The Cary REU program in Translational Ecology engages students in activities in three interwoven strands that, when experienced together, provide a strong foundation for pursuing excellence in ecology:
- Cutting Edge Independent Research Projects
- Professional Development and Reflective Practice in Research
- Translational Ecology
A brief description of the activities in each strand follows.
Cutting Edge Independent Research Projects
Each student in the 2021 Cary REU Program will perform an independent research project as part of a team of two REU students with two or more mentors, addressing cutting edge topics in ecology. Students will have the opportunity to design and carry out their own investigation, while also benefiting from the collaboration and support of their fellow students and the mentors. Beyond their research team, Cary REU students receive a great deal of support and guidance from other REU students, Cary Institute scientists, post docs, graduate students and research staff.
The sequence of steps taken by students in their research starts with brainstorming, literature review and exploring existing datasets. Once students delineate a research question and associated hypotheses, they select appropriate methods and develop a research plan, presented in a congenial session of mentors and peers, and then in a formal Research Proposal in week 3. Students receive feedback on their proposals from their mentors, another Cary scientist, and a fellow REU student. They implement and complete their projects on their own with close support from the other student in their team, ending with analysis, synthesis and writing.
Dovetailed with the flow of students’ research are workshops designed to provide timely training for key aspects of their work (see Professional Development Strand below). The research strand culminates with presentations at the Undergraduate Research Symposium that is attended by Cary Institute staff, students and scientists from the surrounding community, and, where possible, family and friends of the students (typically 45-75 in attendance). If an in-person wrap-up meeting is possible, students will present posters at the symposium. If this is not possible, then a virtual symposium will take place following the model used in 2020, with relatively short presentations (7 minutes, plus 3 minutes for Q&A). Recordings of the presentations are made available to students for their own self-assessment/reflection and to share with friends or family.
In the Mentor/Mentee contract discussed and signed in the first week of the program, students and mentors agree upon the final product to be produced by the end of the 10 week program, which may be adjusted when the contract is revised mid-program. In most cases this will be a final paper for submission to the online publication, Cary Institute Undergraduate Research Reports. Others may opt for a less formal final product, or for a draft paper that they will continue to work on after the program towards submission to a peer-reviewed journal. The Writers’ and Data Inquiry Workshops support students in each facet of data analysis and paper writing, and the Research Proposal provides a starting point for their final papers. During the summer, students receive support from their mentors, the Cary Institute Director of Information Services (Schuler) and the REU Coordinator to archive their data and provide appropriate metadata.
Professional Development and Reflective Practice in Research
Hallmarks of the Cary REU program are emphases on reflective practice and collaborative science. We try to foster critical reflection in every facet of the program, and students are guided in reflective journaling that is revisited frequently at the beginning or end of most of the summer’s sessions. Specific activities within this strand in the 2021 program will include:
Team Building and Collaboration Workshop
Cary REU students get to know their dispositions, strengths, and limitations in a range of collaborative contexts, including research teams and mentor-mentee relationships. The workshop will be led by Dr. Dave Gosselin from the University of Nebraska. Students complete assessments ahead of time and interpret results to gain insights and skills for maximizing success in working with others over the summer and beyond.
Data Inquiry Workshops
While skills in data visualization, interpretation and analysis are critically important to the generation and communication of scientific knowledge, many undergraduate students arrive with few of these skills. The R platform is a rigorously vetted freeware program that has been experiencing an increased popularity among data experts in academia and corporations. Its interface encourages students to develop confidence in writing code to manipulate, visualize and analyze their data. This workshop has multiple sessions throughout the summer and supports students in building proficiency in statistics for study design, data visualization and interpretation, data analysis, and data documentation and archiving.
To support students in developing effective writing skills, we offer a multi-session workshop focused on research proposals and scientific papers, culminating in intensive work on their final papers toward the end of the program. Students have several opportunities for peer review coupled with post review reflection on their own writing, along with individual consultation with the workshop leader.
Additional Professional Development Activities
Students will participate in a number of other activities during 2021 Cary REU program including:
- 50 Questions, where students learn to observe, generate questions and shape them into testable hypotheses
- Scientific Presentations Workshop in giving successful presentations and preparing clear and effective posters
- Ethics and Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR), with auto-tutorial ecology-specific case studies and a discussion of applications to their work
- Future Pathways to Graduate School and Jobs discussion
Translational Ecology Activities
Translational ecology (TE) is a theme that runs across the research and reflective practice/training strands of the Cary REU program. To complement and expand on their research experiences, we will include a number of activities that address the key dimensions of translational science: communication, education and application. The TE strand (see program schedule) is introduced through readings and an initial discussion setting the stage for the rest of the summer. Supported by a final discussion towards the end of the summer, students synthesize their approach and skills in TE in a Personal Statement on Translational Ecology. This both solidifies their learning, and could be used in graduate school or job applications. To further reinforce their growth as translational ecologists and have them leave the program with a useful product in this arena, students will be given a choice of writing an entry for the Cary Public Information Blog or creating Data Nugget (see below). Program activities in TE include:
Translational Ecology in Action Panels
In each of a series of four TE in Action Panels, 2-3 guests from different professions will share their approaches to translating ecology, while also exposing students to a broad diversity of careers in ecology. Profiles of the panelists are shared with students ahead of time so they can prepare questions, and all panelists are happy to correspond with students afterwards. Topics reflect the key dimensions of translational ecology: a) Education (K-12 and informal), b) Communication (writing, visual), c) Community Science (advocacy, law), and d) Applied Ecology (management, industry).
Communications and Writing for the Public
Writing or speaking about research for diverse lay audiences can be rewarding. It helps you identify the most important and interesting ideas and findings, clarifies your understanding, and satisfies your interests in connecting with people in the larger community. Cary Public Information staff members Lori Quillen and Erin Frick will lead a three-part SciComm Workshop that will a) introduce the exercises planned and share insights from practitioners and communications researchers; b) workshop best SciComm practices in talking about research in ‘lay’ terms, using narrative arcs to tell science stories, and distilling key messages in a message box; and c) engage students in an exciting Elevator Pitch “Speed Dating” activity where they give short pitches about their research and then reflect on what worked and how to make improvements. Students who choose to work on a SciComm product will produce a blog entry that will be reviewed and, once accepted, posted for broad dissemination.
Cary education staff will lead an Ecology Teaching Workshop for the REU students in the joys, challenges and effective strategies of ecology teaching. Students will be introduced to Data Nuggets, an innovative program that makes classroom-ready resources available to K-12 teachers. Students choosing to work on a Data Nugget as their final TE product will select a dataset and develop the requisite materials for a draft Nugget by the end of the summer. Education staff will provide ongoing feedback and support, and high school students in the Cary Institute Mid-Hudson Young Environmental Scientist (MHYES) program will pilot-test an early draft of the students’ Nuggets and provide feedback. Cary REU students will get a taste of working with high school students directly by running a “Going to College Session” for MHYES students.