Publishing in Science with Undergraduates at a Liberal Arts College

I just submitted the revisions on a manuscript that was (tentatively) accepted in Physiologia Plantarum in mid-September. I’m hopeful the changes I made will make it acceptable to the reviewers and editor. I’m writing this summary today to remind myself what it takes to see a project through from conception to publication here at OWU. I’m publishing it on my blog in case this narrative might be helpful for other biology faculty members at undergraduate institutions. I don’t expect that my experience is normal, or even comparable, but it might nonetheless be helpful to have another data point. As of today, I am a tenured Associate Professor, in my ninth year at OWU. I have not received extramural funding for my research (to be honest, I haven’t even attempted it yet), but I have benefitted from 2 ASPB SURF awards to students.

Timeline

Now that it’s close to complete, it’s a good time to look back at the project and take stock. I started this project in the spring semester of 2006 with my honors tutorial students, Alex Paya and Natalie Janney. I had been thinking about it for several years before then, but we got to work screening for starchless mutant roots (pgm-1) carrying the DR5-GFP reporter gene during that semester. Alex stayed in my lab that summer, along with Liz Calhoun, and he worked almost exclusively on the starchless mutant project throughout the summer. He also returned to the lab several times over the next three years for independent studies, continuing the work he started as a freshman characterizing the growth and gravitropic response of the mutant. During that time, Jonida Toska joined the lab and worked hard on collecting more auxin flux data using the confocal microscope and our DR5-GFP/pgm-1 plants. Both Alex and Jonida are co-authors, along with me, on the paper.

To be fair, this is not the only project I have been investing in over the last 4 years. I have had a number of other summer and independent study students over this time, and have been driving 2 other projects unrelated to this one. Hopefully I’ll be able to write about those in the same light as I am this one at some point in the not-too-distant future!

Time to write

We first submitted the manuscript to a journal last summer/fall, and it was not accepted. The general sense of the reviewers was that it needed more data, and one experiment in particular, to be accepted at that journal. We tried to complete the suggested experiment, which involved the creation of a new double mutant, but couldn’t identify a successful cross when we screened the putative offspring last winter. So I decided to rewrite the paper and submit it to a different journal. During that process, I used the first set of reviews to identify weaknesses, and I felt the paper was much better by the time I completed the rewrite, a sense that was confirmed upon receiving the favorable editorial decision in mid-September.

Over the last 3 weeks, I made a lot of small-ish changes and improvements in the revision stage, many of which were suggested by the three reviewers. I have to say, the feedback from reviewers was some of the best I’ve ever received on a paper — very balanced, helpful, insightful, and generally positive. They also pointed out some weaknesses that I was able to address in the revision, including the addition of new data I’ve collected over the last 3 weeks.

Accounting

In an attempt to put this publication into the context of the rest of my professional life cheap jerseys from China here at OWU, here is an abridged accounting of the inputs into this project:

  • 1 freshman honors tutorial project
  • 1 summer science research student
  • 4 independent study credits (2 for Alex, 2 for Jonida)
  • 1 sabbatical leave (partial)
  • 3 years of data collection and analysis
  • 4 years to publication

Here is an accounting of my teaching load over this period:

For comparison, our accounting of teaching load in the sciences at OWU is based on ‘contact hours,’ which includes time spent in lectures and labs. We’re asked to maintain an average of 10-12 contact hours. I should note that I taught a new (to me) class and lab in Fall 09, and 2 new classes in Spring 10. I have also been pretty busy with committee work and university service over this time period, but I don’t want to try to account for that!
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