My Journey of Becoming a Published Author in S.T.E.M and What I Learned

I am thrilled to say that after two years of work, my paper has been successfully published and I am first-author of a peer-reviewed academic paper, accepted for publication with minimal revision!

Over these past two years, I learned the ins and outs of proper experimental procedures, statistical analysis, and manuscript development, and now I can share tips from my own experience on how to publish in S.T.E.M.

From conducting an expansive literature review, designing and executing a full-factorial greenhouse trial, utilizing laboratory procedures to examine the growth and productivity metrics of my study species, learning how to use SPSS and R software to analyze my statistics, and ultimately publishing my manuscript, each step had its own challenges and rewards. Here, I break down the steps I took to help you organize your own research and guide you towards publishing your own academic paper.

Step 1: Choose Your Team

Publishing was one of the most challenging tasks I have undertaken to this date, but it would not have been possible if not for the strong team of scientists I had working on this with me. The unwavering support and assistance of my co-authors is what brought this paper together. For your first publication, I strongly suggest joining a lab from your university or collaborating with other individuals that have experience in the field you wish to publish in.

Step 2: Researching Your Topic

Prior to planning an experimental design, it is crucial to read the work of others on your chosen topic. Getting as much background information as possible will assist you with planning your study, getting an understanding of which metrics you should record, and learning about what previous studies have found. This assists with building the blueprints for your design.

Step 3: Plan and Execute Your Experimental Design

At this point, you need to have set a specific research question, created a design, and allotted specific deadlines and time budgets. In this article, I go in-depth on all of these points. This is where you need to collect as much data as possible. Remember, it is likely you will not use all of the data, but the more you collect the more options you have to work with when analyzing your statistics. When conducting your statistical analyses, ensure that you are comfortable with whichever software you will be using to analyze your work. Sites such as Youtube and offer a vast array of tutorials to help familiarize you with these software packages.

Step 4: Manuscript Preparation

When it comes to manuscripts, each journal has a specific style and guidelines you must adhere to. Research “instructions for authors” for multiple peer-reviewed journals and see what their criteria include. When choosing a journal, it is important to consider the impact factor, which is the number of times that a paper from the journal gets cited on average. Certain journals have incredibly high impact factors, but this in turn means that they have a lower acceptance rate which is another critical point to consider. After selecting a journal, follow their guidelines. They will have specific requirements that are important to adhere to in order to increase the likelihood of having your paper accepted for review. It is at this stage that you should choose the order of authorship on the paper, and who should be the first author of the paper. This order is typically established by order of contribution to the paper.

Step 5: The Editing Stage

This will probably be one of your longest and most challenging stages. My lab and I spent many months going back and forth on researching, writing, editing and then editing some more. There will be days when you spend hours researching just to write one sentence. There will be days when pages worth of work will be crossed out and you will have to start again (and again and again). Graphs and figures will have to be tweaked and possibly reworked. During the editing stage, the most important thing is to maintain perseverance and to take it a day at a time.

Step 6: The Submission Process

When your manuscript has been edited to the satisfaction of everyone on your team and is ready for submission to your journal of choice, there are several critical documents you must submit; your manuscript, a cover letter to the editorial committee, your figures, and possibly your code if you used a software such as R. You will need to make an account with the journal and submit everything they require within their formatting guidelines. Make sure to research how to write a cover letter for a manuscript, as it is entirely different from one you would submit for a job posting. As well, it is a good idea to set up an ORCid, a unique code to identify scientific and other academic authors to keep all of your contributions organized, and link it to your paper.

Step 7: The Peer Review Stage and the Revision process

After submitting your manuscript, if the editorial board chooses to accept your paper, it will be sent to a committee of peer-reviewers. This may take between several weeks to several months. The peer-reviewers will provide feedback on your paper, which is essentially another round of edits. From the number of changes they request, you may either have minimal revision or possibly have to redo certain sections. This is one of the final hurdles, put in your best work and polish it according to the guidelines from the peer reviewers.

Step 8: Accepted for Publication – Choosing Between Open Source vs. Copyright Transfer

Once accepted for publication, you will have 2 options: leave your paper as open-source or transfer the copyright over to the journal. Open source publications are openly available to viewers but can cost the publishing authors upwards of several thousand dollars. Copyright transfers typically have no cost involved with the publication, but viewers must read the paper either through an institutional proxy or by subscribing to the journal. Both options are valid, so choose whichever is most practical for you and your team.

Step 9: Final Revisions from the Journal

As you come close to publication, the journal will send you a proof with a list of final revisions. These are typically the last changes you can make to your paper, so ensure that everything is as you want it to be.

Step 10: Publication

This is the finish line, and once you have passed it, you are done! It takes time and effort, but once you are published, you are officially an author! Make sure to keep a balance during this process, talk to your family and friends, spend time on your hobbies, and ensure that you have downtime. Ultimately, it will all come together.

How I Paid for School and Graduated Debt Free

This October, I graduated from university with a Bachelor of Science in Biology and an Honors Thesis in Restoration Ecology. Throughout my university experience, I paid entirely out of pocket for my studies, materials, and supplementary expenses. I did not use any financial aid programs and independently funded my entire education.

I won’t sugar coat it – paying for school is not easy. But, just like exercising, the most difficult workout sessions prepare us for life and force us to develop habits that ensure future success. Covering my own fees throughout university and paying for my education taught me many crucial life lessons. This wasn’t simple, but I did it, and so can you. Although there are many important points to know and figure out ahead of time when paying for your own education, I’ve used lessons I learned from my own experience to outline 5 major pieces of advice that will help you pay for school and graduate without any debt.

  1. Pursue Entrance Scholarships 

University is a big jump from high school. With a greater sense of freedom and autonomy also comes responsibilities. While you are in high school, a more student-focused education and smaller classes can provide you ample opportunities to speak to teachers and gain advice on how to improve your work. Although they do not in any form determine your worth, increasing your grades can gain you a wide variety of automatic entrance scholarships. Look up universities or colleges that you are interested in and search up their entrance scholarship eligibility. Often times scholarship eligibility starts at around an 80% average and can cover hundreds to thousands of dollars worth of tuition. Similarly to entrance scholarships, there are numerous scholarships available for a vast array of interests, backgrounds, and talents. Whether you are on a sports team, an entrepreneur, a musician, or anything else you may identify with, scholarships and bursaries can assist you with getting through school. Make sure to apply before the deadline.

2. Time budgets

Last year, during my final year of school, I was conducting a thesis, taking classes, running two of the largest clubs on campus, working a part-time job, starting a culinary Instagram page, working out regularly (to balance out all of the baking), and still making time to spend with my friends. Someone asked me how I have time for it all, so I decided to make this post. Here, I discussed time budgets, what they are, and how I utilize them to maximize efficiency and productivity in my tasks and responsibilities. I thrive off of time budgets and utilize them every single day. To summarize, I schedule absolutely everything I do and give myself a budgeted amount of time to complete it. This way I can have back to back tasks without worrying about forgetting something or not having enough time to complete it. I highly recommend this article to anyone who struggles with time management, as my schedule is my personal magnum opus, and has given me the ability to take on an extensive amount of opportunities.

3. Explore a Variety of Hobbies

Similar to point 2,  balancing a variety of different hobbies or interests can allow us to increase how much we accomplish. A recent study by the BBC discussed how multiple of the most brilliant polymaths display interest and participate in a variety of different fields. The article discusses new research which suggests that having diverse interests yields greater productivity, creativity, and overall life satisfaction (Robson, 2019). Undertaking multiple ventures, including working a job while studying, brings in separate responsibilities and tasks into your life. In turn, this can provide a method of continuing productivity when you overwork and start experiencing diminishing returns within one subject by transferring your attention to the next.

4. Commuting VS. Campus Life

Although living on campus has ample perks such as being close to your classes and allowing for time to socialize, it can definitely add more to your tuition. When you are looking into post-secondary education, make sure to explore your options for living arrangements. Living on campus in a dorm adds expenses such as meal plans but reduces your transportation fees. On the other hand, if you live close enough to your school of choice, commuting can save you thousands of dollars, while reducing your time to socialize. To ensure that I could afford school, I commuted daily. I won’t lie to you and say it was always great, commuting on public transit was at times difficult, especially in inclement weather, but it absolutely helped me afford tuition.

5. Choose Your Jobs Effectively

I worked multiple jobs throughout my undergrad. With the rising cost of tuition, students sometimes need to take on several opportunities to afford to put themselves through school. For this reason, I highly suggest developing skills and gaining experience throughout highschool through co-op positions and volunteering to be eligible for positions that can benefit you as well. It can be strenuous to support yourself on a minimum wage, so make sure that you are applying for jobs that you can support yourself on, have room for growth, or will provide you with highly valuable experience that you can utilize and apply later in life. I ensured that each job I took on made sense with my schedule but also helped me to develop work and life skills. Similarly, you may want to consider having a part-time job in high school. I have been working since I was 16, and have since gained experience in a wide array of fields such as by working as a stylist, an early childhood assistant, a lab assistant, and more. Each and every one of these experiences has advanced me on my journey and assisted me with self-growth, taught me critical workplace and life skills, and has guided me in paying for my education. As well, I have gained life long friends from these jobs.

By following these steps and budgeting my finances, I managed to graduate completely debt-free. Through full-time jobs in the summer and part-time positions working 15 – 20 hours per week during my semesters, I got through school. I budgeted my time, my finances, and made sure to prioritize my health and well being above it all. School, especially during exams, can be busy and exhausting, so ensure that you are your top priority and that you are making time for self-care. I managed to get myself through school and I am proud of it and you can too!

5 Things I Learned From Writing and Defending my Honors Thesis

I did it! I wrote and defended my Honours Biology Thesis. After a year of conducting literature reviews, planning my experimental design, running my experiment, laboratory procedures to analyze my samples, and learning SPSS to analyze my stats, I composed a thesis encompassing all of my work. This past year, I learned a lot from my research. Here are the top 5 things that this thesis taught me:

  1. Figure out your research question

This might seem really common sense, but knowing what you are attempting to discover or research is substantially more difficult than it seems. My thesis was on restoring native plants in the Californian deserts which are invaded by an exotic species. So initially I wondered “how do I save these natives from this invasive?”. This question is too broad. You need to pinpoint what it is exactly you are looking for – in other words, what is the relationship you aim to examine? Ultimately, my thesis question ended up examining if there are certain densities of these natives that can outcompete the exotic species by suppressing its competitive capacity. This was the primary question. Whether the natives can suppress the exotic, done, period. There will be other factors, other relationships to note, but first and foremost you need to determine your main inquiry and report these findings.

2. Know the difference between complicated and complex

Writing a thesis or conducting research is not easy. It is a long and strenuous process. Every single part of my experiment was based on the multitude of papers I read during my literature review, from the size of the pots I was using to the number of seeds I used per cm². This work is not easy, but it’s not complicated. Complicated suggests that this topic cannot be understood or explained to other people outside of this field. Complex means that there are many components, but ultimately it can be described to someone outside of your field (sharing knowledge among fields is always fantastic).

3. Set yourself time budgets

Writing takes time. Research takes time. Make sure that you are on top of your work. It might seem like you suddenly have a lot of time before the due date, but this is the time you take to conduct more literature reviews, analyze your stats, and start writing. Editing can take you weeks. This is not a high school lab report, you can’t do this the night before it’s due. You may think you are done and when the edits come back, you might have to rewrite large amounts of your report. Make sure to stay on track with your time budgets. Give yourself reasonable amounts of time to finish tasks.

4. Confidence brings success

Going to your defense is a high-stress situation. You need to be able to present your work and answer inquiries on it. It is at this moment that it is most important for you to bring self-confidence. Your stance, intonation, body language, and facial expression all show whether you are confident in not only yourself but in your work. It took me a long time to get to the level of self-confidence and self-fulfillment of where I am now, but it is essential to work on valuing yourself and your abilities so that it shows when you speak. If you believe in yourself, it makes it easier for others to also believe in you.

5. Know that your thesis and academic success is not your entire worth

It can be absolutely nerve-wracking writing a thesis, and when things go wrong (which sometimes they do!) it can be challenging to continue, persevere, and believe in yourself. It is exceptionally easy to feel like your GPA or the research you conduct describes how successful of a person you are, and let me tell you this is not the case. Some of the most well-read and knowledgable individuals do not see their families, do not contribute to their communities, and spend their lives isolated. To me, this is not success. Success to me is developing self-fulfillment from the vast array of relationships we have in our everyday lives along with assisting others with their journies. While writing my thesis I had immense help from every single person in my lab, from my supervisor, from my partner, from my friends, and from my family. I had people help me with my thesis in ways that would not benefit them but made my thesis so much better. I was supported along the way, and without these people, I would not have been able to write this thesis. You are not alone and can get help from others during your research. The academic community is filled with extraordinary individuals and reaching out for help is not embarrassing or shameful. At the end of the day, it is important to remember that if things aren’t going well, you can consult with others, rework your ideas, or take a breather but to not give up. The people who succeed are not people who never fail, they are people who have failed hundreds of times but kept going despite the roadblocks.

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Experiential Education Symposium at York University

I had the wonderful opportunity to make a poster and present my research today at York University’s Experiential Education Symposium. During the event, York University president and vice-chancellor Rhonda Lenton and I discussed my biology research, as well as the many applications it has in the workforce. I am excited and eager to experience the opportunities that lie ahead.

Discussing my research with President and vice-chancellor of York University Rhonda Lenton
Presenting research at the conference. I got the chance to speak to so many different individuals, and am glad to be sharing scientific findings with such a large audience.
My poster on the optimal plant density research work I did during my research practicum with Dr.Christopher Lortie and Jenna Braun. I expanded on this knowledge in my honours thesis and am now searching for the optimal native plant density to outcompete an exotic invader. Restoration ecology in action.
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Completion of Native vs. Exotic Competition

After a 2 month growing and censusing period, followed by a harvesting, drying, and biomass census I have concluded my 200 pot competition series.
During this period, I had obtained a photometer to measure light levels and did two light census for both the overall pot as well as below canopy. I am hoping that these light measures will provide quantifiable insight on the effect light has on growth. I hypothesize that plants receiving ambient light will yield greater mean biomass per species, while those in shade conditions (to mimic shrub presence) will have a greater mean height due to leggy growth.
I wanted to quantify the growth of my plants through several metrics, and therefore chose to obtain both height and leaf measurements for each species from each pot. In order to acquire these measurements, I implemented a new censusing technique for my second and final census. In this census I counted the number of individuals of each separate species there were per pot. Following this, I took the tallest individual of each species, and recorded its height along with the number of leaves. This way, following the harvest and mechanical oven drying period I would be able to compare the biomass of the plant with its height and leaf count. This would allow me to evaluate plant growth using two separate dimensions; plant height along and number of leaves vs. plant biomass.

After using a mechanical drying oven set to 62 degrees Fahrenheit for 48 hours, I used a precision scale to obtain the biomass of each plant.

The experiment planning, seed counting, pot filling, plant censusing, harvesting, and biomass analysis processing were extensive processes. I am extraordinarily grateful to Dr. Christopher Lortie, Dr.Jacob Lucero, Masters graduate Jenna Braun, research practicum student Anuja, and Economics and Finance student Denis Karasik for their time, efforts, and immense assistance with running this experiment.

Statistical analyses for all of the results are still in work, and I am eager to see the conclusion my experiment comes to

Hours of biomass censusing in one photos

All the plants before the harvest

A flower from the beautiful Phacelia tanacetifolia

Plantago insularis also grew flowers

Invasive species versus Californian Natives Competition Trial Update – Census 2

I want my final paper to be useful for and applicable to restoration ecology.  This led me to inquire what data I should collect for my second census. My germination rates are up, and all four species are present, so would relying on number of individuals and biomass of each species per pot be enough data? I decided that since I am using light as a limiting factor I must include height in my data; the plants may have somewhat similar biomass, but if it is due to leggy growth in the shaded pots then it will be important to note that although biomass was similar resource allocation was not equal. Are great amounts of leggy, weak, and nutrient deficient plants with few leaves better for ecosystems then having fewer shorter but thicker, more leafy plants?  I measured the number of individuals per species per pot, alongside with the height and number of leaves the tallest member of each species had per pot. I have yet to analyze these numbers, but did notice trends when doing the census!

Side note: I conducted a germination experiment in the greenhouse prior to using these seeds, and have let them grow out. My Phacelia tanacetifolia is growing a beautiful flower!

Invasive species versus Californian Natives Competition Trial Update – The Purpose

Salvia columbariae, Phacelia tanacetifolia, and Plantago insularis are key phytometers (plants that indicate ecosystem conditions) in the San Joaquin Desert of California. As the highly invasive exotic Bromus madritensis colonizes in this non-native environment it lacks the environmental suppressors and competitors it faces in its native habitat. This leads to native Californian desert ecosystems to shift to a new model where native plants are excluded due to competitive disadvantages. decreases in native biodiversity are directly correlated to the health of an ecosystem, ecosystem services, resiliency to climate change, as well as the resources and for these reasons, identifying methods of restoration ecology is crucial.

Using my 3 factor (ambient light vs shaded conditions, low vs high B.madritensisdensity, native seeds at 6 levels of density (0,3,6,9,15, or 30 natives)) greenhouse competition trials I aim to identify what density of native species must present in a pot with a surface area of 153cm2  to outcompete an exotic one.I have previously run an experiment to identify optimal density in pots of the same surface area using each of the native species in monoculture, implementing the same light versus shade conditions with a total of 365 replicates. I will assess if I am able to compare these differences in optimal monoculture mix density to a polyculture mix with invader presence. If my data finds an optimal density using these methods, I hope to further my research and apply my findings to population ecology by estimating necessary population metrics required to apply this to ecosystem for large scale restoration and contribute it towards field work.

My experiment currently contains 200 pots, 100 of which are shaded by a bamboo structure I suspended. Germination has begun, yet it is still difficult to differentiate among species this early on. As predicted, the shaded individuals have demonstrated leggy growth as they reach towards the light source, yet there seems to be leaf production in possibly higher concentrations in the shaded pots than the ones experiencing ambient light. It appears that the shaded pots have a higher germination and growth rate (measured by number of individuals and number of leaves per pot). Is it possible that the shade-preferring B.madritensis is facilitating growth through positive density dependence? Am I witnessing an Allee effect in the form of environmental conditioning? Or is the answer as simple as light levels in the shaded conditions being sufficient for the natives as well as B.madritensis? Using the metrics of germination of species per pot as well as leaves per species and finally above ground biomass at the end of my experiment I will continually assess success through the different factors and levels I have designed and implemented in my experiment and hope to achieve a successful conclusion.