Humans of Biology: Professor Jennifer Waugh

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Q: How would you describe yourself in three words?

A: That’s a challenging one. Motivated, probably… There are words that are in my head that I don’t want to say because I don’t really believe them. Probably caring… and exhausted. Hahaha, I feel like that’s an adjective for a lot of people at this time of year.

For the professors, it’s just different, because students are balancing “catch up on everything that you haven’t done and trying to answer new questions.” But, from our side, we’re trying to make sure the questions we ask are good and we’re trying to support students at the same time and also trying to write the exam.

Q: If you could take any three things with you to a deserted island where you’re going to be alone for a long time, what would they be and why?

A: I would probably take… I was going to reference him [gestures to picture of son on the wall] but that would be a lot of work. I would probably take a water bottle, got to have some function in there. Then I would probably take… I don’t know if you know what an Etch-a-Sketch is. My logic there is that it’s like taking paper, but I could use it over and over again to entertain myself. I wouldn’t want to put my family through being stuck on a deserted island, but I think taking a picture of them would good. I wouldn’t want to put them in that kind of situation to “survive,” but it would be nice to keep them on my mind.

Q: What is your most used application on your phone?

A: Oh, the calendar function. Hahaha, I don’t even integrate it. So, I’m an android user. I don’t even integrate it would Google Calendars or anything. It’s just legitimately the default that comes with my phone. I don’t have a paper copy of my calendar so when I go places without my phone I freak out because otherwise, I don’t know where I’m supposed to be or when. Which is terrible. I used to carry post-it notes around with me all of the time until I got a phone and then I made it all digital. Haha, I used to lose a lot of post-it notes.

Q: If you were given one hour left with the internet because it is shutting down, what would you do with that time and why?

A: I think I’d first make sure that people knew my contact information that wasn’t email or social media. That way they know how to get a hold of me. Then I don’t know… The internet is useful I suppose for looking things up, but we didn’t always have it, so I know how to use libraries and phones which aren’t necessarily internet based. I don’t know, I could be fine without it.

Q: As a follow up, what would you do in the previous situation if it had been losing all technology?

A: Yeah, I think I would just spend the time making sure that everybody knows how to find me without having to rely on phones, internet or email and those kinds of things. There isn’t anything that I would need to download because we wouldn’t have anything to look on. The internet in my life is useful because it makes things more efficient but it’s not a requirement.

Q: How would you describe what you were like as a teenager?

A: So, I’m thinking about high school and my role in my high school. Which is a terrible thing to say but people kind of joined different cliques. I tended to be a part of a lot of different groups. I was a hardcore athlete and I was a part of the “Jocks,” but I was always a pretty smart kid as well, so I had my friends amongst the people that were very academic. But then my personality lended itself to being a new aged kind of hippy for a lack of better terms. My clothes were… well… grunge era. I kind of mixed and melded between grunge surf and hippish. I tended to kind of be part of lots of different groups, so like a fairly friendly athletic and academic student. Well-rounded would be a good statement.

A lot of my close friends were also the ones that were on my sports teams. I would say it was like a Venn Diagram where I would have my friend groups and there would be some overlap with my like academic school kind of group. Then, there were just the other people who were neither part of either of those groups but were my friends. Yeah, there was overlap amongst them. That’s why I could say I was a jock, but I ran with other circles for lack of a better term.

Q: How did you find your path that led you to where you are today?

A: It’s a long and windy sort of story but what it boils down to is when I was in high school. I was interested in psychology because I took a psychology course in high school. So, I was going to go to university to be a psychologist and then I realized that I couldn’t handle other people’s issues even though I liked the ideas. Right? I liked thinking about different disorders and diseases and how your mind sort of influences your wellbeing. I liked the scientific theories behind psychology but the actual sort of practical applications of it, I just didn’t think that I would be well suited for. So, I ended up in biology and then after first year I was choosing my courses for second year and then I realized that the biology program was only going to let me take biology courses plus organic chemistry. Instead of taking biology I ended up taking environmental science which meant that I could take my biology major, subject of specialization, but some of the other required courses were the interdisciplinary ones like economics, policy, geography and geology and that kind of stuff. So, I ended up with a really broad base, which I liked.

I ended up doing a fourth-year thesis, enjoyed doing the research in the fourth-year thesis, and I did field work which I enjoyed doing and writing up a paper at the end of it. Then I had a graduate student in the lab I was a part of say, “hey you should stick around and do grad school with us.” So, I stuck around and did grad school. While I was a grad student I TA’d and I loved TAing. What I loved about it was when I was trying to explain concepts to students. It was an ecology course and we were going out and I was showing students how to determine different species of trees just based on their bark and stuff in the winter. I just liked that idea of being able to open up a world that other people didn’t necessarily have a lot of background on. I spent a lot of time in grad school sort of planning out how I would help students understand these kinds of things, so that naturally said to me, “maybe I should go be a teacher.” I went to teacher’s college and at the end of teachers’ college I was looking for teaching positions and I happened to kind of stumble across a posting to teach second-year ecology here at Western. I applied two days before the deadline for the posting and found out basically two months later that I had been hired for the job. I quickly moved to London, found an apartment that would give me a four-month lease and I’ve been here ever since. So, I would say that it was probably grad school where I realized that yeah, I like the research but what I really like is the teaching.

Q: What was your masters in?

A: I would say that I am a plant community ecologist. I was doing research on spatial organization of plants in succession chronosequences and cross succession to kind of understand what we call “community dynamics.” So, the rules, for lack of a better term, that govern how plant communities develop and what species exist there and how they pattern themselves. Species diversity, species abundance/richness, as well as just like what kind of species are there, how big are they, how do they position themselves relative to one another.

Q: How did you come to teach biostats?

A: Haha, “you’re an ecologist, why are you teaching stats?” Yeah, so up until six months ago at the university, I was hired as a contract lecturer. Which means I was hired on a course by course basis. So, my contracts were like two, four, eight-month contracts at a time. Then I would be unemployed when the contract was over. For the last ten years, I’ve been like that. It was stressful and so the departments that I am now a part of put together a position that is a three-year contract. I was hired into that, which makes things good.

But to answer your question, how I got into teaching stats, Biology/Statistics 2244, was really just, there was a vacancy in the course, and they needed somebody to teach it. They posted it as a teaching contract that was available, and I have enough background in statistics that when I applied, I guess, they decided that I would be the most appropriate person to hire for the job. Then they did and then they did, they did, they did for five years across two terms. Yeah, it comes from my background that is in biology and environmental science, but I have taken an awful lot of math and some graduate statistics courses. That’s where the background training comes from.

Q: Would you say that you are more interested in ecology or biostatistics after so many years of teaching it?

A: That’s a tough question. I miss the ecology and I used to teach the first-year biology for the non-science students. Certainly, I miss those things because I miss the theories that are behind them. I miss the, “here’s a pattern that we are seeing in nature, how could we use these ideas that other people have come up with to try and explain what’s going on.” So, to me, that’s what I like about any discipline. It’s that you have these things that you can use to explain what’s going on. Statistics has that, right? The models that we’re working with, they’re trying to explain or describe what’s going on in regular phenomenon. I actually really like teaching stats because there’s something very elegant about what we’re doing, and I also like that it’s very applied. Stat’s is its own little discipline and people do research in stats and they’re developing their own ideas but I’m coming at it from an applied route where we’re using this discipline and the tools and the processes that they have to help answer or help us interpret data and help us answer questions. I like that applied nature of it. So, I like the idea that it’s a very applied course and I like that there are neat things that we can do to try and understand the concepts.

So, I didn’t answer your question, but I miss some aspects of teaching ecology and teaching core biology courses, but I love what I’m doing. I’m not bored with statistics.

Q: What would you say is the best and worst part of your job?

A: That’s challenging. It feels very stereotypical to say that I really love it when a student or a group of students ask questions and we can somehow get to the point where they’re just like, “oh.” I hate calling it that light bulb moment because it seems so cheesy, but just that all of the sudden they’re like, “squint squint squint” and then, “oh.” That sort of dawning, “I just made a connection.” I love that part and I find that at least with teaching statistics there’s a lot of squinting haha. But once you get some of these ideas, it sort of opens up a new realm for you and I like that students can start to see that new realm and make connections. So, I like experiencing connections with students in an academic sense.

What makes it challenging, I think is true for any instructor, is just the workload. So, like I said when you came in, I’m just trying to answer emails. When there’s hundreds of students, there are hundreds of emails and it’s a challenge. I know they’re all asking a lot of the same things and I don’t know what the best way is to be like, “here’s the answer and it applies to all of you.” So, there’s the behind the scenes workload that is probably the worst part. If I just post everything on the forum, it makes an assumption that they check the forum. So, that’s why I’m trying to use my Friday/Saturday emails to try and communicate those sorts of things, but it still relies on students reading it. It’s just the hidden work.

Q: You often present very detailed and intricate scenarios in your statistical problems, how many of them have you actually carried in real life and where do you find your inspiration?

A: I don’t know how to answer the how many. What I will say is that for a while, this course was team taught and so half of the questions were written by me and half of them by my colleague. We proofed and we talked about our questions. So, she used the same approach that I do. You just think about what’s going on in your life or what you’re seeing in your office or down the street, and then that becomes a scenario. So, for a while, about half of them were based on my life and now because I’m the sole instructor, at least for the last couple of years, they’re all coming from my brain somewhere. Yeah, so when you see questions about daycare, it’s because my son is in daycare. When you see questions about how many people are turning left out of the parking lot, like near the Health Sciences building, it’s because I was stuck in traffic watching people turning left out of the parking lot. Right, so I would say that if I had to put a percentage on them, probably somewhere between 50% to 70% are just somethings that I experienced in everyday life or I was kind of just like, “oh yeah I could make a scenario based on that.”

Q: If you were given the opportunity to ask any person in the world, living or dead, a single question, who would it be and what would you ask.

A: Hmm, that’s a tough one. I always used to think about Edward Abbey. Probably best known as an author. He was a terrible author, not a really good writer because he wasn’t actually a writer, but he wrote a lot of fiction and one of his most famous books was called The Monkey Wrench Gang. The whole premise of that book was, the main character formed this group called “the monkey wrench gang” and they went around trying to put a monkey wrench in industrialization, or in the development of natural landscapes. The monkey wrench comes from the fact that they would kind of sneak in after hours and pour sand in the gas tanks of construction vehicles to kind of gum up the works. Then the big culmination of the book, and I’m not giving away anything that you can’t read off the back cover, is that they basically tried to blow up the Hoover dam because they thought that it was kind of wrecking the landscape. Anyways, so he fell into an environmentalist’s role but first and foremost he was like a park ranger/warden in a US national park. That actually for a while was kind of my dream job, to go and be a park ranger, and it was based on his experience. He had a book called “Desert Solitaire” where he described what it was like to be a park ranger in what I think was called Grand Arches national park. He would like camp and he would ride horses through the park and just look for poachers and make sure the park was okay.

Anyway, I always kind of looked at him as a sort of interesting character. I don’t know exactly if I would want to sit down and have lunch with him and have a feel for what his life was really like and how long was it to be in that kind of role as a park warden? But, also in hindsight to ask him, did he ever expect to be sort of immortalized as this lowercase g, god of radical environmentalist? The whole monkey wrench gang book got taken kind of out of context and small groups of real people started doing radical environmentalism where they would try and put a monkey wrench in industrial movement. So, yeah, I guess I would kind of ask him, did you ever expect to be put on that pedestal or for your fictional novel to be taken as a kind of a ‘How To’ book in what I think are ill-informed or misdirected environmentalists? How do you feel about being put in that position when you just wrote a fictional book? He may have believed philosophically in it, but I don’t believe he ever meant to cause true physical and financial damage to companies who are just doing their jobs. I mean he was still living after the fact when these things were going on. I’m sure he was interviewed about it, but I think it would be interesting to just talk with him firsthand about people taking him in that way.

Q: What would you say your favourite book is?

A: Ohh, that’s a challenge too, you’re making me work. I used to have an answer right away because I used to read a lot, but it changes from book to book. Off the top of my head, I might say like Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. She writes a lot of different disciplines. Oryx and Crake is definitely a dystopian future. It has these ideas that … it’s been a while since I read it but I’ve read it multiple times. Basically, science has kind of gone wrong, and the consequence of it all is that the world has not been destroyed but there’s genetic engineering that has gone awry. So, you’re seeing the aftermath of a lot of these genetically engineered organisms being let into the wild and you’ve got this new group of quasihumans sort of interacting with the old humans. Yeah, I’m not doing justice to the story at all but it’s not exactly science fiction but a sort of dystopian future and commentary on science all at the same time. I don’t read a lot into the underlying meaning books, I just read for pleasure, but I liked that particular one. She has a couple of follow-up ones that I’m in the middle of reading. Oryx and Crake is like the first one and she has two others and I think I’m reading the third one before I read the second one because I’ve got my hands on it.

Q: Going off of that, what’s your favourite show?

A: I used to say, “The Big Bang Theory.” I like to watch movies and TV, just for sheer mindless entertainment, but right now I would say I find “The Good Place” humorous. I’ll give you the premise of season one. Basically, there is this main character, this woman who has died and she’s gone to “heaven.” So, it’s kind of her struggle through realizing that they’ve mistaken her for somebody. So, she’s in heaven, or in the “good place,” because she has the same name as somebody else. It becomes apparent that that person is where she’s supposed to be and maybe she doesn’t belong in the good place. So, it’s a comedy, there’s a lot more to it than that but it’s the idea that she’s in the good place and maybe she shouldn’t have been there. So, it’s her struggle with trying to like keep the fact that she’s not supposed to be there undercover and there’s supposedly repercussions from the fact that she’s there so it’s all kind of crumbling around her. We’ve definitely also watched “Brooklyn Nine Nine.” I’m also a big fan of “Letterkenny.” It’s actually the name of an Ontario town; it follows basically a core group of rural misfits. It makes me think a little bit of the people I grew up with in high school. I don’t know how else to describe it except you just have to watch it sometime and decide whether it’s your humour or not.

Q: What would you do differently if you knew no one would judge you?

A: Probably wear sweatpants a lot more, haha. Honestly, I like to believe that I am who I am. There are certain aspects of what I wear when I come to work that I wear because I feel like I have to present a certain appearance. But, what my personality as a whole is who I want to, I think I’m fairly authentic to who I want to be, so there’s not a lot that I would change. As of Friday, there is going to be a lot of sweatpants haha.

I suppose if I were going to choose something a little bit less sort of trivial. I don’t think anybody would judge me harshly for this so it doesn’t really matter, but I would try to achieve a much better work-life balance. I think people would actually judge me better for it if I did but other aspects of what goes on in my life would fall as a consequence. So, I’ve just got to learn how to handle/balance things better.

Q: What has your experience been as a woman in science in your field?

A: You know, I’ve been asked that before and I feel like my answer does a disservice. To be honest, I’ve never felt like I’ve been judged differently from non-female colleagues. I’ve never really felt like I wasn’t really on par or equal, but I respect and acknowledge that that’s probably atypical. So, I am a great proponent of promoting women in the stem disciplines even though I’ve never really felt like there were big barriers. Maybe that’s because I was in biology as an undergrad and as a graduate student where we still have primarily female-dominated populations. It’s not until you actually get into the faculty or department where you start to see some of that decline. I’ve never really felt like it was a problem for me.

But, with that said having a kid recently has certainly made me realize that there is a big balancing act between being a part of a family and being involved in an academic institution. I’m not arguing that male colleagues don’t experience that, but I am becoming acutely more aware of some of the stereotype positions or roles that I have in my life. And I am becoming acutely aware of what we call ‘mental load.’ It’s that idea that there are these things that you constantly think about, like, “oh yeah I have to get milk” or “oh yeah I need to make sure we need to get laundry done.” I’ve taken this on in my role in my family life, but it means that there’s constantly this additional load that I have that other people in my family or other people in similar positions don’t have. It’s probably because of old school gender roles. But I’ve embraced them, right? I’m not shooting down my partner in any way, shape or form, we have our own rules in our relationship. But having that additional mental load does mean that when I’m trying to work, I’m also having the grocery list in my head. It makes it more challenging I suppose.

Q: What advice do you have for students taking your course and other students in general?

A: I would say – I think I said this in class the other day – try to see the forest rather than the individual trees. Right, so like in every discipline there are details and you have to know the details. Right? There are just facts, vocabulary that you have to know. There are details that you have to know. But having those isolated facts is not going to help you what we are really aiming to do, which is get at these bigger ideas that bring all of those facts together. So, I feel like a lot of students get really tripped up on the individual pieces on the trees and the details. They don’t get beyond that to the point where they can see those trees are actually a part of a larger community, going back to my community ecology background. It’s that community that we’re actually more interested in, right? That’s the thing that actually we actually do something with, or we get some sort of benefit from. So, when I think about stats. Yeah, you need to understand a couple of vocabulary terms, you need to understand some different functions or equations, but the real goal is why are those useful or how are they similar and how could you apply that idea to some novel situation? Yeah, try to step beyond sort of just the knowledge and see how it connects to something bigger. I think that’s beyond my courses and it’s just true of any pursuit, whether academic or otherwise that you’re trying to follow. It probably comes from the fact that with an ecology background we’re interested in like how things interact with one another, so it just comes from my interests.

Professor Jennifer is a lecturer for undergraduate biology courses at Western University Read more about her work here.

Interviewers: Dorisa Meng & Jasmeen Ranu