Invisible Jungle – A Report

Background

This report outlines the experiences that Niharika “Rika” Mallepally and Alexander Mijalis while working with Invisible Jungle.

Rika Mallepally and Alex Mijalis
Rika Mallepally and Alex Mijalis

Overview:

Invisible Jungle is a radio program that promotes STEM education by providing interesting and relevant information to the public about the “invisible” world of microbes. An interdisciplinary group of honors students at Texas A&M University manages all facets of research and broadcast production of the show, which started in the Fall of 2009.

Purpose of IJ:

The Invisible Jungle initiative was created to pursue the objectives of

(1) Enhancing resources for STEM-deficient schools

(2) Fostering a multilateral platform on which scientists, researchers, and students can communicate

(3) Developing a general awareness and appreciation for microbial sciences

Origins of IJ:

Invisible Jungle has roots in Texas A&M University’s University Scholars program. The University Scholars program is a competitive program open to honors students from every academic discipline. Every year, 12-15 University Scholars are chosen, out of a pool of a few hundred eligible honors students, after completing their first year at Texas A&M. University Scholars participate in a range of honors coursework, research, and extracurricular activities. Additionally the program requires that students take one honors seminar course every semester. These seminar courses vary in topic (from art history to language/culture, to abstract mathematics) and are led by some of the best professors on campus. Professors choose the topics of seminars, which change every semester.

Invisible Jungle began as a University Scholars seminar class for the Fall 2009 semester. Taught by Dr. Paul de Figueiredo, this course had the objective of creating radio broadcasts about microbiology to which the public could relate. The seminar’s students were successful and Invisible Jungle continued to be an on-and-off seminar course over the next few years.[1]

How we became involved

Alexander Mijalis and I became involved with Invisible Jungle when we signed up to take the 2010 IJ University Scholar seminar. Along with 4 other University Scholars, Alex and I created and aired broadcasts, worked on a new website, and planned an expansion model. By the end of the semester, we had finalized about fifteen scripts for broadcast. Alex had also spearheaded the prototype website. Finally, the 6 Spring 2010 IJ seminar students worked with the handful of Fall 2009 IJ seminar students in deciding to make a student organization for Invisible Jungle.

At the close of the Spring semester, the 10-15 of us involved with Invisible Jungle were very excited about expanding the reach of the radio show and web design. We had also discussed maybe creating educational materials for local schools, searching for private sector funding, and finding more ways for Texas A&M students to participate. Our enthusiasm was unmatched. But we finished the semester with very little in terms of (1) concrete plans for the future (2) protocols and rules for communication and (3) delegations of responsibilities.

During the Fall of 2010, we realized that the student organization model was not working for Invisible Jungle. Because of how we had finished the previous semester, our schedules and plans were disorganized. Communication was shoddy; different students were aware of different pieces of information at different times. In short, we realized that forcing a student organization structure was not conducive to the evolution of Invisible Jungle. Students preferred to take on specific tasks and responsibilities rather than be given administrative titles (i.e. one of our students who was arbitrarily named “treasurer” actually just preferred to write scripts and fill out refund forms when needed). We decided to continue working over the next couple of years without becoming an official student organization. Instead, we met regularly and communicated frequently about editing broadcasts, recording scripts, and updating the website.[2]

Ultimately, this semester helped Alex, me, and our colleagues learn about planning ahead and managing expectations for each semester. We decided that our priorities were to (1) always have high quality broadcasts to air on Friday mornings (2) improve the website as a user-friendly content host (3) create a model for sustainability and (4) promote individual University Scholar development.

Radio

Invisible Jungle broadcasts are two minutes long and air weekly on KAMU-FM, College Station’s local NPR affiliate radio station. To date, Invisible Jungle has produced over 85 broadcasts to a weekly listenership of 20,000 people across east central Texas.

From ideation to broadcast, the radio show is completely student-run. Broadcasts are created and produced using a specific content generation model (shown below):

Invisible Jungle Content Generation Model
Invisible Jungle Content Generation Model

The content generation model begins with students identifying potential topics for broadcasts. The source of broadcast topics is from either (1) reviewed, scientific journals or (2) scientists and researchers. IJ students look for interesting, innovative scientific research whose applications would appeal to the general public. After choosing a topic, students do a thorough investigation of the research, often referring to primary sources. Following background research, students write up draft broadcasts that are sent to colleagues in as a part of a systematic peer review process. Students record the broadcast in the KAMU-FM studio where it undergoes another round of editing focusing on style and syntax. Finally, the finished product is aired on Friday morning. Ultimately, the content generation model emphasizes a sustainable model for publishing broadcasts that are both scientifically sound and easily understandable.

Website

When creating the Invisible Jungle website, our main goal was to create a framework that was expandable and easy-to-update by students. To this end, our student team created the Invisible Jungle website using WordPress, an open-source blogging application. This gave us instant access to powerful collaborative editing features and comment moderation, allowing for students involved with Invisible Jungle to upload articles and peer-edit them before publishing. Using the web portal, students can easily attach their voice recordings of Invisible Jungle broadcasts to articles, with an audio player appearing directly in the webpage. They can also choose to upload video content or images associated with their article. Citations are automatically formatted listed below each piece.

In the future, we hope to use our webpage as a marketplace for Invisible Jungle merchandise, and as a portal for collaborative discussion about the invisible, yet exciting world of microbes.

Student Development

Invisible Jungle has also been an ideal way for students to develop their leadership and management skills, specifically through (A) teaching and (B) presenting.

(A) Teaching

Because Invisible Jungle began as a University Scholar seminar class, Alex and Rika were motivated to teach our own Invisible Jungle honors courses during the Fall 2011 and Spring 2012. The objective of the class was to recruit interested honors students to train them in making IJ broadcasts and conducting general scientific research. Ultimately, the courses allowed Alex and me to develop our teaching skills and help mentor younger honors students. It was also a great way for the enrolled honors students to gain a skillset in literature reviews, research, and professional communications. In the Fall, Alex and Rika taught a 1-hour class (i.e. once a week) together. In the Spring, they each taught their own 1-hour class. Alex’s class focused on the website while Rika’s class focused on writing broadcasts. During each semester, students received 1 hour of honors course credit.

(B) Presenting

Alex and Rika were also able to present their work with Invisible Jungle at several conferences, listed below:

Date Conference Location
March 2011 American Society of Microbiology Regional Meeting San Antonio, TX
August 2011 Mycological Society of America National Meeting Fairbanks, AK
November 2011 American Chemical Society Southwest Regional Meeting Austin, TX
March 2012 American Chemical Society National Meeting San Diego, CA

Students enrolled in the Spring IJ course were also encouraged to participate in conferences. Every student was able to present about his or her IJ involvement at a campus, state, or regional conference.

Conclusions & Recommendations

After reflecting on their own experiences with Invisible Jungle, Alex and Rika have a few key recommendations for honors students who pursue independent projects and research in the future:

1. Find a good mentor

Work with a faculty member that is willing to invest in you. The Honors and Undergraduate Research department is a great place to start; the professors that work with HUR are all great mentors. They are the top people in their field and have already shown a willingness to work with honors students long term. Students can also seek out old professors or their own department heads (i.e. engineering, economics, etc.). At the end of the day, professors and advisors have worked at A&M much longer than most honors students. The knowledge that comes with this experience is invaluable. Mentors are great sounding boards for not only honors projects but also individual’s personal academic goals.

2. Make a long-term game plan

Try to start a project, research, or class that you can remain involved in for multiple semesters. When starting a project today, you do not now have to know how you want to be involved in 2 years. But definitely try to invest in something that has the potential for continued involvement. Alex and Rika joined IJ in the Spring of 2010. Over the next 1-2 semesters, they knew that they wanted to focus their energy into IJ, even though they did not know how those efforts would manifest later on. They could not have predicted teaching classes but they knew that they wanted to be involved until graduation.

3. Teach & Present

Try to present your work, early and often. There are several forums and conferences catered towards undergraduate students; apply to these at least 1 semester before you want to present. Attending and presenting at conferences is a great way for students to network, build speaking skills, set themselves apart for grad school/job applications, and share their ideas. Teaching in itself is a skillset that honors students should have. Alex and Rika learned a lot from being course instructors for two semesters; it has definitely shaped how they communicate. It also allows honors students to get other, younger, honors students interested in their project.

4. Measure success

During the planning stages of projects and research, honors students should be able to answer the question “How do you measure success?” How will the student know if a project has been successful? What are the metrics in place to evaluate a student’s efforts? Knowing how to measure success will allow a student to (1) stay on track for long term goals and (2) communicate progress to other students and faculty. “How do you measure success?” is one of the first questions that Dr. de Figueiredo asked Alex and Rika, and it was one of the most important ones.

Acknowledgements

Alex and I want to thank the Honors and Undergraduate Research Department for everything they gave us over our 4 years at Texas A&M. We lived in honors housing, served as Sophomore Advisors, and stayed involved as University Scholars. Both of us have academically diverse interests, honors was the unifying structure that allowed us to pull these interests together. Our experiences with honors also set us apart on a national level and prepared us to excel in graduate school.

We greatly appreciate our interaction with every professor and advisor that we worked with. But we would like to especially thank Dr. de Figueiredo for being an amazing mentor for 3 years. The passion that Dr. D had for Invisible Jungle, and the faith he had in Alex and my abilities, was instrumental to our success with IJ and beyond.

1 On a side note, Invisible Jungle was not offered as a University Scholar seminar course every semester. This was because, at those times, IJ was saturated with involved students.
2 On a side note, I do know that current IJ students have considered making IJ a student organization (or might have already done it). This is completely fine! I am sure they are doing a great job We aren’t trying to knock student organizations; it just was not right for us at the time.

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