By Claire Roth (MA 2017), WIC GTA

Scientist and best-selling science fiction author David Brin visited Oregon State’s campus in the beginning of October, an event made possible by the collaborative project “SPARK: Arts + Science @ OSU.” Brin gave a well-attended lecture open to the Corvallis community, visited classes and labs on campus, and conducted a small workshop and interdisciplinary conversation about sci-fi prototyping, all in the short time he spent with us. Brin talked enthusiastically about the potential for writing collaboration between the sciences and the humanities. His ideas could have an exciting impact on Oregon State’s writing culture.

To understand the potential for Brin’s ideas to create more collaborative writing projects on campus, I asked two of our faculty, Dr. Raymond Malewitz and Dr. Bill Smart, to comment on Brin’s lecture and workshop.

Raymond Malewitz is an assistant professor in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film and is the director of the MA program in English. His research and writing projects primarily focus on the intersections between literature, science, environmental concerns, and material culture. Dr. Malewitz introduced David Brin before his lecture titled “Adaptations: Storytelling in Novels and Film.”

Bill Smart is an associate professor in the School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering. His research in robotics aims primarily at the intersection between humans and robots. He also does work in machine learning with an emphasis on strategies for training long-term robot actions. Dr. Smart was one of the coordinators and facilitators of David Brin’s workshop on sci-fi prototyping.

Question 1: David Brin made the comment that if a person can prove their chops, then they can invade other fields. Do you ever find yourself “invading” other fields during your research? If so, which fields did you find most surprising or unexpected?

Malewitz: “As a scholar of science and lit, I invade fields all the time, which has led to some fascinating conversations with people far removed from English lit.  Last year, I met with a veterinary scientist at OSU to discuss the surveillance of zoonotic diseases (diseases that spread between animals and humans).  During the conversation, we both reflected on the significance of the fact that reverse zoonoses (humans infecting animals) are poorly represented in lit and culture, which may reflect upon our own biases regarding our status within the animal kingdom.”

Smart: “All the time.  Since I work in robotics, I’m forced to dabble in a lot of other fields to get things working.  I’m a computer scientist by training, but I dip into mechanical engineering, mathematics, psychology, art, and a number of other fields in the course of my research.  None of this is particularly deep, but I do get the chance to talk to and collaborate with domain experts in all of these areas.  I find psychology the most unexpected, since it’s the field that I know least about.  It’s also the one where I think that I learn the most, probably because of the excellent set of collaborators that I work with.”

Question 2: Brin described science fiction writing as “speculative history,” then connected the idea to the workshop by calling it an exercise in “speculative technology.” To what extent does speculation appear in your field? What kinds of speculative work do you find yourself doing?

Malewitz: “Speculative fiction is near and dear to me.  In recent articles, I’ve written about how emerging and future technologies affect human behavior and our sense of orientation within the world—something that fiction can do quite well.  For example, I’ve become interested in the ways that enormous clean energy projects—wind and solar farms, etc.—affect our understanding of regionalism, which in American literature tends to be preoccupied with natural rather than artificial elements of the landscape.  I’ve also written about a great recent novel by Gary Shteyngart called Super Sad True Love Story, which speculates on the future (or current) effects of social media on politics.”

Smart: “I think that, in robotics, you [speculate] all the time.  You have to imagine how these new things will change our lives, and how they will integrate with the way we do things now.  Part of that is doing what-if experiments with technology, and then trying to close the gap between what we can do now and the scenario the what-if creates.  My hunch is that a lot of research proceeds in this way.”

Question 3: One of the results of our time with David Brin is a possibility for collaborative projects between writers, scientists, and engineers here at Oregon State. What do you think your field could gain from this collaborative relationship? What kinds of projects would you hope to see evolve?

Malewitz: “Some great collaborative possibilities are starting to emerge at OSU under the umbrella category of “Environmental Humanities,” which attempts to represent the dynamic features of our environment in ways similar to the manner by which historians, literary scholars, and philosophers represent human activity.  This fusion works quite nicely when applied to things that fall between the categories of the social and natural worlds, including anthropogenic climate change, stem cell research, and artificial modes of human and nonhuman reproduction.”

Smart: “I’d really like to see a science fiction prototyping group emerge here on campus.  A group of people familiar with the technologies we use (particularly in robotics, which is my thing), who write short, near-future speculative fiction to frame the sorts of technological and ethical questions that we should be thinking about today.  Ideally this group would comprise both writers and technologists, since getting us to think critically about our technology is an important part of the process.”

Most of our WIC Program focuses on writing as it appears in our separate disciplines. David Brin’s visit and the enthusiasm of both Dr. Malewitz and Dr. Smart prove there is something to be said for writing across disciplines as well. We work hard to prepare students to write well during their professional lives. It’s also worthwhile to remind students while they are here that they have an opportunity for collaboration unique to college life. Where else but a college campus is it so convenient to explore writing with someone outside your discipline? My hope for our campus is to see the collaborative projects described above come to life as our writing culture at Oregon State continues to grow.


By WIC Team

For each spring WIC newsletter, we ask undergraduates who have won a WIC Culture of Writing Award to share writing advice with students following in their major. From time to time we also ask past winners who are several years out of OSU to tell us about writing in the workplace. Claire Ranit, graduate from the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, won a Culture of Writing Award in 2012 for her paper titled “The Interplay of Accountable Care Organizations and Antitrust Regulations.” We asked Claire several questions about where she is now and what writing advice she would give fellow writers.

Ranit explained, “Currently I have my own healthcare consulting business with one large grant-based, multi-year contract as a Project Director and a few other small contracts intermittently.  My main work focuses on teaching a three county community on ACEs, Trauma Theory, and Trauma Informed Care. Writing is required daily in my role as Project Director including but not limited to strategic plan development, proposal development, and grant proposals.”

“My advice to undergraduates in the College of Public Health is to start as early as possible in the term on any writing projects.  Get an outline together in the first couple weeks of the course and start drafting work.  Most instructors are willing to look over multiple iterations of a written work so by the end of the term there is no need to cram and you can be confident in receiving a high grade on your work.”

“Having learned how to write proposals would have been beneficial in the program, especially in the healthcare field.  A lot of graduates work with doctors on some level and it’s important to be able to present the whole picture succinctly.  Early on I adopted the SBAR (situation, background, assessment, recommendation) framework and expanded on details where needed.”

We want to thank Ranit for her excellent advice and encourage our WIC faculty to begin watching for student papers of distinction. Details on nominating student papers for 2017 WIC Culture of Writing Awards will appear in our Winter 2017 Newsletter.

By Natalie Saleh, (MA 2016, SWLF) WIC Intern

Sally Hacker is a community ecologist and professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at Oregon State University. Among other research and teaching responsibilities, Dr. Hacker developed and co-instructs a 15-credit marine biology WIC course (BI 450 Marine Biology), which is offered every spring at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon. Admission to BI 450 Marine Biology is competitive; students who are accepted into the course live in Newport for the term and take only this one class. In the following excerpts from a longer interview with WIC program intern Natalie Salah, Dr. Hacker discusses her background as a community ecologist, the structure of BI 450, and the kinds of writing students do in this course.


Natalie Saleh: Can you give a brief explanation of what you do as a community ecologist?

Sally Hacker: As a marine community ecologist, I look at how species interact with one another in natural systems on the coast. My current research focuses on the role of species interactions and coastal oceanography in structuring coastal ecosystems including rocky shores, estuaries, and sand dunes. In other words, I study how the physical forces from the ocean influence the ecology on the shoreline.

NS: What inspired you to study community ecology?

SH: I was inspired when I was an undergraduate at the University of Washington. I was really interested in marine biology and ended up going out to Friday Harbor Marine Labs up in the San Juan Islands. I really liked studying animals and working in coastal habitats and being outside. I fell in love with community ecology and ended up going on to graduate school and choosing it as my life’s work.

NS: How long have you been at Oregon State?

SH: I have been here for 11 years. Before coming to OSU, I was a faculty member at Washington State University in Vancouver, Washington.

NS: Can you tell me about the WIC course you teach?

Spring 2015 BI 450 students at the top of Cascade Head near Lincoln City, Oregon.
Spring 2015 BI 450 students at the top of Cascade Head near Lincoln City, Oregon.

SH: Marine Biology (BI 450) is a WIC class where students spend the term at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. The class is divided into six one- to two-week sections, which focus on different topics and are taught by different faculty. The topics covered in the course are marine invertebrates, marine fishes, marine algae, community ecology, marine conservation, and a final research project of the students’ choosing. I teach the first two weeks, which focuses on marine invertebrates, and the last two weeks, which focuses on the final project.

In the last two weeks, the students take all the knowledge they have gained during the prior eight weeks to design their own research project. The projects involve some kind of research outside in the field or inside the laboratory. The students collect data, and then they write a scientific paper based on that data. Then they present their projects to the class, and we invite everyone from Hatfield to come for their presentations.

NS: What does the average day look like for students in BI 450?

SH: Oh, it’s really long. It depends, but we are often in the field by 6 a.m, if that is when the low tides are. Fieldwork might include walking around, identifying species, collecting some of them to bring back to the lab, taking notes. We might spend two or three hours out there.

The rest of the day usually includes a couple of lectures and a few hours of lab work. Sometimes at night, there are special lectures. We will have somebody come in and talk about their work or their research or about what it’s like to be in graduate school. During the first week, we schedule a lot of evening activities so that people can get to know each other.

The course instructors are always beat by the end of our two weeks of teaching. We’re basically working all day long, and there’s no time to do anything other than be part of that teaching experience. But after our two weeks, the students are still there. They love it, but it’s pretty intense. They’re really devoting ten weeks of their life to that class, away from Corvallis, not being around their friends. But most people who do it say it’s the best class they ever took at OSU.

NS: What kinds of writing do students do in BI 450?

“The students always have notebooks out in the field too…writing their observations down on paper can help quite a bit in learning about the species.”

SH: They do all kinds of writing, but the major formal assignment is a scientific paper about their final project. To do that, we teach them how to write different parts of the paper in each section of the course, so by the time they actually write their papers they know what they are doing.

We also have them write an op-ed in the conservation section of the course, about a topic they are interested in. They have to take a side and write an opinion about the topic. This is a really different writing style than scientific writing, so it gets them out of their comfort zone.

We have a blog for this course, and students are responsible every week for writing a blog post in which they reflect on what happened that week. It is informal writing; the only requirement is that they write about their experiences in the course, try to spell things correctly, and make sure it is PG-13!The blog is really fun for the professors too, because you can find out what the students are up to in the sections you aren’t teaching.

The course involves a lot of memorization of species names. To help with this, one instructor has the students make ID cards. She gives them a certain group of marine algae that they have to work with, and then they have to teach the other students about that group of algae, using the ID cards.

The students always have notebooks out in the field to record their observations. Just taking notes is a skill, especially when it’s pouring down rain. Taking the time to observe something about a given species and write their observations down on paper can help quite a bit in learning about the species.

NS: Going back to the formal writing assignment, can you give some examples of final projects students have done?

Photo 2 (1)
BI 450 students also keep journals where they draw and write about species they encounter during their fieldwork.

SH: They do all kinds of projects. The Hatfield visitors’ center has a resident octopus living in one of the tanks. It is really popular. Students have done projects looking at how octopuses find and determine whether something is prey. For example, one project involved trying to trick an octopus with a plastic crab versus a real crab to see if the octopus can detect which is which. The octopus of course picks the real crab, because octopuses are really smart.

Other students have investigated limpet feeding or fish foraging behavior in the intertidal zone. Also there are a lot of projects looking at crabs—where they live, their habitat preferences, and how they avoid being eaten. And there have been projects about the behavior of mother and baby seals. Students will look at harbor seals and examine how often the baby seals feed. Some students have looked at whether seals are scared by boats or are disturbed by people.

NS: What advantages do you see about writing the scientific paper in such a condensed time frame?

SH: I think it gives students a sense of accomplishment to be able to complete a research project from start to finish in two weeks. It’s a culminating project, pulling from all they have learned over the prior eight weeks of the course about how to do research, write a research paper, and give a talk. My experience is that they are excited to finally sit down and write their own paper on the discoveries they have made. All the preparation they have had for that moment unleashes a sense of independence and accomplishment that is great to see as a professor.

NS: In what ways do students help each other on the final project?

SH: They can work in groups of up to three (some do work alone though) and they help each other with all aspects of the project from writing the proposal to collecting data to analyzing their data to reading each other’s work. But they are all responsible for their own papers in the end.

NS: How do you think the genres that aren’t typical in science fields, like the blogs, help students learn the course concepts?

SH: I think it helps them a lot, because they are not pressured by getting the writing right. They are just thinking about communicating something to somebody else.

NS: What do you think is the main advantage of taking the 15-credit marine biology course as opposed to more traditional classes at OSU?

SH: What people have told me is that they benefit from being immersed in marine biology all the time. The students don’t have anything else to think about but this class. The class is also split up into sections, and once a section is done, it’s done. I think students quickly realize that that’s a really good way to learn, because they are not thinking about multiple topics and trying to get many different projects done at the same time.

They also meet so many people at the marine lab. There are many people who work for the state and the federal agencies, so students get to meet people who can help them potentially get a job, further their career, or help with their research. It really benefits the students once they leave OSU.

To learn more about what students are doing at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, read the BI 450 Marine Biology blog here: http://www.marinebio450.blogspot.com/