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How we elected a new chair for the Biology Department

22 Jun

pennie-chairA few months ago, our department needed to elect a new chair. I was part of the election committee and I couldn’t find much useful information online on how to elect a chair. Now that we have done it, I thought I share how we did it!

Finding candidates to run for chair and volunteers for the election committee

The associate chair for HRTP send out an email to ask who would like to run for chair and to ask who would like to sit on the election committee.

Fairly quickly, four people said they wanted to run for chair, but only few people wanted to be on the election committee. The associate chair for HRTP then sent out a second email to ask for volunteers, letting everyone know that there were not yet enough volunteers. Quickly, people volunteered and we had a committee of 5 (4 women, 1 man, 3 full, 1 associate and 1 assistant prof, one URM).

Setting deadlines

The election committee met a few times. We agreed that we wanted to try to  to make the election as much as possible about the future of the department and not a popularity contest. We also needed to do things quickly because of university deadlines.

The committee quickly decided on some deadlines:

  1. a deadline for people to let us know that they were running for chair
  2. a deadline for the candidates to send us two pages with their vision / plan for the department (to be shared with people in the department)
  3. a deadline for everyone else in the department to send in questions for the candidates (to be asked at the town hall department meeting).
  4. a day for a department meeting devoted to getting to know the plans of the candidates (town hall)
  5. a day for the ballots to be due

Someone from the election committee also talked to the dean of the college about how we could support our new chair. The dean agreed that the department could spend money on hiring a part-time lab tech for the new chair. I think it was useful that this conversation happened before the election, and also that the candidates themselves didn’t have to do this.

Instant-runoff voting

The election committee decided to use the method of instant-runoff voting for the election.

Instant-runoff voting allows everyone to vote for their favorite candidate. Everybody also indicates a second, third etc choice. Initially, only first choices are counted. If one candidate has more than 50% of the first choice votes, then this candidate wins. If no one has more than 50% of the votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. For all ballots that had this candidate as their first choice, the second choice now counts. Votes are counted again and if someone has more than 50% of the votes, than that person wins. If not, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated again. The process continues until there is a winner.

Here’s an example of how this could work. Imagine, Hillary, Bernie and Trump all ran against each other. Bernie gets 10%, Hillary 44% and Trump also 46% of the votes in the first round. In the “normal” system, Trump would win and the Hillary voters would blame the Bernie voters for letting a Republican win the election. In the instant-runoff system, however, we would notice that no one has more than 50%, so we go to the second round. Bernie is eliminated because he has the fewest votes, and since most Bernie voters likely ranked Hillary second and Trump third, these votes are transferred to Hillary, allowing her to win in the second round with 54% of the votes.

A town hall meeting with all candidates

Questions from the department were compiled and forwarded anonymously to the candidates to help them prepare for the discussion at the faculty meeting. Specifically, lecturers and faculty were asked to create questions that could be answered by all of the candidates, rather than individual questions for just one candidate.

At the department meeting devoted to the election, our four candidates gave a short presentation (5 minutes each) on how they would run the department and what their plans were for the department. After these presentations, someone from the election committee asked the candidates a selection of the questions that had been sent in by our colleagues (around 45 minutes). Finally, there was time for a spontaneous Q&A session (around 10 minutes). Many colleagues let us know that they found this meeting extremely useful and interesting.

Counting the ballots!

A week after the town hall meeting, the ballots were due. Late that afternoon, three of us spent a few hours counting. Our task was somewhat complicated because of the instant-runoff system and also because many people in our department teach part-time and their votes are weighted by how much they teach.

All tenured and tenure-track faculty will have one vote; .

All four candidates had strong support in the department and we needed all rounds of the instant run-off to determine who had won.

My personal conclusion

I think the election went well. The atmosphere was collegial and I think that the process worked well.

Being on this election committee was a really fun experience!

The others on the committee were Jennifer Breckler, Carmen Domingo, Gretchen LeBuhn and Vance Vredenburg.

Supplementary material: Instant runoff explanation on the ballot

We are electing a new chair for the biology department. The 2017 chair election committee decided to conduct an election using a method called “instant runoff” or “ranked choice voting.” In case you are not familiar with this concept, we include here a short description. This reference is also helpful.  

Each voter will receive only one ballot. The ballot will ask the voter to rank the 4 candidates. (i.e. first choice, second, third, fourth). Voters have the option to rank as many or as few candidates as they wish. Candidates can not share rankings (i.e. you should rank only one person as first choice candidate, one second choice candidate, etc.). First choices are then tabulated. If one candidate obtains the MAJORITY of first-place votes (i.e. greater than 50%) then he/she wins the election. If no one receives a majority, then a “runoff” is necessary. The candidate who received the fewest first choice rankings is eliminated from the ballot. All ballots are then re-tabulated using each voter’s highest ranked candidate who is still in the race. Specifically, voters who had chosen the now-eliminated candidate will now have their ballots added to the totals of their second choice candidate — just as if they were voting in a second election — but all other voters get to continue supporting their first-choice candidate who remains in the race. The person with the majority vote wins. If another runoff is needed, the weakest candidates are successively eliminated and their voters’ ballots are added to the totals of their next choice candidate. Once the field is reduced to ONLY two candidates, the candidate with the majority of votes wins. 


Drawing faces to help my memory

20 Jun

I just came across this old draft post on making drawings to help me remember people and stories. The pencil drawings are from the very first week I spent at SFSU when I was overwhelmed with all the new names and faces. The tablet drawing is from a recent seminar in our department.

2014-09-08 15.10.18

Meg Gorzycki, Faculty Development SFSU 

2014-09-08 15.10.49

Sue Rosser, former SFSU provost

2014-09-08 15.10.39

Luoluo Hong, Vice President of Student Affairs & Enrollment Management

Amanda Delatorre Talk Feb 2017_0

Notes from Amanda de la Torres seminar at SFSU.

How financial instability and undocumented citizenship hone my problem solving skills

9 May

Note: This blog post was written by an undergraduate student in San Francisco. 

There have been many times where the stress of financial instability has fogged up my mind and kept me from studying, working on assignments, or attending class. There are days I feel so hopeless all I can do is stay in bed and wallow in my penniless state of being.

In the future see myself in a research lab

However, that is not how you achieve a PhD degree. Ambition gets me through those dark times, as long and dark as they may be, discovery keeps me intrigued and in school. In the future see myself in a research lab, at a colloquium, or a seminar discussing findings with my colleagues, having a regular office job is simply not an option. That is the reason I am here, that is the reason my family stayed in America way past their wishes, so I could attend an American college and pursue my dreams.

How will I pay my rent, what’s free to eat?

Coming into my third year here at SF State, I completely lost any stable source of income. This is due to my undocumented status. I am Dreamer, and recently my work permit expired, leaving me with no chance at attaining a job. Studying biology while lacking funds really makes college much more complicated. Daily stress accumulates from sources like how will I pay my rent, what’s free to eat, or when is that next assignment due. 8-hour school days with no money to buy coffee or spending 5 hours on one question when you can easily get help from a Chegg subscription are constant reminders of my current situation. I have not been able to afford a textbook for years, and the luxury of new school supplies is one that stayed in high school. You cannot take out student loans as a Dream Student, nor can you borrow money from banks when you have no credit and illegal citizenship status. I leave my house and risk the chance that I might get deported. Some might say I should be a lot more stressed then I am, but I personally believe that you make your own reality, and suffering is not part of mine.

I will make discoveries one day

So how is it that I survive? Sometimes I think have to work twice as hard to figure out those extra problems that come with being financially strapped. How will I print my essay without any money to use the printers? Sometimes I secretly sneak into the biology graduate lab and print what I need to print. How will I afford the lab manual and supplies I need for lab? You ask everyone you know while searching Facebook book trade groups for hours until you find what you need. How do you pay for the bus is you don’t have the fare? Bus drivers usually let you on if you put whatever’s in your pocket in the machine. There’s a billion ways to make canned chicken taste good. If you message ticket scalpers the day of you might be able to score free tickets to the concert. I may not be able to afford a new laptop at the moment, but I will be the one discovering models for gene regulation and health disparities one day. When there’s a will there are ways. I can testify to the notions that anything is possible if you just believe the outcome to be plausible. The most creatively brilliant ideas sprout when you have no choice but to think outside of the box.

I know I will be a good research scientist

For all the reasons described above, I know I will be such a good research scientist; I have been forced to think outside the box when traditional methods will not work for my situation. The confidence that I will love and excel in my career keeps me in school rather than searching for financial stability. My problem solving skills have reached an extremely high level. Finding money to survive has been tricky, but it has taught me a lot about problem solving, appreciating what I have, and realizing what I truly need.


Making stop motion videos in a genetics class

23 Apr

2017-04-17 09.49.23

Last week, the students in my genetics class made stop motion videos. They had to do some preparation as homework (mainly thinking about a topic), but other than that, they just had 50 minutes to make a movie. I expected that most would not finish it in that time, but they get extra credit if they finish it at home.

From my colleague Kimberly Tanner from the Science Education Partnership and Assessment Laboratory (SEPAL), I have learned to collect feedback from students very often during the semester, so I asked them: Did you learn from Monday’s class?

Probably 90 students made a stop motion video in the two sections of my genetics class on Monday. 54 of them wrote feedback on Wednesday. 32 of 54 (59%) thought they learned something about genetics!

32 students felt like they learned something about genetics

2017-04-20 09.15.38

6 students thought it was “just review”

I think that review is very useful!

2017-04-20 09.13.12

8 students felt like they learned about how to make a stop motion video

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8 students felt like they didn’t learn anything

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Will I do this again?

Yes! Definitely!

But I may talk to students more about how this exercise will benefit their learning and encourage students to pick a topic they would like to review.



I drew an animation video

15 Apr

Evolutionary rescue and soft sweeps

A drawn animation movie! When I was a kid I wanted to work for Disney, so this is a dream come (a little bit) true!

The paper is here.


Marching for science with colleagues and students

14 Apr


On executive orders and protest fatigue

5 Feb

Poster by Shephard Fairey / via Amplifier Foundation

This thoughtful post was written by my friend Arne Bakker who works at Stanford. He allowed me to post it here. Pleuni

So, I spent part of my night listening to legal experts of the Stanford Law School discussing the impact of 3 recent executive orders by President Trump. It was pretty impressive, with some of the top legal scholars of the country being present. I learned about Executive Order #1 (by Lincoln), and about an Executive Order actually describing what an Executive Order is (Chicken, meet Egg). And I learned a lot about how these orders are affecting thousands of people inside and outside the US, which brought tears to our eyes and fear in our hearts.

But I also learned from these pretty amazing people what they think we can (and should) do:

***First, there was the positive reminder that after 9/11 the courts allowed many laws impacting civil liberties to pass because of broad ‘national security’ concerns, but that today it looks like the courts are actually resisting the policy changes from the Trump administration. Keeping my fingers crossed for that one.

***Second, there was the heartfelt plea to not just rely on the courts, but to continue calling your representatives to resist these policies and remain active and vocal in your protests. It actually works, people! These top legal experts attributed the recent changes in allowing permanent residents to enter the country and backtracking on some other provisions purely to the quick and vocal response of thousands of people after the Executive Orders went into effect less than a week ago.

***Third, they cautioned for protest fatigue. There is a real agenda for controlling the news cycle with new shock after new shock to wear us out. As someone said, don’t fall for forgetting yesterday’s news because of today’s new shocker. Think hard about what issue you deeply care about and keep track of it, even when the news cycle has moved on. Keep reminding people, give them updates on policy changes, victories and losses where you can. And don’t be upset if someone else knows less about ‘your thing’ and is vocal about a different issue that they care deeply about. Learn from them, since they will keep track of those issues and can share their knowledge with you.


If you are interested to read more on the travel ban by Stanford professors, see here: