Turning Students Into Scientists with Professor Vigdis Vandvik

Ask any two researchers what separates a student from a scientist and you’ll likely get two completely different answers. Often I hear people writing their PhD thesis being referred to (and even referring to themselves) as scientists-to-be, which is surely ridiculous, considering the amount of time they spend creating data and publishing research (NO I’M NOT BITTER). But even below that level, I know plenty of Master’s students who have put together singularly impressive datasets or papers that must qualify them for the seemingly subjective title of scientist.

Instead of debating semantics, there are professors out there who instead focus on taking students as early as possible, and rather than just throw theory at them, teach them what it means to be a scientist, a researcher.

It’s an approach that Professor Vigdis Vandvik of the University of Bergen is a big proponent of. Vigdis conducts experiments all around the globe looking at the effect that climate change will likely have on plant communities. As part of this project (named the Plant Functional Traits Course, or PFTC), Vigdis brings along Bachelor’s and Masters students to different countries with her, sharing the mindset behind not only data collection, but experiment design and the planning of a research study.

I spoke with Vigdis at the recent Nordic Oikos Conference about why such an approach is important today, particularly in light of recent troubles the ecological discipline has had regarding data accountability.

Sam Perrin (SP): Your approach to teaching students to be scientists, rather than just loading them up with theory, what was the impetus behind it?

Professor Vigdis Vandvik (VV): First of all, I do experimental field ecology, and I’ve always tried to have masters students join my projects. Mainly because it’s much better if they come into my world. It means I’m more competent, I’m more comfortable, and I have more time for them. And one of the things I observed is that when students realise that somebody out here is going to use their data, rather than just see it in some coursework, they relate to the data in a completely different way. You always hear stories of students cheating on exams, and you try and stop that happening of course. It’s the same with data collection. We simply told them that they were going to be part of a publication, and I thought that would be the main motivator. But they didn’t actually care so much about that because they didn’t understand the importance of publications yet. But they said “you’re going to USE my data”? And all of a sudden they were ten times more meticulous with the data quality.

SP: So you show them that there’s a tangible outcome.

VV: Exactly. Once they realise that they can contribute to something that is going out there somewhere, they care less about their grades, they stop asking “what’s in it for me”. Jens Kristian Svenning recently mentioned on Twitter that while we always need to focus on papers, unless there is something else in it, like wanting to contribute to the greater good or a certain field, you will pretty soon run out of steam. And I think that’s what we’re seeing with the students, that grades are not a great motivator, but that being able to make a contribution is a great motivator, and they’re so ready for it.

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The most recent PFTCourse took students to Peru. Twenty are still stuck there due to the coronavirus, where they are safely doing science and waiting, while Vigdis’ team work hard to get them out (Image Credit: Vigdis Vandvik, CC BY 2.0)

SP: This focus on accountability of data, it’s almost a microcosm of the recent #PruittGate scandal. What sort of impact have you seen in their attitudes with that extra accountability?

VV: Exactly. We have two undergrads who are in the lab taking care of Ragnhild Gya’s seed germination experiment while we are here. And we’re getting so many questions about little details in this at all times of the day. Sometimes they’re sending these jokey pictures of themselves, but they’re also sending these really detailed pictures – “here’s a scanned leaf, is it too small? Did I do it right?”. “Where exactly is it supposed to be cut?”. They’re really really keen to get it right.

Because think about it: What we’re actually doing in most ‘normal’ classes is asking students to ‘play shop’ for five years. We are asking them to do a lot of work that goes nowhere. We’re asking them to produce, analyse and write up data for their Masters thesis, but mostly, this is only read by two people – the supervisor and the sensor. They’re producing so much material and so much stuff, and it isn’t going to be used for anything. Imagine: If anyone asked you right now to take the next five years of your life to work really hard and produce loads of stuff, data, papers, emails, meetings, talks, but it was not going to be used or seen by anyone, that would not be a great motivation. So that’s one of the things that I’ve been realising while taking students into our projects, that reality, or more specifically being allowed to participate, even contribute to it, is a pretty potent drug.

SP: How did the course come about?

VV: We’ve had research training courses in Bergen for a while now. And we’ve had these Turf Transplant experiments in that region too, as well as sister experiments in a lot of other places. One sister experiments was for example set up by me and a colleague in China. It had been running for some years. And we had quite a lot of really detailed biological data on the vegetation response to warming and population dynamics.

I had an idea that I wanted to do a course in experimental ecology. I planned to do in Norway, but we changed it all around and took it to China, with the idea that we could bring a group of students to collect loads of trait-based data, but also to train students to be scientists in the process. The first time we did it, it was not a great course, to be honest. We were very focussed on the science side of things, the trait and climate measurements, but we didn’t think about the logistics of the operation, or more specifically, to involve the students in this part. We did not take into account the fact that the most interesting thing for the students is to understand how you conduct a field campaign and come out of there with good quality reproducible data. In the beginning we didn’t even think about how to teach that, we just had our way of doing things and we showed them. Then we started talking about why, and started moving the research process and the workflow to the forefront of the course.

A lot has changed since then. We have learned so much from the open science and reproducible science movement. The way that we conduct our research is also super different now from what it was in 2015.

SP: The publication process can be a nightmare in science. How do students react to the world of scientific publication?

VV: The first encounter for students with that side of things is reading textbooks. They often think there is the known objective truth out there in ecology, and that is what you read in the textbooks. When they realise that the textbooks are just distilling and synthesizing information from a body of scientific papers, it’s a surprise. A lot of them find reading papers really hard.

With our current Masters students we actually had a really interesting experience. We decided to send the work they’re currently doing into Ecology and Evolution as a pre-registered report. So of course we had to write up the protocol and the introduction to the paper beforehand. And I asked the students that are part of this to read our drafts. And they read very meticulously, but they didn’t dare to comment, because they had this view of themselves as ‘just students’. And we explained that if they don’t understand it then the reviewers won’t understand it, and it won’t be understandable for a normal grown-up with a scientific background. Because that’s what they are. And then they started to comment on the technical parts of it. The parts that were unclear. They had excellent comments.

SP: That taps into a big problem, which is that scientists often see themselves as on a higher pedestal. A lot of science has historically been old white men in ivory towers. Do you think that’s getting better, are people realising that science can be done by anyone?

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“One of the things I keep saying to myself on a bad day, and I keep saying to my students on their bad days, is that science is way too important to leave it to the geniuses.” (Image Credit: Vigdis Vandvik, CC BY 2.0)

VV: I think it’s getting better. One thing that I do with these students is run them through the Harvard Implicit Bias Test (HIBT). Because when you get from a classroom to a supervision setting, you go from a group to a one-on-one setting and then all sorts of lenses that we see each other through become more prominent. When I started running the students through these tests, ten or so years ago, there was a clear pattern in the students. For example there’s one section of the HIBT that compares gender in the humanities vs. in the natural sciences. And when I started they were all slightly biased towards seeing natural science as a male subject. And now that pattern has disappeared. I ran it just a couple of weeks ago on a group of 20 students or something and those biases were really not there.

So that’s one way in which I think it’s getting better, but that’s one perspective. But the professors still are biased, unfortunately, even I. I’ve tested myself. And the current draft strategy for the Research Council of Norway very clearly portrays science as an innate thing. A natural skill. They say it’s important to support the biggest talents. Which means the strategy of the NRC is seeing research as something that only very special people can do. That’s not so great. And it’s not true.

SP: This portrayal of scientists in the media as groundbreaking geniuses writing equations on whiteboards and solving problems in 24 hours, can we expect it to change?

VV: I really think it should change. One of the things I keep saying to myself on a bad day, and I keep saying to my students on their bad days, is that science is way too important to leave it to the geniuses. We all need to contribute. We need much more than pure inspiration – we need critical thinking, different perspectives, a toolbox of hard-earned skills, and we need hard work. And it’s a job. Like any job, many people can do it. And together, we get the job done better than any single man (yes, man, with the unkempt white hair and all) can do alone.

There’s also this idea out there that science is always about breaking new grounds and shifting paradigms. Even the people who really did shift paradigms, like Darwin for example, he worked hard and meticulously and systematically for decades. There’s a lot more building up than tearing down in science.

Take the current reproducibility crisis and the recent scandal we’ve had in ecology with the #SpiderGate. Doing our work thoroughly and documenting our data and workflows is more important than ever.

SP: #PruittGate was a really good example of the scientific community coming together to fix something.

VV: Yeah it was, I almost cried! I was so touched by his co-authors. I was reading many of the case pieces, and the honesty and sort of the bareness that they showed coming forward was incredible. They were grieving these papers that they had been so proud of, but at the same time being completely all in on fixing the situation. Kate Laskowski’s piece in particular was really lovely, I have never met her bur I really do admire her.

Title Image Credit: Vigdis Vandvik, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

You can keep up with Vigdis’ research by following her on Twitter @VVandvik.

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who certainly does not take an inordinate amount of pride in painting fish, thank you very much. You can read more about his research on his Ecology for the Masses profile here, and follow him on Twitter (for his paintings of fish) here.

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