Postdoc starts world-wide literature discussions

By Aadhishre Kasat
Department Communications & Student Researcher (Buller)

woman smiling

Morgan Howe, a new addition to Sam Pazicni’s group at the UW–Madison chemistry department, began her postdoctoral fellowship with a bang! She initiated a popular online literature discussion group, filling a need for chemists across the world to connect and learn virtually.

As a Ph.D. student pursuing organic chemistry at the University of California-Los Angeles, Howe participated in a local ACS meeting which led to the beginning of something quite extraordinary. During the session, she attended a presentation on chemistry education research and was fascinated by the depth of the field. The prospect of exploring teaching methods and understanding how students learn intrigued her to such an extent that she switched her path to chemistry education.

“Applications of a chemistry degree have changed significantly over the past couple of decades,” she explained. “However, the way we teach the subject hasn’t evolved. In order to recommend changes to the current structure, several large questions need to be answered. Such as, how do experts versus amateurs understand certain chemistry concepts, or, how well are tests designed.” Since her switch to this domain is recent, Howe has been in a constant practice of educating herself. She has been doing so by indulging in years of published peer-reviewed literature.

Before the department closed in March to prevent COVID-19, Howe enjoyed meeting with members from other groups to discuss literature. These meetings provided a platform for sharing unique perspectives and a chance to learn from other’s experiences. However, the doors to such collaborative opportunities seemed to snap shut with the doors to the chemistry building. After being cooped up at home, Howe longed for a community more than anything else. She reestablished the biweekly forum for discussing chemistry education literature with fellow department members by adapting it to a virtual form. All invited members were thrilled by this opportunity and eager to reconnect, once again highlighting how research of every form, on every level, can be a collaborative process.

Something that started as a local effort grew rapidly. During one of the Pazicni group meetings, students and faculty from the University of Michigan, University of Ottawa, and the University of New Hampshire were invited to join, expanding the meeting of five to 25. Gazing at her computer screen, somehow trying to fathom the appearance of 20 new faces, Howe thought that perhaps there were others yearning for a community. After seeing researchers from Canada join, she thought that there may be others around the world who would be interested in being part of the chemistry literature discussion initiative. She could already envision the platform becoming global.

She tweeted about her initiative and was taken aback by the overwhelming response. Scholars from Germany and Australia started joining the meetings.

“This is truly a unique opportunity where geographical boundaries don’t matter,” Howe said. “This experience has allowed me to look outside my bubble. Getting the chance to speak to such amazing people, coming from diverse backgrounds, led to some brilliant discussions. Although this started as a forum for discussing literature, it is also now a place of networking.”

Originally the plan was to have single time slots twice a week, but since international researchers also wanted to be part of the discussion, multiple time slots were organized with rotations. Slowly, independent scholars from research institutions also became a part of the forum. The scope of discussions broadened to education research in other disciplines. Initially, Howe picked the papers, devised discussion questions, and led the meetings, then other members stepped up and led discussions too. The forum became an overflowing cup of leadership opportunities.

In the future, Howe hopes to strengthen the discussion by inviting authors of each paper being discussed. She believes that their addition to the group could lead to insightful conversations about the standards and the direction of the field. Presently, the literature discussion club is taking a break while members manage fall term responsibilities, but Howe hopes to resume sessions next summer and invites all interested readers to reach her via email to be added to the mailing list.