Applications are now open for the 2021-2022 Cohort

Applications for the McCall MacBain Postdoctoral Fellows in Teaching and Leadership Program are open and are due on August 18 at 5pm! Applications are simple – submit your CV and a cover letter explaining why you would like to be a part of the program. Apply here. We will be doing short, follow-up interviews on August 23 and 24th.

The McCall MacBain Postdoctoral Fellows in Teaching and Leadership Program is a training program that started in Winter 2020. The program provides Postdoctoral Fellows with the opportunity to develop their teaching and leadership skills through workshops, readings, and experiential learning activities. This is an excellent opportunity to build your network of other like-minded researchers and gain vital teaching skills pertinent to getting a faculty position. The first two years of the program were open to only Faculty of Science Postdoctoral Fellows, but we have opened to program to Humanities, Engineering and Health Sciences starting in Fall 2021.

Participation in the program will occur on Thursdays from 10am-3pm every week in the Fall 2020 and Winter 2021 terms. As of right now, participation will be fully online but may transition to in-person if we can safely do so. 

Participation involves attending Journal Club meetings on Education Cognition, workshops focused on evidence-based teaching strategies, workshops on developing leadership skills, as well as capstone projects where you will use your new leadership and education skills. The projects include writing an Op-Ed on your research (see past members published Op-Eds here).

Our postdoctoral fellows have already gone on to achieve incredible things; over 25% of our Postdoctoral Fellows have secured Faculty positions. 

Dennis Kolosov will be joining California State University as an Assistant Professor. 

"For postdocs who are thinking of taking the program – do it, take the plunge! It is an amazingly immersive experience, and I truly believe that my participation in this program can at least in part be credited with landing me interviews and finally a tenure-track job at California State University." – Dennis Kolosov

 Patrick Clancy is an Assistant Professor at McMaster University.

"I would strongly recommend the McCall MacBain program to any postdoc at McMaster who has an interest in teaching or educational research. It was a fantastic experience and a great introduction to the teaching and learning community here at Mac. I've started a new teaching-focused position in the Department of Physics & Astronomy and hope to be involved in the program again." – Patrick Clancy

 To participate in this program, we will need to gain approval from your supervisor. To incentivize your supervisor's participation, the Faculty of Science will reimburse your supervisor 20% of your Fall and Winter term stipend (to refund one day of work). We recommend that you talk with your supervisor before applying, but we will also ask permission once you have applied.

To learn more about the new program, we invite you to attend an informational event on Thursday, August 12, from 2-3pm at this link. The event's goal is to gather a group of interested postdoctoral fellows, discuss potential research ideas, and answer any questions about the program. 

For further information, email Connie Imbault (; Program Manager and Research Coordinator of the program)

We hope to see you there!

Postdoc Spotlight: Rodrigo Narro Pérez

How scientists are using drones to lower the risk of catastrophic flooding from large glacial lakes

View of Llaca Lake, in Peru, taken from an un-crewed aerial vehicle. (Rodrigo Narro Pérez), Author provided
Rodrigo Narro Pérez, McMaster University

Early in the morning on Dec. 13, 1941, the citizens of Huaraz, Peru, heard a terrifying rumble echo across the valley. Within minutes, a torrent of water, ice and rocks had poured over the city, destroying a third of it and killing at least 2,000 people.

The natural dam of rocks and loose sediment that had held back Lake Palcacocha had failed. Eighty years later, its collapse remains one of Peru’s most tragic natural disasters.

This type of catastrophic event is known as a “glacial lake outburst flood.” Glacial lakes, such as those found throughout the Cordillera Blanca in the Andean mountain range, are often dammed by glacial moraines that can reach heights of over 100 metres. They are impressive, but they are often unstable.

Heavy rainfall and rock, snow or ice avalanches can raise water levels in moraine-dammed glacial lakes, generating waves that overtop the moraine dam or cause it to collapse, releasing huge amounts of water. These natural disasters are only expected to become more common in Peru — and around the world as climate warming melts glaciers at historically unprecedented rates.

Predicting future floods

This dark history has spurred international research into the stability of the moraines damming Peru’s glacial lakes. The Cordillera Blanca in northern Peru contains the highest concentration of tropical glaciers in the world. Predicting when these outburst floods will occur — and how destructive they will be — is of enormous concern to the over 320,000 people who live downstream.

Twisted steel beams near a picnic table.
The twisted remains of a steel bridge destroyed by a glacial lake outburst flood in Iceland in 1996. (Chris 73/Wikimedia Commons), CC BY-SA

Geological engineering models use variables such as the size and volume of the lake, height, width and slope of the moraine dam, and channel and valley dimensions to estimate the stability of the moraine dam and the risk of flood. Unfortunately, these models don’t include much information about the composition of the moraine dam, which can vary signifcantly depending on on its location and mode of formation.

My research, part of a collaboration between McMaster University and Peru’s National Institute for Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems (INAIGEM), focuses on establishing the origin of these moraine dams and the physical characteristics of the dams and the lakes they hold back. These features can have considerable influence on the stability of the dam and its potential for failure.

Using UAV to understand the structure of moraine dams

Glaciers create moraines by transporting, depositing and pushing boulders, sands and fine-grained silts and clays along the valley floor and adjacent valley walls, often forming a barrier. But one moraine may be much more stable than another, depending on the materials it contains and how it is formed.

Water may leak through weak points in the moraine’s stacked layers, taking sediment with it, or loose rocks may fall after a disturbance such as an earthquake. These weak points make a complete collapse of the moraine dam more likely. Locating these weak points is an important step in predicting the stability of the lake dams and can allow geoscientists and engineers to design more effective remediation strategies.

My colleagues and I are analyzing the architecture of large lateral moraines, which form along the sides of glaciers, in southern Iceland using un-crewed aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) to collect high-resolution images. We use these images to identify and classify areas of coarse- and fine-grained sediment that may form zones of water leakage and sediment removal and cause the dam to fail. We’ve planned similar high resolution UAV surveys of moraine dams in the Cordillera Blanca for early 2022.

The research will enhance the reliability of predictive models to identify potential glacial lake flood hazards. It will also identify areas where remediation work, such as the building of additional outlet channels or armoured barriers, is most needed to strengthen the moraine.

people standing on a dam overlooking a glacial lake
Remediation work done at Llaca Lake, Peru, in 1977 included building a dam. (Rodrigo Narro Pérez), Author provided

This will be particularly important as glaciers melt more quickly, the volume of water held by these natural moraine dams builds, and the destructive power of floods also continues to increase. A recent study by researchers at the University of Calgary showed that the volume of water in glacial lakes has increased by 50 per cent globally since 1990.

Since the beginning of the 19th century, an estimated 165 moraine-dammed glacial lake outburst floods have occurred. In addition, approximately 12,000 deaths worldwide can be attributed directly to glacier floods.

Our research in Peru will provide new insights into moraine dam stability that can be applied to other regions, such as Bolivia, the Himalayas and the Canadian Rockies, which are also experiencing an increased risk of glacial lake outburst floods as climate warming continues to melt glaciers.The Conversation

Rodrigo Narro Pérez, PhD Candidate, School of Earth, Environment and Society, McMaster University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Postdoc Spotlight: Dr. Kate Whalen

Beginners 101: How to confront and overcome the discomfort of starting something new

Turning experience into learning requires reflection. (Aaron Burden/Unsplash)
Kate Whalen, McMaster University

COVID-19 catapulted our society on a mass scale into the online environment, and often we weren’t prepared. Many of us were forced to equip ourselves with new skills and tackle new challenges.

For instance, beyond changing how we worked, some of us also had to cope with the prospect or reality of being Zoom bombed or scammed online.

Beginning something new and confronting new circumstances requires us to bear the discomfort of being a beginner. It necessitates experiential learning — any learning that happens when we intentionally consider our experience to be a source for a potential lesson.

Research insights into how students learn through experience can benefit anyone who is facing the discomfort of new learning.

What is experiential learning?

Turning experience into learning requires reflection. Reflection is a process of thinking critically to create meaning from our experiences.

As an example, consider the experience of your first Zoom call, whether this was during the pandemic or before. Think about how you felt before you clicked the link, the concerns you had when your internet froze or your kids appeared, and how you adapted. Maybe you increased your internet bandwidth, introduced your colleagues to your kids and found the mute button. That’s reflection, and the benefit of considering what we can learn from our experience and how we can apply what we learn going forward.

When I developed and tested a tool to help guide, assess and evaluate how students learn through experience, I found that learners describe reflection as “a positive challenge.” Other research has found learners experienced it as rewarding but challenging.

A worker standing on scaffolding.
The term ‘scaffolding’ refers to supports that help people progressively gain independence and mastery in what they are learning. (Jay Ee/Unsplash)

Being a beginner is most difficult and uncomfortable when what a person needs to learn seems far beyond their reach, and they don’t have the experiential scaffolding to support their learning. This can make learning ineffective. However, if a person perceives a challenge as hard but within reach, they may be motivated to take the steps needed to get there.

In construction, scaffolding helps builders reach new heights. In education, the term “scaffolding” refers to supports that help people progressively gain independence and mastery in what they are learning. Reflection, while a positive challenge, can help us learn and and succeed.

Realizing what we learned

While studying the important role reflection plays in helping us learn through our experiences, I found that reflecting on our experiences seems to make information more available for use. In the words of one of my student research participants, “reflection didn’t make me learn more, it just made me realize what I had learned.”

There is value in explicitly knowing what you know – you can use what you know to put your new challenges within reach.

Used as a tool for leveraging our experiences as scaffolding for learning, reflection can help us take full advantage of novel situations. It could propel us into conscious competence: this is when our competence is grounded in knowing that we can easily troubleshoot, find useful information and learn effectively.

5 tips for beginners

Whether your current work has evolved during the pandemic or is new altogether, here’s a list of things that can help you effectively use reflection to help learn something new:

Get clear on what you know and what you need to know. Use what you know and leverage the skills, abilities and resources that you have to help you tackle the challenges ahead.

Consider your past experiences. How can they help you navigate this new situation? What lessons can you apply right away?

Tap into your emotions. Identify your feelings and what biases, values or intentions are underneath. Without agonizing over it, consider how these feelings may be helping or hindering you.

Read more: How we think about our past experiences affects how we can help others

Take a step back. Try to see the situation from a distance or as if it were someone else’s. What else can you see and learn from this perspective? From this vantage, how could the outcome be improved?

Make a plan. Answer the following questions, in order, to set goals and plan for success: What’s the next action to move you forward? How will you feel once it’s done? What outcome do you expect? What could derail your plan and what will you do to ensure it doesn’t stop you?

Whether it’s transitioning to a new job or industry, helping our children with their online homework or learning how to screen-share during video conferences, we must treat our new experiences as welcome opportunities to learn, and embrace the discomfort of being beginners.The Conversation

Kate Whalen, Instructor, Sustainable future program, McMaster University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Postdoc Spotlight: Dr. Leanne Grieves

Birds sniff out potential mates who are genetically different

Scent plays an important role in how birds choose their mates. (Shutterstock)
Leanne Grieves, McMaster University

I’ll never forget the heady scent of Cindy, my first major crush. Sometimes, I catch a whiff of her Hawaiian Ginger Body Mist perfume and I’m transported 15 years back in time and straight into a darkened club. Calgon, take me away.

Many of us have experienced the power of a nostalgic scent triggering our memories. Of course, our sense of smell doesn’t only serve to remind us of our long-lost loves. Smell can inform us of the presence of enticing food nearby, or it can warn us of dangerous toxins in the environment. We can even smell when our companions are ill.

Our body odour is affected by many factors. The food we eat, our stress levels, if we are healthy or sick, the bacteria and fungi that naturally live on our bodies and even our genetic makeup can all affect the way we smell.

Avian body scent

But what does this have to do with birds?

Much like the phrase “blind as a bat” (bats can see quite well, thank you), there is a persistent myth that birds can’t smell. In the 1820s, artist and ornithologist John James Audubon wrongly claimed that vultures use sight over smell to find food. Audubon’s conclusions were flawed, but the myth lingers on.

An illustration of two vultures with the head of a calf.
Ornithologist John James Audubon’s illustration of two black vultures. Audubon conducted experiments that falsely indicated that vultures relied on sight rather than smell. (National Gallery of Art)

Researchers have shown that birds use smell to do all sorts of things, like find food, avoid predators, protect their nests, distinguish relatives from nonrelatives and identify their parents.

Our feathered friends have a special preen gland at the base of their tail. When birds rub the gland with their beak, it releases preen oil, which they groom themselves with. Preen oil helps waterproof and protect feathers from damage, but it is also a major source of bird body odour.

Does a bird’s body odour have a purpose? I wanted to know whether birds feel attracted to each other because of how they smell, like I did with Cindy’s perfume.

By gently squeezing the preen gland, I collected preen oil from a common North American bird called the song sparrow (Melospiza melodia melodia), brought them in to captivity, and gave them a choice between preen oil from males and females. Males spent more time with preen oil from females, and females spent more time with preen oil from males, suggesting that birds prefer the smell of the opposite sex. This is probably because the sparrows were looking for mates to start a family with.

A sparrow preening on a beach
Birds groom themselves by rubbing preen oil over their feathers with their beaks. (Shutterstock)

Smell the difference

Birds, like humans, are more likely to raise a healthy family if their mate is genetically unrelated to them. But how can we assess whether a potential partner is a good genetic match?

Our B.O. may hold the key.

Believe it or not, in the 1990s, researchers convinced a group of women to rate their preferences for the smell of men’s dirty shirts. This “sweaty t-shirt experiment” showed that women prefer the B.O. of men who are genetically different from themselves.

Read more: The smelly truth about romantic relationships and health

More recently, researchers showed that there is a link between bird scent and bird genes, suggesting that genetically dissimilar birds smell different than genetically similar birds.

I wanted to know whether birds, like humans, prefer the odour of genetically dissimilar partners, so I designed my own sweaty t-shirt experiment. I gave female song sparrows a choice between preen oil from males who were more or less genetically similar to themselves. Just like in the human study, female birds preferred the smell of genetically dissimilar males.

What’s more, I gave male birds the same test and got the same result: males preferred the smell of genetically dissimilar females.

Birds and humans both prefer the scent of a genetically different partner. This can help us ensure our offspring are healthy and able to fight off harmful pathogens.The Conversation

Leanne Grieves, McCall MacBain Postdoctoral Fellow, Dept. of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour, McMaster University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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