Fellows Feedback: My ride on the Mozilla Fellow Ship

For the next few weeks, we’ll feature blog posts from our current fellows about their fellowship experience, read on to find out why you should apply for the 2016 Mozilla Fellowship for Science according to 2015 fellow, Christie Bahlai, cross-posted here on her blog.

I’m just shy of two months from wrapping my Mozilla Fellowship for Science. It has been an amazing ride. I’ve traveled more than I have in my life,[1] met amazing people, and I got to design, build and teach the course I’ve always dreamed of. I built a network of like-minded people, been challenged fiercely for my evangelism for open science, evaluated and re-evaluated my viewpoints. I’ve looked at the problems we face in science, and reproducibility, openness and accountability, and found the many intersections between them and our systemic problems for diversity and inclusion in the academic enterprise. I’ve gotten mad as hell and been empowered to change the system from within. My work is not done- far from it- but this fellowship has given me the tools I need to help change the world- and I hope for the better.

So, the other day, I opened up my application package for the program. Because the fellowship experience has been life changing for me, though, I thought it might be interesting to talk about how my perspective has shifted in the past year- and how I feel about my answers to the application prompts.  So here’s how I’d change my application, if I was writing it today:

Research fields (up to 10 words)

Entomology, applied ecology, population and community ecology, invasive species, agriculture

Not too much has changed here, except I think I’ve gotten over some impostor syndrome about data science and quantitative ecology, so I’d probably add those. I’d probably switch the term “entomology” for “insect ecology” too, because I’ve been feeling more like an ecologist in the broader sense lately.

Research focus (up to 50 words)

I study long-term trends in the population and community ecology of insects that are important in agricultural systems, like pollinators, pests, and biological control agents. My goal is to use our understanding of these interactions to help develop healthy, better functioning, and more sustainable agricultural landscapes.

Revised answer: I use compiled or unconventional data sources to study long-term trends and responses to change in the population and community ecology of organisms. My goal is to use our understanding of these interactions to help develop healthy, better functioning, and more sustainable landscapes.

Current research team (50 words)

I’m currently working as a senior postdoctoral research associate in a moderately sized, highly productive Landscape Entomology lab. The team includes the Principal Investigator, one additional postdoc, a full-time technician, two PhD students, three MS students, seven undergraduates, and numerous collaborators in the US and around the globe.

I am now a member of a community of thousands of people with a unified goal- to open the web.[2] To make information, technology, and opportunity available to everyone. I’ve worked with, interacted with so many amazing, brilliant, empowering people through Mozilla and the greater open web community.

Not much has changed about my position within academia, but I am currently on the market for something new. I’m a well-connected, productive data scientist and quantitative ecologist. Call me! :)

Cover letter (up to 250 words)

To the selection committee,

I am an ideal candidate for a Mozilla Fellowship for Open Science. I’m an early career ecologist who is passionate about open science, both for improving the efficiency of my own work, and for the advancement of science as a whole. I’m positioned in a field where there is a tremendous need for open science for open science advocacy and training, and I am embedded in several well-respected, large scale projects, giving me the audience and credibility which would allow me to do so effectively.

Holy heck can open science and reproducible research techniques improve your efficiency in the long run. Say you sent your paper off for review, and reviewer 3 just hated the color scheme you used for your 12 figures. How long would it take you to change that? I could change one line of code, rerun, and bam, all the figures would be done again with the new color scheme. Could you do that?[3I can teach you. In fact, I did teach some students, and I’m working with sites within the US LTER network to get the word out on this. And the US-LTER is sending me to South Africa this fall to talk about teaching students this way to our greater international network, the iLTER.  People are hungry for this, we just need to get it to them.

The open science movement has critical implications in most disciplines, but particularly in the applied sciences. In my subfield of agricultural entomology, research often has direct implications on both environmental health and human livelihoods. It is essential for stakeholders to have access to all the available information when making recommendations. However, the entomological community tends to be fairly conservative in regards to the adoption of new practices and is, in general, wary of open science.  I’ve made significant inroads by advocating a ‘baby steps’ approach, encouraging my established colleagues to make small, meaningful changes in practice towards open science.   I believe there is an even greater opportunity in promoting open science in a formal, structured way to graduate students, establishing open practice as the default as they start their careers, and this fellowship would give me the tools to develop just such a training program.

I still believe that the only way to really reach established academics on open science is to 1) target them through their trainees and 2) meet them using established academic routes- hence a traditional course for grad students. But baby steps are not enough for real change in our lifetimes. I think radical early training efforts are what we really need. Here are the slides from a recent talk I gave on this subject. Sprinkling in pedagogical methods that are proven to improve the retention of women and people of color in the quantitative sciences, and we have something. This is a call to action. We can make science more diverse, more inclusive and more open at the same time. We just have to go about this with intention, and not accept the status quo.

Thank you for considering my application. I look forward to hearing from you!

-Christie Bahlai

You’re welcome, Christie-from-a-year-ago.

Describe to us how open science advances your research (100 words)

Open science practices have been both headache-saving (though increased reproducibility) and network-building (through increased visibility and access) for me, but probably is most apparent in my work through open data. My research program relies on long-term, collaboratively generated databases of insect observations. Data sharing (often through informal networks) is usually how I initially obtain data, and these data often come in a format that requires a significant amount of processing before it is usable. Truly open data greatly improves the efficiency of my work because it comes in a well-documented, well formatted package- saving headaches.

Not much to change here.

What work are you currently involved in that’s relevant to becoming an open science leader? (100 words)

I write a blog about data management and open science that’s designed to be a friendly introduction for the beginner- targeted at the organismal ecology community.

I sit on the Open Science Advisory Panel for the International Network of Next Generation Ecologists

I am an instructor for both Software and Data Carpentry, and played a large role in developing the teaching materials for Data Carpentry.

I am affiliated with NSF’s Long Term Ecological Research network, a major research initiative with 26 permanent research stations in the US. I sit on the Information Management Committee at my home site of Kellogg Biological Station.

Well, that, the fellowship, and the community now.

How would this fellowship accelerate your work? (50 words)

This fellowship would provide me with the means to focus more time on the open science activities I’m already actively involved in, and allow me to expand and formalize my work within my institution and my network. Specifically, I am interested in developing an open science course for graduate students.

Check and check. Now, I just need to get everyone on board with teaching the course. I’m currently preparing an instructor guide with some of my amazing Mozilla colleagues, watch this space to learn how (and why!) you should teach a course like this at your institution!

What do you see as the opportunities for open research at your university? (up to 50 words)

The LTER network generates numerous underused, open datasets, and network-affiliated students are required to be trained in Responsible Conduct of Research. An open science course that takes students through the process, from data to analysis to publication, using these data, would meet both institutional needs and open science training goals.

I’m currently working to leverage this infrastructure now. Will let you know how it goes.

What do you think needs to change most immediately in the system? (50 words)

Training. Despite rapidly changing open science requirements currently unfolding at the federal level (see NSF’s “Public Access Plan” 3/2015) graduate programs almost never offer formal training in open science or reproducible research. Proper training will help researchers cope with changing requirements- making training appealing even to ‘closed’ scientists.

Training is a big part, but the incentive and ranking structure in science is another big part. But this an opportunity, really, because we need to change how we do science because in addition to being directly hostile in many cases to open science practices….well, I’m just going to come out and say it, the incentive structure in academic science favors the established, the white, the rich and the male and systemically disadvantaged people who do not belong to those groups. It resists change in practice for the good of the people because the people who make decisions succeeded in the present paradigm. If we do not CONSCIOUSLY and DELIBERATELY re- structure how we rank scientists, how we measure success in science, nothing will change. In short, Open Science, Inclusive Science, and Reproducible Science regulations like the one I mentioned in my app are good, but they need teeth.

What project in the field do you find most inspiring to further science and the web? (50 words)

Software Carpentry (+ Data Carpentry)- this project is fantastic. When I encountered software development in undergrad, I was put off by the insular, competitive culture. SC fosters a community with a spirit of “Hey, let’s learn to get better at programming and reproducibility together!” which allows even novices to contribute.

Nothing but love for SWC and DC still. The course I developed builds on them to offer the students a more immersive, long-term experience through a semester-long course, to think about their own field using a data science lens- and I feel like SWC/DC are a perfect gateway to this.

Why is the open web important to you? (100 words).

Even without the benefits I’ve directly received from open science (access to data, a wider network of collaborators, a platform for promoting my own research), I believe that opening up our practices is just morally right. It democratizes access to information and allows people outside western academia to participate. I work with conservation biologists at NGOs and scientists from developing countries – these are people who work on the front lines to improve environmental sustainability, protect endangered species, and feed the poor- they NEED access to the science so they can make the best decisions.

This. A million times this. Worded more strongly. In academic science, we are really good at building walls and patting ourselves on the back for how smart we are when we get grants and publish papers. I’m not going to lie- I REALLY LIKE GETTING GRANTS AND PUBLISHING PAPERS BECAUSE IT MAKES ME FEEL LIKE I AM WINNING AND IT ALSO CONTRIBUTES TO MY JOB SECURITY SO THAT’S COOL. [4] But are we really winning if our science doesn’t benefit humanity, if no one other than our immediate colleagues can access it? If we are training our students to use proprietary tools they won’t have access to once they’re out of school, are we really training them at all? If we’re lamenting the lack of evidence-based decision-making in the world, and then not providing open access to their papers, we’re not just part of the problem. We are the problem. Stop being the problem. Is publishing a closed-access paper in Nature worth the cost to humanity, just because you got a paper in Nature?

So anyway, as this fellowship ends, it’s not the end for me. It’s the beginning of something bigger. I will take what I’ve learned, the friendships and collaborations, and use them to help me become a better scientist, a better human, and work towards making science better for more humans. I’m not sure exactly where I’ll be next, but you have not heard the last of me.

1. In the past academic year, I’ve been to the Estes Park CO, New York, Minneapolis, London, Berlin, Boston, Santa Barbara, when combining my standard academic and purely Moz travels. Just got back from another trip to London for the Mozilla All Hands meeting. By the end of the fellowship I will have attained Silver Medallion status with Delta. w00t w00t.

2. none of this walled garden crap that keeps not only people with cancer from being able to research their disease, but often also the doctors treating them from accessing the research too. That’s BS and I will continue to be mad about it until it stops happening.

3. In the words of eminent philosopher Chamillionaire, “Yeah, I ain’t saying it just to brag, I say it so you can be motivated to [properly script your analyses]”

4. And postdocs need to take wins where we can get them.