Thursday, December 31, 2009

Blog moving to Samantha Scientist

I have committed a major blog faux-pas. I adopted a name very similar to an existing awesome female science blogger, A Lady Scientist.

So, to correct my error, I'm moving on over to a new blog, SamanthaScientist.

I've exported all my posts and comments to SamanthaScientist and will be posting over there from here on out. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Keeping up with science

In honor of the last few days of 2009, I wanted to write a post about some of the top science stories of the year. As I tried to write the post, I realized that sadly, my mind was blanking. I realized that over the last year, I have become so obsessed with finishing my degree, I have let my other interests slip away. I've let my interest slip away in science that is not my own (or so directly related to my own that I will need to reference it in my thesis). This development is not good, and needs to be remedied immediately.

In previous times when I was not so thesis obsessed, my favorite way to keep up with general science was by reading. I'd flip through Science and Nature titles, reading the ones that caught my eye. I also sometimes flipped through Physics Today, and sometimes read the science articles on Each year, I read about who won Nobel prizes and for what. (Keeping up with my field-specific science is a whole different story, that I may address in a post some other time.)

To keep up with science, I also previously attended way too many scientific talks. That's one of the hazards of being interdiciplinary. As a biophysicist, I felt pressure to go to all of the physics, biochemistry, biology, and optics talks at my university. And that easily added up to an average of more than one talk per day. More recently, I've practically boycotted all talks unless they directly related to my science or to potential post-doc interests. Previously I went to too many talks; now I go to too few.

So, for this year, I guess all I have is a lesson learned. A year of obsession is too long, and too much passes you by. This year I just kept thinking, another few weeks and this will be done and I can go back to my normal life. But it hasn't happened yet, so I need to back off a bit and find a better balance between my uber-focused thesis work and maintaining my interest in science in general. I need to choose a reasonable number of talks to attend, and I need to go back to my browsing of Science and Nature articles. Then maybe next year, I can post a good year in review.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Outfit of the Week

Inspired by Isis Shoe of the week, and FrauTech's "Wear to Work Wednesdays."

Outfit of the Week. To fulfill my yearning for fashion.

First, the scarf I'm loving, which is the inspiration for this outfit.

The simple tank shown with the scarf is perfect.

Then the jeans.

The shoes.

The jacket.

And the bag.

Perfection. For Friday night. Not the lab. Definitely not.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Teaching, Training, and Researching

A post and comments over at FSP inspired me to post about my thoughts on teaching. One comment in particular, by Steph, coincided so exactly with my own thoughts that I wanted to quote it here:

The system is totally and completely flawed. How many professors become professors because they actually want to teach? How many are just doing the teaching because it gives them the independence to pursue whatever research they would like, unlike in an industrial or government lab setting? I think there should be more teaching professorships at undergraduate institutions and just research professorships, both of which should have respected status (unlike lecturers, who are often treated like crap, from what I hear, and are disposable). I think this is an especially good idea in these times, where educating all members of our society in basic science is important because so many scientific issues face our society these days. Why remove all potentially very good teachers from the possibility of becoming profs at R1 universities when they could do a great job and help the hard-core researchers (who just want to spend 24/7 in the lab) have more time for research? People should be able to choose research or teaching or both.

I think this comment is right on target. Steph says the system is flawed, and she questions the teaching aspirations of people who become professors. I would even add in a couple more scenarios that support this flawed-system point of view. I'll call Steph's scenario "Scenario 1". Then we have Scenario 2, professors who do aspire to become great teachers but find they don't have the time that really would be required to teach well. And finally we have Scenario 3, professors who aspire to become great teachers, but are simply atrocious teachers by nature. Scenarios 2 and 3 could easily overlap, in that a professor lacking teaching skills could learn them (as discussed in another FSP post), but these professors would need more time to commit to such a task. So that's three scenarios that would result in professors being terrible teachers: professors who don't want to teach, professors who don't have time to teach, and professors who are terrible teachers by nature.

So, what are the scenarios that would result in professors being good teachers? I can think of two. Either the universities must demand excellence in teaching for job retention, or all 3 of the above "bad teacher scenarios" must be false, i.e. professors would need to want to teach, have time to teach, and have demonstrated excellent teaching skills to obtain their professorships. And of course, neither of these "good teacher scenarios" is true for R1 professorships.

So why is our system designed this way? Why is excellence in research the only real job requirement for obtaining a prestigious professorship in R1 universities? Where did this disconnect occur between a university being a teaching/learning institution vs. a university being a research institution?

The disconnect so clearly exists. It's evident in the "silly" questions we academics are asked by our non-academic family, friends and acquaintances. Questions like "What will you do during your summer vacation?" or "When are you going to graduate and get a real job?" (Ok, that one is kind of valid when asked of a Ph.D. student such as myself, but it is somewhat tiresome to explain that actually, I'm a paid research assistant doing a real job already.) Even undergrads are mostly clueless about how their academic institution really works. And good thing, probably, or would they really want to pay the big bucks so that professors and grad students could teach them as "side work?"

As for the reason for the disconnect between universities as teaching vs. research institutions, I can guess at one excellent, but flawed, reason. The excellent, flawed reason: isn't it best to learn from the best? The flaw is, the answer is not necessarily yes. Yes, it's best to learn from the best, if the best will take the time and make the effort to teach, and if the best is not abysmal at teaching. But often the best is abysmal at teaching, simply because the best didn't struggle very much to learn in the first place, or face as many obstacles along the path to their fantastic success.

Another possible reason for the teaching/research disconnect is monetary. Money makes universities go-round, so what brings in money at universities? Research brings in money through overhead on grants. Teaching brings in money because students pay tuition. And pleased (and wealthy) alumni bring in money through donations. Public universities get money through taxes. Am I missing any monetary sources?

In any case, all the monetary sources are heavily based on reputation. A university with a good reputation brings in more research grants and higher tuition and turns out more successful (happier, wealthier, more likely to donate more money) alumni. So, what determines a university's reputation? That's a weightier question than I can deal with in detail at the moment, but reputation should have a research component (publications of faculty, awards to faculty) and a teaching component (success of students). Here's how US News and World Report does it, and it actually seems to mostly depend on previous reputation. Is there some reason reputation would be more heavily weighted on research than teaching?

Regardless of the reason, the teaching/research disconnect at universities is alive and well, and does not serve it's two masters well. The researchers are distracted and burdened by teaching that bears little consequence on their success, and the students are taught as "side work" by professors who are never even trained to teach. Call me cynical, but I think all three of the "bad teaching scenarios" are true for many professors at R1 universities. And I think the problem could be solved if we really owned up to the flaw in the "it's best to learn from the best" logic. If, as Steph suggests, teaching professorships and research professorships could be separated, we could have the best of both worlds: universities producing excellent research while simultaneously providing an excellent education to students.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

I hated science

Growing up, I hated science.

Hated science fair projects. Hated that, as a 2nd grader, I was supposed to come up with some interesting question that no one had ever answered before, even though there were professional scientists out there with decades of training and experience whose entire job was to come up with interesting ideas and ways to test those ideas.

Hated memorizing a bunch of facts that seemed disconnected, irrelevant, and not rooted in first principles or a framework as far as I could tell.

Didn't find plants or rocks all that relatable.

Always felt unsatisfied by the "scientific" answers to the questions I thought were interesting.

And then, I found physics. As a junior in high school. And finally, here was the set of first principles I'd been looking for. Here was the framework, the rules and laws. Here they were! And I could use math and the laws to predict outcomes, no less!

Did I mention that I was a junior in high school? 16 years old, and this physics class was the first time I had seen these physical principles broken down into the most basic forms. Force, mass, acceleration. Newton's laws. Friction, gravity, drag. Conservation of mass, conservation of energy. Momentum. Energy, work, power. Waves. Light and optics. Amazing.

Now, I admit. I actually didn't feel as bowled over and excited about this stuff then as I do now. I actually was still somewhat frustrated. Frustrated because even though I learned these concepts well, I still couldn't describe the physics of anything more complicated than a perfectly spherical ball flying through air. Or a cube-shaped box sliding down an incline in vacuum. But at least I had the first hint of the possibility of deriving outcomes based on first principles. This was the first hint that science might be something I could like.

And of course, later I learned more advanced physics. More mechanics with more complicated mathematical treatments. Electricity and magnetism. Modern physics and quantum mechanics. And so on and so on. And as I learned, I liked it more and more.

But something else had happened, as well. I now found I could really like chemistry, astronomy, geology, biology. Before taking physics, the other sciences seemed like a bunch of annoying facts to memorize. After physics, the other sciences made sense.

Actually, biology was the science that took the longest to make sense. I could much more easily see how mechanics, electricity and magnetism, and quantum mechanics governed the atoms, molecules and reactions in chemistry. I could see how gravity governed stars and planets and galaxies in astronomy. I could understand how pressure and temperature governed plate tectonics in geology. I'm not saying chemistry, astronomy, and geology are easy or that everything is understood, just that the application of physics is more readily discernible than in biology.

The breakthrough in biology for me finally occurred in graduate school. I started working in a biophysics lab, and I needed to learn some biochemistry, so I took an undergrad biochemistry class. And we learned about proteins. Proteins are made up of amino acids. Proteins catalyze reactions. Proteins use ATP as an energy source. Blah blah blah, same old, same old.

But wait. Here's the actual atoms that make up amino acids, and the amino acids have charge and shape and hydrophobicity, and when you assemble them into a chain that makes a protein, they fold up into a particular shape based on their *physical properties*!

And there's more! ATP is also made of atoms, specifically these three crazily charged phosphates that really don't like being so close together. And if you put together your protein and your ATP, maybe some of these physical properties conspire to add just enough energy to break off one or more of these phosphates, resulting in a tremendous release of energy that can physically kick the protein into a different shape!

Finally, the basic rules and framework behind proteins, amino acids, catalysis, and ATP as an energy source all came together in my mind. This link from physics to biology was complete, and absolutely amazing.

And so, now I like science. I like being able to explain and predict. I like the tricks and simplifications that make it possible to describe everything from the functioning of the human body to a car driving down the road. Sometimes, I might even say I love science (though perhaps not right now as I try to make the final push writing my thesis).

The question is, could I have learned that I liked it earlier? If for my 2nd grade science fair project, I had just dropped a ball off a building and learned a little about gravity and friction? If in 3rd grade, I had just made the baking-soda volcano and learned a little chemistry? I'm exaggerating, of course, but seriously, is there something wrong with the order in which science is taught? I know that kids don't have the mathematical background to understand kinematic equations, and I also know I had heard of gravity and friction before my 11th grade physics class. Was my mind just not ready to really wrap around science before that point? Or is there a way to give kids the concepts that make up the framework earlier? And if we could, and if we did, what difference would that make? Would it change the pipeline of people who go into science? Would it improve the average person's understanding of science? I think it could. And I think it would be a good thing.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


In a recent read of a random blog entry, I came across one guy's definition of smart. Or at least, his definition of what makes someone "seem smart." Apparently he's a guy who hires computer programmers, and according to him, a person seems smart if they know stuff, if they are curious, and if they learn.

So, I started thinking about my own definition of smart. And of course, I realized it would by highly colored by my being a scientist. In fact, I'm going to completely base it on my being a scientist and say my definition of smart is the mental capabilities that would make someone a kick-ass scientific researcher. And being a physicist by background, I want to break it down into the most basic components.

Memory would be one component. Short term, long term. Memory of procedures and facts.

Analytical skills would be a component. Ability to separate something into components and cause and effect. Ability to use logic and reason to take this set of components, causes and effects and reason out possible outcomes. Tests of analytical skills (like the LSAT and the analytical section of the GRE when I took it) describe some situation, give the rules and ask you to reason out the outcome. For example, Sally started grad school before Jimmy; Jimmy started before Angelica. Sally, Jimmy, and Angelica are all equally smart. Who will finish grad school first? That's a simple one, right? Haha.

Creativity. Ability to come up with new ideas.

Awareness. Ability to actively observe the world around you. Filtering is an important aspect of this one. Ability to filter enough stimuli to focus on the important information rolling in.

Abstract thinking skills. Ability to understand complex ideas and relationships, and make analogies between seemingly unrelated ideas.

Spatial visualization. I almost didn't list this one, but it really does seem to be separate from the others, and I do think researchers in almost any scientific discipline would benefit from this ability.

Quickness would be part of the scale on each of the above components. That is, the more quickly a person could remember, analyze, create, observe, understand, and visualize would define how well highly they rank on that component.

Experience. Having excellent memory is useless if you've never encountered anything to remember. Also, a person could fake excellent analytical skills if they are encountering situations they've seen before. Creativity can be much more effective if rooted in known facts and/or if it combines knowledge from varied experiences that have never been combined before.

Summary: Smartness components for being an excellent scientific researcher
Can you remember stuff?
Can you reason stuff out?
Can you think of new stuff?
Are you aware of stuff?
Can you understand and relate stuff?
Can you visualize stuff?
Can you do this stuff quickly?
Have you experienced stuff?

Okay, so maybe I've come up with an extermely esoteric definition of the components of "smartness." But, I like it.

You might be thinking there are some components missing. What about problem solving skills? Or communication skills, you say? So that's the final test. Can the other key skills necessary for kick-ass scientific researchers be broken down into components from my list?

Problem solving? This skill has to be made up of all the components listed. To problem solve quickly and efficiently, a person would be best served by excellent ratings in all components. Math would fall into the problem solving category, with a focus on having memory, understanding, and experience with mathematical concepts.

Communication skills? Isn't communicating just problem solving with the problem being how to get someone else to understand your ideas? For communicating, the focus would be on memory, understanding, and experience with vocabulary and the rules of the written and spoken roads. And some people skills (see below).

People skills? Do researchers need people skills? YES! Do researchers have people skills? Sometimes. In any case, this skill could again be broken down into the other components, I think. Awareness, understanding, and experience with other people should enable a person to read and predict other people's reactions.

Ability to learn? This skill is all about learning, remembering, and understanding.

What's missing? What else does a scientific researcher need?

Fine motor skills (aka "Good hands"). At least, this one is key for the experimentalists, maybe not so much the theorists. But I was trying to stick to mental capabilities in my definition, and this is more of a physical capability.



Man, you sure do need a lot of those last two.