Student Blogging: A teaching moment

Coturnix posted an interview with Erica Tsai, a graduate student at Duke University who also has mentored students in the Howard Hughes Precollege Program at her institution.
Part of this program apparently involved blogging about research experiences received in Duke University laboratories. In the interview Ms. Tsai refers to some experiences in which the students' desire to blog freely conflicted with the needs of the host laboratories.

For instance, I think a student blogged about some protein she was working on as her research project. But, oops, the PI didn't want it out that they were even working on that protein!

It got even worse...

A student was working in a lab that performed animal experiments, where different treatments were given and in the end the animals were euthanized. He described some of the procedures in a post, and did so in a very flippant and callous way. The way it was described was horrible! I imagined PETA or some other activist group swarming down -- and with good reason! Obviously, the PI would have used very different language in describing this experiment, as I'm sure he did to an animal ethics board to gain clearance for it. So the short end of the story is that we asked the student to change the language. But the broader point was lost, and I've found myself puzzling over how better to handle these situations in the future. His original crude language was essentially truthful, but highly controversial and embarrassing. An activist would argue that if an experiment shorn of scientific jargon is repellent, we shouldn't be doing it. I'm sensitive to that, but at the same time I wouldn't want to make any lab a target for bio-terrorism. I wish we had encouraged deeper thinking on the matter and had him write a more thoughtful, measured, analysis of the matter.

So first of all I am wondering if the host laboratories were even told that the students would be blogging their experiences. That would seem to be a fundamental requirement of any such formalized program. If the mentors and coordinators of the precollege program were not notifying the PIs, this a big problem as far as I am concerned.
Beyond this, however, an episode like this should remind all PIs who work with vertebrate animals that each and every student, intern, rotron, etc needs to receive the basic overview of the animals-in-research spiel. These are teaching moments, and important ones at that.
It is absolutely necessary to explain to them why poorly thought-out communication about the realities of research with vertebrate animals can have serious consequences. Unlike, say, jokes (or TrueStories) about almost blowing up the chemistry lab, humorous poses with impressive amounts of invertebrate research species or fossil specimens and making light of minor bio-lab radiation sloppiness. This is not a matter of censorship or putting a "glossy sheen" on a putatively real-life, unpolished communication form. It is about actually putting those students into real life. Just as they are finding out that real research is less fault tolerant than are the canned demonstration "labs" they do in class, they need to find out that the use of animals in research is serious business as well. From the hands-on treatment and use of the animals, all the way to the description of the work.
If anyone mentoring such students is putting them into a conflict


There was some disagreement about how appropriate that rule was, but a conservative approach was taken...It was fundamentally about what is the point of the student blogs. The students were asked to do two main things, one stated and the other unstated. Stated: Report honestly and openly about your experiences. Unstated: These experiences should be positive, professional, and noncontroversial.

then the mentors need to do some educating of themselves. It doesn't matter if you are all OpenSkienz2.0eleventy (or a "rebellious type" as Ms. Tsai puts it) yourself. It is improper to tell high-school students that they can just blog absolutely anything about their experiences. It is not a free-for-all just because they are students or are only temporarily associated with the lab. Some labs have genuine publication priority issues which need to be respected. Some have intellectual property issues. Disrespecting these is just as bad as letting some student think they can go in and screw up ongoing experiments because they want to see what happens.

16 responses so far

  • molliebatmit says:

    You're singing my PI's song -- he gave us a little talk in lab meeting a few weeks ago about not discussing our (mouse neuro) research on the subway.

  • Laura says:

    Great post. As a student blogger myself, I'm doing my best to be cognizant of these unwritten rules of blogging. I discuss my research only in vague ways (never mentioning a specific gene/protein, just "I spent all week trouble-shooting a western blot..." etc.) and I try to be as careful as possible when discussing animal use because it's such a sensitive topic. I think that some people will object to animal use no matter what language you use, though. When I gave a brief recap of learning to do a surgery, including my concern that the mouse might wake up during the procedure or suffer in some way because I was in the early stages of training, I received a very heated comment that accused me of not being a real feminist because human subjugation of animals is equivalent to patriarchal subjugation of women. I found that I could not take that comment seriously, no matter how thoughtful I tried to be. Other posts on animal use have led to more productive discussions, however.

  • Erica Tsai says:

    The original "interviewee" here; thanks so much for your comments, very good perspective you bring up.
    First, let me put your mind at ease about the PI's knowing about the blogging beforehand. Absolutely they were notified, and students were given instructions on day 1 to discuss with their mentors what was public information and what was private. The protein identification gaffe happened the first year we were blogging and was dealt with immediately. The next year, one of their first assignments was to interview their mentors. This did two things besides the obvious help the students get to know their mentors: 1) Ensured the mentors realize their students are blogging. 2) Gave mentors a chance to talk about their own blogging guidelines before the summer was in full swing. I am extremely sympathetic to lab privacy concerns, and it was underscored again and again that student's ask their mentors what was allowable.
    About the animal-testing example: I would second your call on all PI's to ensure their students receive adequate animal research ethics training. All of the students who worked with animals in our program were required to complete standard training modules. Even with this training, we still ran into this problem. I'm not sure where the failure lies. Regardless, it's definitely in the PI's interest to emphasize the seriousness and respectfulness required in the treatment of this subject.
    As I'm sure those of you in teaching are well aware, it's very difficult to anticipate all the ways students can make mistakes or misinterpret rules (let alone anticipate all the places you, the teacher, will mess up). Each year we learn something new and have to add to those guidelines presented early on. Usually, common sense prevails, and there aren't issues, but occasionally something sneaks through and it pays to have an administrator monitoring things.

  • Gingerale says:

    I'd like to see an example of a statement. The statement I'm thinking of could be signed by each person working under a PI in a lab. It'd be to the effect that science we see in this lab and science we speak in this lab stays in this lab, with exceptions (such as posters, papers) requiring the written permission of the PI.
    I'd like to see an example backed up by university administrators, rather than administrators leaving PIs on their own.
    I think that kind of caution is unfortunately needed. And I wish the same caution for my postdocs as they move on to form labs and take on postdocs too.

  • TomJoe says:

    Some labs have genuine publication priority issues which need to be respected. Some have intellectual property issues.
    And all of them have careers to worry about. There comes a point when you need to realize "Hey, my actions and words have consequences." This is one thing that some (most, maybe?) high school kids really haven't considered. Heck, it took me until my senior year of college when I was doing my clinical rotations that the thought went through my mind: "Hey, if I screw up this test, I could kill someone!" That very sober thought quickly made me realize I was playing for keeps now. After that, professionalism wasn't that hard to muster.
    In situations like this (IMO at least), the students need to realize that while they'll be there for only a short period of time, the things they do in that lab may impact those who remain for a very long time. Hopefully that will be in a good way because it'd be a crying shame if it were not.

  • bsci says:

    The question that comes to mind in the animal research example is whether there was a violation of protocol. All guidelines require the participants in research to minimize pain and have a certain amount of knowledge about the purpose and safety systems built into the research. If someone is allowed in the room who doesn't know even the basics of these protocols, they are at best in danger of violating those protocols and at worst, it's a violation to even let the person in the room. (Which it is depends on details I just don't know). Someone who is allowed to participate in animal research while being flippant and callous about it is someone who has not received proper training or should not have been allowed to participate. A blog post might have brought this to light, but the issue is only barely the blogging. Perhaps this might be a good motivation to look over training undergrads receive before directly participating in animal research at that university.

  • becca says:

    bsci- if you can't imagine properly and humanely carried out procedures that are nonetheless potential fodder for gruesome descriptions... I wonder how much animal work you have done.
    Or maybe you are just really jaded to things like miniature guillotines?

  • bsci says:

    The issue is not that a procedure couldn't be described in an gruesome manner, but that someone participating in the research should not write, perform, or even think about these procedures in a flippant and callous way. Well before writing a blog post, that person should either have been trained to behave and work appropriately near animals or should have been screened away from animal research if he wouldn't be able to approach the work with the appropriate seriousness.

  • becca says:

    The trouble is, flippant and callous is a matter of perspective. I've known clinical researchers who shudder when you describe people in a clinical study as "subjects" instead of "patients". I've known animal researchers who would never use "kill" but only accept "sacrifice". I've known others who think both of those are awful and only want "euthanize".
    My point is something like "and then we chopped off their heads and blood went everywhere" could come across as pretty flippant and casual. But it wouldn't necessarily indicate the experiments were being performed improperly or not taken seriously.

  • Scicurious says:

    bsci: unfortunately, sometimes, no matter how good the protocols are, and how carefully someone writes about the animal research, you will attract extremely unwelcome attention for doing animal research, not matter how responsibly you're doing it.
    And doing lab protocol tests and courses on animal research doesn't do anything about telling you how to communicate about animals in research. It's often up to the PI to work with the students to communicate about animals in research respectfully. Some PIs just assume that people will know the issues, but many people (young people especially) do not. If the PI can't provide this, someone else definitely should.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    On re-read, I see that I ended up sounding a lot more critical of the Duke Howard Hughes Precollege program and of Ms. Tsai than I really intended. Sorry about that and I thank Erica for commenting without rancor!
    Glad to hear that the program worked through these issues as they came up.
    About the animal-testing example: I would second your call on all PI's to ensure their students receive adequate animal research ethics training. All of the students who worked with animals in our program were required to complete standard training modules. Even with this training, we still ran into this problem. I'm not sure where the failure lies.
    I wouldn't call it a "failure". This stuff is by no means easy even for a given individual to deal with. It takes a lot of thought and reflection in many cases and the answers, such as they seem to be at present, are not satisfactory. Most of the scientist that I know who use animals would very much prefer if we lived in a world in which their legal professional behavior was like any other. (Are there any professions other than abortion doctor or research scientist where people who at least have accepted presence in the mainstream discussion call for murdering them?) Scientists would love to live in an environment where they could give tours to any who were interested, provide intern experience, could explain the work and make the case for what great things are being accomplished. Scientists love talking about their work. Unfortunately the consequences of doing so can be catastrophic- personally, professionally and to the conduct of the work.
    The conflict between these motivators means that different scientists will arrive at different comfort levels with respect to educating others in their own laboratories. A given scientist may adopt different stances throughout her career or depending on who the audience is at a given time. This is quite natural. But in the end, none of this is easy.
    In this post I managed to veer away from my original intent which was to level more criticism at PIs who do not ensure that these considerations of animal use and resentment of same from some quarters are fully considered by students or other working visitors to the lab.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    My point is something like "and then we chopped off their heads and blood went everywhere" could come across as pretty flippant and casual. But it wouldn't necessarily indicate the experiments were being performed improperly or not taken seriously.
    At this juncture I will point readers to the guidelines on euthanasia that are developed by the American Veterinary Medicine Association. This is one of those independent set of regulatory suggestions/opinions that has come to have considerable authority. In most protocols with which I am familiar you have to assert that your euthanasia practices will be consistent with these guidelines, else you need to go to some extraordinary justification.

  • JSinger says:

    Well before writing a blog post, that person should either have been trained to behave and work appropriately near animals or should have been screened away from animal research if he wouldn't be able to approach the work with the appropriate seriousness.
    I concur with what I think is your larger point, but this is expecting a bit much from the lab. Hopefully, though, the intern's chastisement went beyond "What if PETA saw this...?" to a reminder of the seriousness that keeping, manipulating and sac'ing animals deserves.

  • Anonymous says:

    if the students' blog posts are to be censored, then the PI or someone in that capacity should review all student posts before allowing them to be posted. Sort of like how on some blogs reader comments are moderated by the blog owner first before appearing. If you're going to make rules, you have to enforce them. or maybe students should sign NDAs before blogging.

  • bsci says:

    I think most of us are on the same page here. It's difficult to expect every new undergrad to meet a high standard, but before someone enters the room as an observer they need to be clued into the basic aspects of animal research. Before they become an active participant, they need to know a lot more. If they aren't educated, they won't be able to follow the guidelines, which is both ethically bad and leads to poorly conducted science.
    Thinking back to my undergrad work in an animal lab, I never received any course-like training, but I was shown how to behave by very clear example. Everyone took that part of the job very seriously and they only let undergrads directly work with animals after a significant period of shadowing.

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