Miranda’s dissertation (UBC, 2018) bridges traditional botany research on the study of how cells work with the scholarship of teaching and learning. Seeking to improve the learning of undergraduates in developing problem solving and scientific writing skills, she included a discipline-based education research in a disciplinary doctoral dissertation.

Mapping Xylan Biosynthesis in Plant Golgi and Teaching Biology Using Example Answers

Non-traditional content: chapter on teaching and learning in a botany dissertation. 

Non-traditional mentors/collaborators: teaching faculty.

Could you describe your dissertation topic to us? In what ways was your dissertation non-traditional/innovative in your field?

A large part of my thesis was devoted to very traditional cell biology research typical of my department. Specifically, I was investigating the structure and organization of the part of the cell that makes complex carbohydrates for plant cell walls. However, another part of my research focused on studying how we can better support the learning of undergraduate biology students in developing complex problem solving and scientific writing skills. The inclusion of this kind of discipline-based education research in a disciplinary doctoral dissertation had not been attempted in my department before. Integrating these disparate areas of research in my dissertation was challenging, but both are included in the title of my thesis, in the abstract, and the final conclusion chapter. In this last chapter I also discussed the synergistic benefits of combining disciplinary and education research, as my biology research helped inform my teaching, and the teaching research helped me in communicating my biology research.

As you conceived to follow this path, what was the reaction of the key actors in your university (such as your supervisor, committee, department, other)? Did you receive any resistance?

I was fortunate that my supervisor was very supportive of teaching training and education research. However, I do not think this work would have been officially evaluated as part of my thesis without the explicit support of the faculty of graduate studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC). While my supervisor, committee and department were open minded, and often expressed genuine interest and respect for the work I was doing, I think it was my involvement in an official UBC program that lent real legitimacy to my work in the eyes of my mentors and colleagues.

Despite this support however, I continued to experience an uncomfortable tension when I would devote time, or energy to my teaching research. I believe much of this tension was based on my own perception of what my committee and department valued most rather than their actual stated beliefs and opinions. Because of this potential conflict, I often found it challenging to talk freely and openly about my teaching research in academic settings. To help overcome this, I made a concerted effort to always include my teaching research in my discussions with my supervisor, at committee meetings, in my departmental exit seminar, and when attending biology conferences. I feel like this helped reinforce in my mind, and for others, that this non-traditional aspect of my thesis was an important and valuable aspect of my research.

How do you think your non-traditional dissertation helped you develop professional competencies and prepared you for academic/non-academic career prospects?

Conducting education research involves a very different set of skills than the cell biology research traditional in my field. For example, I became proficient in research involving human subjects, conducting surveys and interviews, working with teaching teams and other stakeholders in real-world classrooms, and performing various quantitative and qualitative analyses of data. This research also helped me broaden my professional network, helping me make connections with instructors and education researchers locally, nationally and internationally. Furthermore, the fact that education research was officially included and evaluated as part of my thesis, is proof of my serious scholarly interest in this topic to potential employers. As such, I believe have become much better prepared for careers in fields involving education research and/or teaching, whether that be as a researcher or instructor at an academic institution, or working in science communication, publishing, or public outreach.

Did you face any challenges regarding the evaluation of your dissertation (such as from the external examiner)?

The evaluation of my thesis was challenging, as the examiners (internal and external) were expert cell biologists, but were not experts in the area of education research. As such, it was important to me and my supervisor, to select examiners who were experienced teachers, and could apply that lens in evaluating my research. By doing this, I believe we avoided more serious pushback from examiners who might have taken issue with the non-traditional aspects of my thesis.

What would you have done differently if you could do it all over again? What advice do you have for doctoral students who would like to produce a non-traditional dissertation?

Find, or build, a cohort of likeminded people – mentors, colleagues, friends etc. Attend conference, workshops, courses and other events to make connections. These are the people that you can ask for advice, who will cheerlead your progress, and support you in the non-traditional aspects of your degree.

Talk about your work as often as possible! Make sure people in your field, and outside of it, are aware of what you are doing and why it is important. Don’t try and hide the fact that you’re doing something different. Make it easy for other people to tell that your dissertation is bringing something unique to your field.

It is always challenging to do something new, and I was fortunate to have people help me with many aspects of my education research which were initially extremely foreign to me. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and work to broaden your horizons, as help can come from surprising and unfamiliar places.

Do you have additional comments?

I would encourage all graduate students to make their dissertation work for them. Think about the things that interest you, and the skills you want to develop, and how you might include these in your work. This can make your experience in grad school more rewarding, and help you get where you want to go.