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Santa Cruz, CA

Functional morphologist and evolutionary biologist

Blog

Behind the Scenes at the California Academy of Sciences!

Vikram Baliga

With my mind set on re-applying for the NSF Predoctoral Fellowship this coming fall, I've devoted a chunk of this summer to gathering preliminary data and organizing the framework of my dissertation. Quite fortunately, the California Academy of Sciences, in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, boasts one of the largest ichthyology collections in the world. Upon perusing the online database for the Ichthyology collection, I found that many of the taxa I was interested in were housed in this museum! Thanks to the generosity of Senior Collections Manager Dave Catania and Curatorial Assistant Mysi Hoang, I have been able to visit the Cal Academy and get a behind-the-scenes look at the Ichthyology department.



As of now, I have made four visits to the Cal Academy. Each time, I've been allowed to walk in through the Research & Staff Entrance located on the southern face of the building.
The back entrance

The Ichthyology collection at the Cal Academy contains nearly 1.2 million specimens of close to 11,000 distinct species. These specimens, preserved in roughly 200,000 jars, are housed in rows that roughly resemble the layout of a typical library. These rows are organized by family, with each family occupying a distinct "group number".
One of many, many, many rows of specimens
Each of these jars contains at least one specimen, though many contain multiple. Some jars are even filled with close to 50 specimens! Each jar is meticulously labelled with all the pertinent information about the specimen(s): species name, location of collection, date collected, method of preservation...etc. These specimens are preserved beautifully, and some are quite old.
This specimen of Embiotoca jacksoni dates back to 1915!
As I am gathering preliminary data, all of my measurements thus far have been non-invasive. Each time I visit the collection, I load up a cart full of jars and return to my workspace to perform these measurements. 
This is my game face.
My visits to the Cal Academy have been extremely rewarding to both my research plans and my personal sense of curiosity. I am eternally grateful to the folks in the Ichthyology department for their guidance and their willingness to foster the hopes of a young scientist!

Grad Student Life: Being a TA

Vikram Baliga

This marks my first quarter as a TA. It's a interesting feeling -- after going through 4.5 years of undergrad, you get a bit of a "culture shock" when you find yourself on the other side of the classroom. You begin to realize it's your responsibility to ensure that the students in your section actually understand the material. You become personally invested in their successes and failures. It can be quite frustrating at times, especially when you feel as though you're speaking to empty seats. On occasion you even think, "What the hell am I doing up here?" For the most part, however, it's been quite rewarding. I seem to be connecting well with my students, and the strength of this link is reflected in their test scores.

I was a bit nervous before leading my first "discussion" section. I'd kept debating whether I'd wanted to be "the stern taskmaster" or more of a "buddy" figure. I can't even begin to count the number of ways I'd practiced introducing myself in my head. Of course, the way things actually panned out was nothing akin to how I'd planned. It's funny -- you spend so much of your time crafting your approach, but when push comes to shove, all of that falls by the wayside. When I walked up to the blackboard that first time, my mind went blank. I didn't have the presence of mind to tailor my words one way or another -- I just spoke in the manner in which I always do.

For me, this approach seems to work. It's all a matter of communicating effectively to your audience. The most effective way to do this is to be yourself. I've stopped caring about how funny or entertaining I come across -- some days I'm "on" and some days I'm not. The only thing that matters is my students' successes; I've become quite possessive of them.

Although it's only been a few weeks, I've come up with a few guidelines for myself when it comes to teaching:

  1. Be honest. Don't try to be an actor -- people can tell when you're not being genuine.
  2. Don't expect everyone to talk. Some people are naturally quiet and have other ways of expressing themselves. 
  3. Encourage students to work together in groups. Students sometimes have difficulty discussing ideas with people in "authoritative" positions. Working together with peers helps resolve these issues.
  4. If attendance is voluntary, appreciate the students who actually show up.
  5. Be prepared to repeat your explanations many, many, many times.
  6. Offer your help even when students don't explicitly ask for it. They may be too shy to approach you and/or may not even realize they're doing something incorrectly.