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Hiring a Lab Technician

7 Feb

I’m a Fatboy Slim fan, and when I decided to write today’s post, “Praise You” started playing in my head.  Besides the fact that I need to update my music taste, it reminded me that I want to thank all my faithful followers out there for waiting around for me to post again.

It’s been ages (2 years to the day) since I’ve posted and I salute you both.

Many things have changed since I was blogging last… I’m now the proud SciMom to two little rugrats, and a tenure-track faculty member at Wazzu.  [I feel somehow obligated to assert the obvious fact here that all opinions given in this blog are my own and have absolutely nothing to do with my university.]

That’s right folks, 2 virtual petri dishes that crawl and drool and snot all over the place, AND all the responsibilities of a brand-new, wet-behind-the-ears ass prof (assistant professor, for those of you confused about the abbreviation); I’m just a glutton for punishment.

This has given me a new-found sense of juxtaposition: freedom, weighed down by grant-writing; imagination, mired in the realities of funding priorities; and an awesome new job, potentially debunked at tenure-review time.

I, therefore, chose to attempt to squeeze into my painstakingly time-managed work-day schedule some time for fun-writing (aka, blogging).  The shape and form and overall thrust of this blog will largely remain the same – Microbes do, in fact, still rule the world, and I will continue to extoll their virtues.  However, I hope to also cover science and science events more broadly and may even share the odd job posting. (a clear transition into…)

With my very first blog as a new tenure-track faculty, I will shamelessly let you all know that I need to hire a lab technician.  I need someone with experience in soil microbiology and molecular biology, cultivation-dependent and independent techniques.  The pay is not particularly great to start and I can’t cover relocation costs, but the boss is usually pretty cool and she’s super enthusiastic about what she does.   And you should know that Eastern Washington/northern Idaho is not the big city, but rather the outdoor-enthusiast’s playland.  So, for the full job description and details, contact her directly.


Back at Blog

17 Jan

Ok, it’s been 8 months, 34 weeks, 241 days, loads of morning sickness, and one brand new baby since my last post, but I’m back to work and back at blog.

I can’t make any promises about the frequency of my posts in the new year, but I will do my best to keep up on comments and make some meaningful contributions to the science bloggosphere in the months to come.

Today, I ease into things with a re-post from one of my favorite microbial blogs, Small Things Considered over at the American Society for Microbiology blog site.

Have a look and consider (again – hopefully) this important question: The vast quantities of information and sequence data we gain from molecular techniques, without appropriate application and mindful interpretation, what does it really mean and where does it really get us in the end?

That Scary Restroom Microbiota

by Elio Schaechter and Joshua Fierer


ASM New Orleans: Here we come!

19 May

The American Society for Microbiology 

Some of you may already be aware of the rapidly approaching 111th General Meeting of the American Society of Microbiology (ASM) in New Orleans, May 21st through the 24th.  I’m pretty excited to say this will be my very first opportunity to attend the ASM meeting.  This may be a little surprising considering the fact that if you have any idea what this blog is all about, you know that Microbiology is what I do, it’s what I study, immerse myself in, and it’s what I love.

So why on earth haven’t I attended one of these meetings before?  It just so happens that my work (study, love, etc) also falls within the realm of soils, biogeochemistry, environment, and ecology, as well.  Accordingly, over the course of my professional life to date, I have only attended soils, environmental, and ecological professional meetings.  I have been advised by colleagues in the past that the ASM meetings are extremely large and primarily catered to medical/clinical and basic microbiology crowds and that I would actually glean the most useful knowledge (for my particular line of work) from the more applied meetings.

My Agenda at the ASM Meeting

This year I decided to find out for myself about the ASM General Meeting (and blog it thoroughly).  I’ve taken it as my personal mission to track down and report on as much environmental microbiology (and microbial ecology) at the meeting as I possibly can.  My cover will be as a lowly postdoc presenting a poster on my most recent work with fungi and Pb-contaminated soils.  Wish me luck!

In the meantime…

I’ve heard some talk about the new way of doing things at this year’s meeting and thought I’d look into it a little beforehand.

At the inaugural meeting of ASM  in 1899, at the time called the Society of American Bacteriologists, there were roughly 30 professionals in attendance (Miller, et al. 2010).  In recent years you can expect upwards of 10 to 15 thousand attendees in any given year with a very wide range of areas of expertise, a veritable smorgasbord of high-tech vendors, and people from all over the world, from students and undergraduates to postdocs and profs, even true, historical icons.  However, the clinical microbiology community still accounts for roughly 1/3 of the meeting’s attendance.  Obviously, there have been some big changes in the society and this year’s dynamic platform is an attempt to adjust the design and flow of the meeting to accommodate the new demographic, while still meeting the needs of the core.

This year a new mission statement for the meeting was adopted by the Society: “The ASM General Meeting showcases the central role of microbes in the biosphere by communicating today’s cutting edge science in the diverse areas influenced by microbes.” (Miller, et al. 2010) Which actually sounds quite promising, if you ask me.

Apparently, one of the most dramatic changes to the general meeting involves the number and nature of session and includes a parallel meeting, specifically tailored to the needs of the clinical microbiology community entitled “Medical Microbiology Track.”  Not exactly my cup of tea, but to each his own.

Each morning there will be only 4 concurrent sessions focused on topics of broad interest, which is a reduction in the number of session since years past.  The goal is to “showcase” inspirational interdisciplinary science with minimal overlap and maximum appeal.

That all sounds well and good, (actually it sounds pretty fantastic and exciting to the incorrigible science dork), but we’ll have to see how it all plays out in the real world.


ResearchBlogging.orgMiller JF, McFall-Ngai M, & Casadevall A (2010). A New Design for the ASM General Meeting. mBio, 1 (5) PMID: 21151775


6 May

I’m writing a few quick lines today on a personal note because I just realized how long it’s been since I made a post here.  First, I apologize to my faithful readers (all 3 of you!) and promise to be back in the swing of things sometime in the next few weeks.

By way of explanation, let me just say that there have been some life-changing events recently that threw my schedule asunder and are largely to blame for the lapse in scientific blogging on my part.

The first was a Microbiology faculty-position interview out of state which took much of my time in preparation as it was the first interview of this type I have ever undergone.   The next (these are not necessarily in order of importance) was that I found out I’m expecting my first child.  I will spare you the gruesome details of my first trimester, and all the physical, emotional, and psychological changes underway, to simply state that it’s taken me a bit to get back on track with anything outside my basic work responsibilities, of which, my blog is not a part.

At any rate, I’m feeling better.  They did offer me the faculty job, but when it came out that I was preggo, it was determined (how to say this politely?) that it just wouldn’t work out.  So, I’m very happily staying put for a while and very excited to get back to blogging about all things microbial on a more regular basis… at least until the baby arrives in November, after which time, all bets are off until I’m back at work!

In the spirit of the day…

14 Feb

Despite the fact that I really don’t celebrate VD (Valentine’s Day, in case you were thinking something else), I thought I would show a little love, share a warm-fuzzy, and re-post this from Suzanne Kennedy (clearly, a woman after my own heart) at the MoBio Blog,  The Culture Dish.

Oh how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

Show some LOVE for Environmental Microbiology

Do you love your work? Does nothing make you happier than a day out in the field collecting soil from the rainforest floor, in a boat collecting Vibrio contaminated water from Puget Sound, traipsing the forest looking for animal droppings from wild birds in Venezuela, or aboard the Alvin collecting biofilms from deep sea floor hydrothermal vents?

It’s important to love your work and fortunately for us, there is so much to love about microbiology and the environment. But to find out what is best about working in this field, I asked the question to several of my scientist friends:  What do you love about your work? Why do you study environmental microbiology and what is it that makes it the best field of work?

And below are some of the best responses. Some are my own, but most are responses I received from people who study some of the most unusual samples from the most extreme environments in the world.  I think you will agree that environmental microbiology provides experiences unlike any other field. Let us know your reasons for loving your work!

14 Reasons to Love Environmental Microbiology:

1. You get to play outside in the mud, snow, water or clouds (see picture at end of article).

2. There is virtually an unlimited number of research projects to choose from. “Microbiologist William B. Whitman, estimates the number of bacteria in the world to be five million trillion trillion. That’s a five with 30 zeroes after it. Look at it this way. If each bacterium were a penny, the stack would reach a trillion light years.”

3. Your research will have an impact on everything living on the planet, humans, animals, and plants. Basically all the Kingdoms benefit from what you do.

4. You have the opportunity to visit exotic and remote locations.  

Graduate student Rick Davis explains, 

“I think I’ve been really lucky with the places I get to study– I got to go to Samoa, Hawaii, and Yellowstone this year!”

He also added reason number 5: 

5.  Environmental microbiologists are more laid back and generally more collaborative than competitive, which allows for greater progress and more fun at conferences!

John Mackay, a molecular biologist and director of business development at the plant diagnostic company, Linnaeus, tells me:

6. You can cruise around the seas for months, sequence a bit of sea water and write the whole lot off on your research grant!

7. You can work on things you can eat or drink – I recommend wine and truffles!

8. When you find new species (almost a given!), you can name them after yourself.

 New discoveries are also what motivates Charlie Lee from the University of Waikato, a Postdoctoral researcher in microbial ecology studying the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. He echoes the sentiment that discovery is almost a guarantee:

9. Most systems we look at are relatively poorly understood, and it’s always exciting to discover something for the first time.

 Tom Niederberger, a Postdoctoral researcher in marine biosciences at the University of Delaware, has more to add:

10. The international travel is a great reward. The world is your playground as microbes have colonized basically all habitats on earth, and it’s great to travel around sampling not only the microbes, but new cultures/food/travel etc. and not being chained to the lab and pipette. Also the international collaborations and conferences also are great.

11. But I think what is most important is that microbes in the environment are essential not only for the health of the planet (e.g. global nutrient cycling / global climate change) but they are also intimately linked to the healthy functioning of our bodies. i.e. the are really important!

12. Also,there is the excitement of the unknown. Most of the organisms cannot be cultured and we know nothing about them…I think this is great motivation and it will keep you busy, and there are always new problems to solve and new questions to ask.

All excellent points!

And from a molecular biologist from Colorado State University (who wished to remain anonymous) come two excellent points I hadn’t considered:

13. Extremists don’t kidnap environmental microbiologists. Actually, they give them back.
If you get tenure, who’s going to boot you out?  Exxon?

Did I mention that environmental microbiologists are funny?

10 Questions You Should be Prepared to Answer in a Science Faculty Interview

18 Nov

It’s pretty clear from the frequency of my posts (or lack thereof) how things have been going in the lab lately.  When things go swimmingly, I time-manage effectively, plan my experiments efficiently, and have time for the fun of science-writing.  When things don’t go so well, experiments get backed up, countless hours in the laminar-flow hood are followed by countless hours plying the PCR gods with gifts and trinkets, and by the time I done with all that, I’m too exhausted and brain-dead to even enjoy writing.  So, today I’m taking my lunch break to make a slight departure from my norm, just to get posting again.

After some discussion with a number of other newby postdocs in my field, it’s become apparent that many of us are (more or less) completely unprepared for what is hopefully the inevitable: a serious interview for a faculty position.   More specifically, a tenure-track faculty position at a research institution.  I’m not saying we’ll all go that direction, but many of us will and it pays to be prepared in the event of that oh-so-coveted interview.

I’ve done a number of online searches, as have my colleagues, on precisely how to prepare for such an interview and the results have been woefully vague, ambiguous, and decidedly unhelpful in the real world. 

Many of the questions you’ll find after such a search are similar to those you might find on any help site for any type of job interview…

  • Why are you interested in this position?
  • How do you see yourself contributing to this institution?
  • What is the biggest conflict you have ever been involved in at work? How did you handle the situation?
  • (my personal favorite) What do you consider to be your greatest weakness?

Other questions you might find even on site specifically for faculty interviews largely revolve around describing your pedagogy and how you involve your students in your research… 

  • What kinds of research projects/topics could you pursue here?
  • What pedagogical changes do you see on the horizon in your discipline?
  • What courses have you created or proposed in the past five years?
  • How do you engage students, particularly in a course of non-majors?


Of course, you should by all means be prepared to answer these types of questions.  But having served (as the student member) on two search committees for science faculty positions, I noticed a slightly different and much more specific set of questions being asked at every single interview we conducted.  I discussed this recently with a colleague who had just completed an interviewfor a competitive science faculty position, and he confirmed having been asked a very similar set of questions. 

 So, I’ve included the basic questions here (in no particular order), with suggestions on how to answer, for the benefit of all those research-faculty wanabees out there that could use a heads up..

1.  What do you propose to study?  

Sort of an obvious question, but specificity is of import in your answers.  Specific examples of your key objectives, any possible or previously established field sites you’d like or plan to work on, methods you’ve applied in the past and that you’d like to apply in the future.  Think about how all this will fit in the department for which you’re interviewing, equipment and resources you could share, etc.

2.  Where will you submit your first/next grant proposal?

Again, specificity is what they are looking for.  They want to know that your work has a funding home, and that you have a precise idea of where that is, i.e. which programs within which agencies and what the deadlines are for proposals.  The flip side to this question is “To which journals will you submit your research for publication,” although I think this question is less important if you already have a strong publication record.

3.  Who will you collaborate with?

This is a 60/40 question as far as what I’ve seen… they want about 60% of your answer to be in-depth with regards to the other faculty within and around the institution, but 40% of your answer needs to include collaborators around the world (usually around the U.S. will suffice, but it depends on where you’re interviewing).  Ideally, you’ve had some experience with at least a few of these folks in the past or perhaps during the course of the interview and can feed off prior conversations with them.  And I can’t stress specificity  enough… name names folks, and toss out project ideas.

4.  What courses can you teach or would like to teach?

This often will also incorporate issues of pedagogy, including how you intend to engage your students, general teaching and testing philosophy.  Lets face it, though, teaching  is not usually a deal-breaker at most research institutions.  Show that you’ve given this some thought and they’ll probably be happy.  If you’ve taught before, mention the courses.  If you haven’t, take some time to look through the department’s course catalog, get a feel for what they already offer and where your expertise might be able to fill a gap. Again, be specific as possible, give course names and topics.

5.  How many students will you have/mentor (initially and beyond)?

This question and the next few all have to do with the structure of your desired/planned lab and research operations.  Think it through in detail before your interview and give your rationale with your answer.  Do you prefer to start with a boatload of people on board so that you can get all the research underway and publications rolling out?  Or do you think you’d only like one or two to begin with, then gradually increase to a maximum of x?  Why?

6.  Do you need/want a technician?

This is where you get to debate (before the interview, preferably) the virtues of a technician versus a postdoc or graduate student(s).  What would someone in each of these positions be responsible for and how does that shape the lab-legacy you hope to become your own?  And where would the funds come from for any or all of these types of positions?  What gives you the most bang for your buck?

7.  What equipment do you need?

Again, be specific.  Brand names, models, functions.  Multipurpose equipment is always a plus, but (obviously) there are techniques which require highly specialized equipment.  If that’s the case, would you be willing to offer a fee-based-service with your fancy-schmancy equipment to help recoup any financial investment the department may have to make?

8.  Estimated startup money?

This is something I’m not particularly good at, but I would say “aim high” and it’s been suggested that (depending on the size of the institution) you have to say at least $200k or you won’t be taken seriously.   In many cases, this won’t even come up until the job offer has been made, thenyour negotiation skills come into play.  However, this is something that’s definitely worth taking a pen and paper (and calculator) to before the interview.  Figure what you think you would need for the first two-five years, while you work on generating preliminary data and writing proposals, then add at least 25%, and you should be covered. 

9.  How many square feet of lab space do you need?

I’ve never seen this question posed in an interview before, but my colleague was asked this during his interview, so I’ve included it.  Have a rough idea of space needed and how you would set up your lab, considering efficiency as well as safety regulations.

10.  How much office space for yourself and students?

This relates strongly back to #5 and #6 (and even maybe #9 – depending on how much time you’ll spend in the lab versus your office), but also to what you have seen around the institution with regard to what everybody else has.  I hope this is a no-brainer:  Don’t say you need 300 ft2 of office space for yourself if everybody else there has about 100 ft2

In short, if it’s a job you really want, spend some serious time preparing to answer questions with specific, and well informed answers.  Every institution will be a little bit different in their focus and desires, but from their website, the job announcement, and the search committee, you should be able to get a feel for that before you ever show up for the interview.

I’d love to hear if anyone out there has had similar or vastly different experiences and how it all went down.  Let me know if I left something critical out, too!

Happy hunting!


Many thanks to those whose interview experience helped shape this post!

Shall we dance?…

29 Sep

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for… says the rhizobial bacteria to the leguminous plant root.  In response, the plant warmly embraces her partner, literally wrapping herself fully around the bacteria, and so the intricate and highly choreographed ballet begins.

Image of a root hair embracing it's bacterial consort, by Euan James, via Life Sciences at the University of Dundee.

But how can a minuscule little bacterium communicate to a “higher plant” in a way to elicit such an overwhelming positive response?  A response which catalyzes this fundamental and truly amazing partnership, on which the world as we know it has depended for millenia?

The answer is simple, these bacteria developed special signaling molecules called nodulation (Nod) factors to communicate with certain plants.  These nodulation factors are diffusible signals, which mimic plant hormones, and stimulate very specific developmental processes within the plant during the initiation of the symbiotic relationship (Oldroyd & Downie, 2008).  They provide the choreography of the dance.

By simply altering the length and degree of saturation (think, saturated vs. unsaturated fats) of the nodulation factors, bacteria can target very specific plants.  This species-specific tuning of the nodulation signals allows an individual bacterium to “speak to” the host it prefers and form a relationship with, for example, a soybean plant rather than an alfalfa plant.

Once the plant recognizes the nodulation factor of the rhizobial bacteria, infection occurs through root hair cells which curl around and entrap the attached bacteria.  The bacteria, in turn, begin to break down the plant cell walls which entrap them, and subsequently initiate the formation of a tube-like structure called the intracellular infection thread or IIT (Ivanov, et al. 2010).

Intracellular infection threads containing fluroescently labeled rhizobial bacteria.  (By Dan Gage)

Intracellular infection threads (IIT) containing fluroescently labeled rhizobial bacteria. (By Dan Gage)

The IIT serves as a biological inoculation needle, so to speak, penetrating the root primordial cells and releasing bacteria into the cytoplasm of the plant.  At this point, the plant cells form a protective membrane around the mass of bacterial cells, where the bacteria differentiate into their nitrogen-fixing stage.  This special intercellular plant membrane, also called the peribacteroid membrane (PBM), allows nutrient exchange and helps protect the bacteria from oxygen, which would destroy the nitrogenase enzyme crucial to the process of gaseous N2 fixation (the process which is central to the nitrogen cycle, controls nitrogen availability, and consequently supports life on this earth).

At every point in this intricate dance, the bacteria and plant are engaged in a complex dialogue; this constant communication prevents activation of the plant defensive systems and the final formation of a functional symbiotic relationship (i.e. an active root nodule).  It’s a beautiful and fascinating process on which we rely, and should duly appreciate.

So, when, in my previous post, I mentioned the fact that it perturbs me when people dismiss the role bacteria play in symbiotic nitrogen fixation, I hope you can see that saying “plants fix nitrogen” for me, is comparable to saying Da Vinci’s paintbrush was responsible for the Mona Lisa, or that Einstein’s pen introduced the Theory of Relativity.  It just doesn’t give credit where credit is due.

ResearchBlogging.orgIvanov, S., Fedorova, E., & Bisseling, T. (2010). Intracellular plant microbe associations: secretory pathways and the formation of perimicrobial compartments. Current Opinion in Plant Biology, 13 (4), 372-377 DOI: 10.1016/j.pbi.2010.04.005

Oldroyd, G., & Downie, J. (2008). Coordinating Nodule Morphogenesis with Rhizobial Infection in Legumes. Annual Review of Plant Biology, 59 (1), 519-546 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.arplant.59.032607.092839