Passing the torch

When MicroSeminar first started, I envisioned it as a community-driven, grassroots effort to share data, discuss research projects and build connections. I hope we’ve been mostly successful with those goals, but in keeping true to them – I have decided to pass the torch of organization. Dave Baltrus and Cameron Thrash will now be working with the fantastic Lizzy Wilbanks to organize the seminars. I’ll be cheering them on!

Lizzy is an assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara, and was one of our initial talks on MicroSeminar. I am so happy she’s decided to come on board! Lizzy – the torch is passed 🙂


After 3ish years

Since 2014, we’ve been running MicroSeminar, and we’re laying out the schedule well into 2018. What has happened?

  1. We grew. We’ve added organizers, gained Twitter and YouTube followers and some people have actually heard of us!
  2. We had growing pains. We tried to do a seminar at ASMCUE and it was great, but overall it didn’t go over that well with some conference attendees. Conferences are still a place to see people in person, and having someone piped in remotely isn’t the best. Just think of when people accept their Oscars by video feed, it just isn’t the same.
  3. We saved energy. Currently we’ve done 43 seminars. Let’s just say that folks had to fly to do them in person. I usually fly from PHL. We’ve had speakers from all over, even international – so to split the difference, let’s say the flight goes to SAN. Round trip, that’s 0.55 metric tons of CO2 emitted per flight. At 43 trips, that’s 23.65 metric tons of CO2 saved. That’s roughly an entire person’s CO2 footprint for a year. It’s getting to be significant.
  4. We are teaching. Apparently folks that know this happens are assigning students to watch certain lectures, or using the seminars as a lecture. If anyone would like to share a story regarding this – please let us know.
  5. We went international! Let’s keep expanding, folks, so tell your friends.
  6. We still have no financial backing. Keep your fingers crossed that the Google/YouTube/Wordpress model keeps up, as the hangout platform is constantly shifting.
  7. We had offspring! LimnoSeminar got started, after watching us and PhyloSeminar.
  8. We realized we had to pay attention. Sometimes we got on rolls where men were signing up but no women. We now look at the schedule headed out and make sure there is balance. Which sometimes means telling men no – that until we find women to present we are going to hold off scheduling men. The guys have been nothing but generous, helpful and understanding about this, and we are thankful that our community is awesome. We’ve learned this needs to be an entirely conscious decision, but it is an easy one to do! You should try it too!

What do we do now? For now we keep going. I guess we get older. We are always willing to hear from others and especially love to get volunteers. Thanks for tuning in!


Open seminars: a new and good idea


One of the things I liked best about being an academic researcher was group meeting. Every week, a different student or scholar would present some fresh data from their own projects. And these meetings were casual and interactive: you could interrupt any time with questions.

In industry chances to keep up with fundamental discovery science outside of your own core area can be more limited. Folks (mainly job candidates) do visit the corporate world to give research talks, and of course industrial scientists still attend conferences, but those interactions — while invaluable — aren’t as informal. The work presented is always well-polished, and people usually shy away from long technical questions and discussion.

That isn’t the case with MicroSeminar: it’s a new(ish) online-only, publicly accessible research seminar in microbiology created by Jennifer Biddle and Cameron Trash. Once a month or so, people from all over the world log…

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MicroSeminar: A new way of doing conferences

Originally posted at on 10/14/14 by Pat Schloss

Why didn’t I think of that?! In the last few years I’ve pretty much lost all my drive to go to conferences to give talks. So when I saw a Twitter post from Jennifer Biddle (UDel) this summer announcing the creation of the MicroSeminar, I got excited. After seeing the seminar series roll out over the summer I noticed they have had a very “environmental” focus to the initial talks. I offered my services to give a microbiome-based microbial ecology talk and viola! My talk will be this Friday (10/17/2014) at 11 AM eastern. You can watch it through their Google+ site and later through their YouTube channel.

MicroSeminar is an online seminar series created by Jennifer and Cameron Thrash (LSU) who are both awesome Assistant Professors that also do an effective job utilizing social media to engage colleagues. The goal of the seminar series is to provide a monthly microbiology seminar given by a different research group. I think this is great for a couple reasons. First, many people are in Biology departments with very little microbiology or are in microbiology departments where there’s very little microbial ecology. So it’s great to have a venue to have an hour a month to learn about the latest and greatest in microbial ecology/environmental microbiology research. Second, I really hate going to conferences. They’re a time sink, horrible for life/work balance, and very expensive. The cost of going to ISME in Korea this summer? In the thousands. Cost of sitting with your laptop watching a seminar? Zilch. Jennifer is correct that this won’t kill conferences. Conferences have a huge social aspect and provide great opportunities for networking. But the science is frequently stale and pulled from the pages of last year’s AEM. I think there’s great potential with this model to change how we disseminate information to our colleagues. Like I said, I think this is big, deserving of your attention and perhaps others will create parallel online seminar series that are either more specialized or more general.

When Jennifer took me up on my offer to provide a talk, I was very excited for the opportunity to give a microbiome talk without the microbiome crap. You will not see HMP Girl, no quotes of specious statistics, no mention of obscure disease, and no venturing into the weeds of bioinformatics. I will be describing unpublished experiments from the lab where we have taken various sources of microorganisms and used them to colonize mice that lack their own microbiota. The question is, how do microbial communities assemble? Is it random? Is it deterministic? These are big questions in ecology that are difficult to answer in microbial systems because the little buggers are everywhere and it’s hard to start with a clean slate. But at the same time, they’re a great system because they grow so freaking fast. I look forward to sharing our results and getting people’s feedback on what we’ve been up to.

Moving forward: plans for the 2014-2015 academic year

We’d like to thank everyone for the excitement surrounding this project during the summer of 2014. So far the feedback we’ve gotten is asking this to continue. The problem is – school is about to hit, and as pre-tenure professors, we have a lot on our plate. So, due to teaching and workload demands, here’s our plan for Sept – May, 2014-2015:

  • We will plan 1 seminar per month
  • Time/day is going to be flexible, since it has to work with teaching schedules, etc.
  • We will advertise the schedule heavily and post updates clearly so everyone can plan
  • Talks will still be recorded, and we can ask that speakers respond to questions that we collect by twitter. We can post responses on wordpress if there is a complicated response.
  • Feedback is welcome

We hope you’ll keep tuning in and watching!

Origins – a history from Jennifer Biddle

As we hit the mid-point in the 2014 summer series, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on where this project came from, and where it may go.

Late this spring, Brandon Briggs had posted a note on facebook saying that he’d go on the job market soon and he was looking for opportunities to do full length seminars. Since I organize our school’s seminar series, I pondered it. But our series is usually set up a good deal in advance, and I realized Brandon couldn’t wait until spring 2015 to get a seminar. So it was in my head to think about giving people access to seminars. I work with the NAI, who runs their director’s seminar and workshops without walls, and CDEBI, who runs a distributed series. Then I gave a seminar through CATP, where I sat at my desk during lunch and talked to bright minds all through Canada. When I finished – I realized I had only spent 1 hour doing a seminar. From 2013-2014 I was a distinguished lecturer for IODP, and while it was an excellent experience, I flew 60,000+ miles and was away from home for nearly 2 months doing it. The CATP experience, nestled right before another week long trip for seminars, gave me the idea to start an online microbial-focused seminar series.

To do this, I turned to twitter, and to Cameron Thrash, who is a tweeting machine. I sent out a few tester tweets. Would anyone want to come? Who would be interested? Meanwhile, Cameron and I started hashing out some ideas based on the PhyloSeminar model. Within a few hours we’d set up Google+, YouTube, Twitter and WordPress accounts. All of these are free, and all were done with seminar-specific log ins so that multiple people could hold the passwords and edit things. Then Cameron and I looked at our schedules – which nicely dovetailed so that one of us was available to run things this first summer. We almost had a plan in action.

But next we had to gather speakers. Brandon was the obvious first email, and soon others got word and jumped on board. It was particularly exciting to have friends email other friends and the ball start rolling. We paid particular attention to making sure there was a gender balance, and this has been a struggle but we desire to maintain it as close to 50/50 as we can!

So is this the death of the scientific conference as Ben Temperton suggested? I hardly think so. Based on my experience of attending 5 scientific conferences and delivering something like 14 departmental seminars last year alone, I know how valuable face to face discussion is. It simply cannot be replaced. However, I also know that it takes lots of fossil fuels, money and time to make that happen. As a mother to a 3 day old son in my first year of tenure track, I adopted twitter to follow science. Since then I’ve seen how powerful the internet can be for science communication, and the beauty is – it’s free and immediate. I have friends on maternity leave – why not facilitate them doing a departmental seminar during naptime? I have colleagues at small schools that don’t have a seminar budget to fly people in – why not facilitate them accessing great research seminars for free? I’m at a marine department but still desire to do classic microbiology – why not facilitate me talking to more microbiologists?  A postdoc or graduate student may not get invited talks that last 45 minutes – let’s give them the podium! I even have friends suffering from health issues that prevent them from travel – let’s bring science to them.

When we first drafted the website, I called it the renegade seminar series, because right now, we are operating on free software and goodwill. We have no official sponsor. It was a whim of an idea, now with over 500 YouTube views*. Consider this: the average audience I spoke with in the past year had about 40 people in a departmental seminar. At a scientific conference you may be lucky to get 100 in the audience if it’s not a plenary. We haven’t even TRIED to advertise beyond shooting off tweets, and we got this far. Where will we go next? We don’t know! But know we have a google document full of interested speakers, a full schedule and talks of going international. Why not!?! Thanks to everyone who has participated so far. Please contact us if you are interested in hosting or speaking and let’s see where this goes!

*Brandon, we know about 20 are your mom. The other 480 could possibly be Mike Wilkins’s mom.



The Death of the Scientific Conference?


Yesterday, I attended a my first MicroSeminar (#uSeminar) session, where Deric Learman gave an excellent talk on microbial redox, including the oxidation of Mn by Roseobacter Azwk-3b and how this process may be linked to the remineralization of refractory dissolved organic carbon.  30 minutes of live screen-shared presentation, followed by questions fielded from the Google Hangout and Twitter meant I could enjoy a great lecture given in the US, from the comfort of my desk, with no need to suffer jet lag or the sad look on my son’s face when I tell him I’m going away for a week to go to a conference.

It seems to me that with current technology, this format of seminars holds significant advantages over the traditional format of conferences:


Anyone who has been to a scientific conference knows they are expensive. Flights, hotels, registration fees and expenses eat into budgets. I’m…

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