic understanding. At the start of class, a TA or professor  reviews and clarifies the activities to be performed, but then students are set loose on their beakers and force-plates, asking questions to the roaming instructor as necessary.

The comparative vertebrate lab that taught last year was also flipped; students were expected to read the lab manual ahead of time to become familiar with the structures and creatures that they would be dissecting in great detail during the course of the lab. At the start of each class, I would provide a brief overview and outline the objectives for the day’s dissection, but the real learning took place as the students did the dissections. Even though I refrained from protracted lecturing, I believe that I was still an important part of their learning experience, not only by pointing out structures and correcting them when they were wrong, but by challenging students to make connections between labs and different structures while I was moving around the room. The flipped set-up also encouraged students to work together to identify structures and reason through problems.

Therefore, it seems to be that flipping the classroom is really about making classrooms function more like labs: places for experimentation, collaboration, practice, and problem solving. That being said, I am not sure what this means for courses that have separate lab components. Do we do away with the lectures entirely? In many cases, these courses keep lectures because of the amount and complexity of the material, but students may learn more in the long run by doing the reading at home and reserving class for problem-solving and discussion.

It will be interesting to see how people feel about flipping the classroom and turning the traditional teaching paradigm on its head. Hopefully I will see you there!

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Candidate Longo

Yesterday at roughly 1:00pm I officially became a Ph.D. candidate!!! To become a Ph.d. candidate in my program you must complete a list of academic requirements, pass the first year written exam on everything population biology (The Core), and finally write and defend a dissertation proposal (The Qualifying Exam, a.k.a. Orals). This last step is probably one of the most stressful hurdles a student in my program must overcome–but also the most rewarding.  I received a lot of valuable feedback from my committee members (Professors Brian Moore, Ryosuke MotaniSharon StraussMichael Turelli, and Philip Ward) and know that my research will be stronger for it.

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Now that “quals” are over, I can focus on doing what I really came to graduate school to do–study really weird fish!
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