BEACON Researchers at Work: Carving your academic niche via interdisciplinary research

This week’s BEACON Researchers at Work blog post is by MSU graduate student Amy Lark.

What’s the best way to fit a square peg into a round hole? We can muscle that peg via brute force into a space that doesn’t want or isn’t equipped to accommodate it, leaving both peg and hole resentfully smarting from friction burns. Or we can whittle away the pointy bits, essentially stripping away part of the peg’s identity for the sake of fitting in. Neither of these methods is quite satisfactory: both require a significant amount of time and energy, and while we might eventually be able to get it in the hole, that poor peg may never achieve a sense of belonging.

If we really care about what is best for the peg (and we should), we realize that we have been asking the wrong question. The only reasonable solution is to find a different hole, one that is large or flexible enough to be accommodating, and one that doesn’t require the peg to give up parts of itself. Sometimes these holes are prefabricated, and the challenge is simply finding one. Other times there are no suitable holes to be had, and a new one must be created. While this can be hard work, the result is a snugger fit—and a happier, more fulfilled peg.

Amy Lark

Chances are that if, like me, your interests span multiple disciplines you understand better than most the plight of the square peg. When I came to MSU as a doctoral student in Zoology many years ago, I found myself trying very hard to fit into a decidedly circular hole. For more than four years I tried to squish myself into that space, and while I enjoyed my classes and colleagues and research (studying phenotypic plasticity in cannibalistic salamanders!), I knew that the fit wasn’t great. I love biology, but also care deeply about science education and outreach. I remember a conversation I had with a committee member who said that I could only expect to do two of the three well. I didn’t feel that the science alone was fulfilling enough for me to sustain a career. Needing to follow my bliss, I spent several months looking for a space that was better suited to my interests and aspirations.

I began a new PhD program in Science Education, which was, as far as holes go, roughly the right size and shape, though it wasn’t perfect. I’ve had to do a bit of carving to create a niche that feels just right, and this happens to be at the place where science, philosophy of science, and science education overlap: 

VennMy new academic home has provided the flexibility for me to shape my doctoral program in a way that combines all of my research interests.

 After several years of teaching in Science Education and working on a number of different education research projects, I had the good fortune to become involved with the Avida-ED project, under the purview of BEACON. Avida-ED is educational software that was designed to simultaneously teach students about evolution and the nature of science. It is a simplified version of the Avida research platform for use in classrooms. It features a user interface that allows students to witness evolution in action and engage in authentic science practices. Students use Avida-ED to ask questions and develop hypotheses, design experiments to test those hypotheses, collect and analyze data, and share findings with peers. Using digital model organisms in the classroom offers many advantages over traditional biological model organisms such as Drosophila and E. coli. Avidians do not require material resources, and they evolve much more quickly, making it very easy to see evolution happening and providing large amounts of data in a single class period.

Avida populationFor my graduate assistantship with BEACON, I work with the Avida-ED curriculum development team to create lesson materials for use with Avida-ED. Our goal is to develop materials that reflect evidence-based best teaching practices and that are aligned with national science education standards and reform recommendations. We know from discipline-based education research (DBER) that students learn about science best when content is integrated with the practices of science. Therefore, every Avida-ED exercise not only targets fundamental evolutionary concepts, but simultaneously also engages students in authentic science practices. We try to link each lesson to biological examples so that students can see the same patterns occurring in both digital and biological populations. An example is the lesson I developed on the effects of mutation rates on individual organisms. This exercise allows students to use digital organisms to test claims made by researchers who studied butterflies that had been exposed to radiation from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex in the aftermath of the Great Japan Earthquake of 2011 (Hiyama et al., 2012). Students use Avida-ED to reproduce the pattern found in the case study and independently support the researchers’ findings.

Avida organismsFor my dissertation I am investigating how biology instructors use Avida-ED in their classrooms and assessing student learning outcomes. My study includes ten courses from eight institutions across the United States. The study cases range from an AP biology class at a private Catholic high school to an introductory honors biology course for non-majors to an upper-division evolution course at a very large public research university. My goal is to look for patterns across these very different contexts to see if, despite the variability, there are commonalities that might be attributed to Avida-ED. One pattern that I have found is that in lower-division courses (e.g., introductory biology) student understanding of fundamental evolutionary concepts—such as the origin of genetic diversity and the basic elements of Darwinian natural selection—increases significantly after engagement in lessons with Avida-ED. Student acceptance of evolution as a real phenomenon that explains the diversity of life on earth and that is based on scientific evidence also increases significantly. What’s more, there is a significant, positive relationship between the change in both understanding of and acceptance in evolution from pre- to post-test, suggesting that the more students can observe and test evolutionary processes in action, the more they accept evolution as true (or vice versa). These preliminary results are promising and add support to the growing body of evidence showing that integrating content and practices is one of the most effective ways to teach science.

Reuleaux triangleI wouldn’t be where I am today had I not chosen to eschew sacrificing the things I care about, to refuse cutting away my passion for education and outreach in order to fit within the sciences. I am very thankful to my PhD program and to BEACON for having provided the opportunity and support to conduct this exciting research that lies at the nexus of science, philosophy of science, and science education. But I suppose it isn’t really accurate to say that I am a square peg after all. The shape made by the three intersecting circles of the Venn diagram is known as a Reuleaux triangle. One of the neat things about this particular shape is that if you use it as a drill bit, you can actually bore square holes. In my case, being interdisciplinary has been a great way to create a niche accommodating of my Reuleauxian nature. BEACON holds interdisciplinary research as central to its mission, and is a fantastic home for someone with such overlapping interests. It provides a comfortable space for researchers to combine their passions in unique and innovative ways, and to feel a sense of fulfillment and belonging.

Hiyama, A., Nohara, C., Kinjo, S., Taira, W., Gima, S., Tanahara, A., & Otaki, J. M. (2012). The biological impacts of the Fukushima nuclear accident on the pale grass blue butterfly. Scientific Reports, 2(570). Retrieved from  doi:10.1038/srep00570

For more information about Amy’s work, you can contact her at majchrz1 at msu dot edu.

About Danielle Whittaker

Danielle J. Whittaker, Ph.D. Managing Director of BEACON
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