Hybrid Biologist and Educational Researcher Studies How Students Learn Science
Dr. Ally Hunter considers herself a “hybrid biologist and educational researcher.” Education research has its challenges and Hunter worked hard to learn the culture of the field while earning her Ph.D. in education. Now, she is a postdoc at University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she teaches biology and microbiology and conducts scholarly work about how students learn science.
We asked her about her work in discipline-based education research (DBER).
What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
I am just wrapping up my first postdoctoral year in which I have both research and teaching duties. I work on 2 very exciting NSF projects and teach a scientific writing communication course that I developed called “It’s a Microbe World.” In any given week, I am teaching my class, meeting with fellow content-developers to review ecology curriculum and diving deep into data analysis on my mentoring project! It is never boring.
What are the major projects you are working on right now?
In 1 project, I am developing project-based learning content for incarcerated youth and professional development curriculum for educators. On another project, I am investigating barriers to mentorship for biomedical graduate students and their community college mentees.
How did you get into your current position?
I owe this robust postdoctoral year to having a strong network of peers, colleagues and mentors. Some of this work originated from building strong relationships during graduate school and staying connected to the larger ASMCUE/DBER networks. Cultivating these networks and staying connected to folks has led to people passing information on to me or mentioning me to others, which leads to a new connection.
How is your career a good fit for your interests?
The position I am in is a great fit, as I am able to explore new areas of research beyond my dissertation work. Also, I am still in the undergraduate classroom—teaching microbiology topics, which keeps me sane and happy.
What was the most challenging aspect of pivoting from a scientific researcher to a DBER researcher?
I got my master’s in biology. Then, I chose to pursue a Ph.D. in education. It was scary to change the way of doing research that I was comfortable with and to take on a completely new field and train in it from the ground up. There are discipline-specific cultural norms that suddenly you are navigating, and it felt overwhelming at the beginning. Also, the uncertainty of taking the leap and becoming a hybrid biologist and educational researcher. I thought, "what if I’m not accepted in either world?" Despite these fears, I dove in because of my strong desire to continue to teach biology and microbiology yet have my scholarly work be about how students learn science.
How have you taken advantage of professional development opportunities to advance your career?
Professional development played a huge role in propelling me toward DBER. Very early in my scientific teaching career, I was an ASM Biology Scholar. My experience there reinforced my decision to pursue a Ph.D. in science education. Now, I continue to develop myself by not only attending educational conferences, but also developing workshops and trainings for graduate students, postdocs and faculty. This not only informs my teaching, but also becomes an outlet for my educational research efforts. Workshop development is a way to translate research into practice. As I continue to forge out my career path, these experiences will make me stand out as a job candidate. They certainly are filling up my CV!
What is your biggest pieces of advice for bench researchers who are interested in biology education research?
It’s important to understand that just like scientific research, education research is nuanced and rigorous. Over the years, I have encountered some dismissive worldviews that education research is not “real research.” Some folks will come to me right before a scientific grant deadline and hope to tack on an education research project. Education research proposals take time to develop and are based in educational and/or psychological theory. Most research requires human subject research protocol approval (IRB approval). I encourage bench researchers to take the time to understand the theories and concepts behind the kind of research they want to do prior to embarking on a study, in the same manner that you do for bench research. I also encourage them to seek out collaborators who are trained in education or social science research.