Monthly Archives: August 2012

Shiny Brains (and Other Things I Wouldn’t Mind Working On For My PhD)

So, the last few days I’ve been spending a fair amount of time trying to figure out and narrow down what sort of topics interest me. I don’t know if any of my thoughts will actually pan out into actual research, but I figure at least I have something to say when I talk to someone about my PhD thoughts and stuff – “um”, “I don’t know” and “anything” doesn’t make me sound like I actually want this, does it?

My process is pretty simple – I just pick an institution (a university) and go through their lists of research areas and topics. And so far my main thoughts are:

Interestingly (for me), I find that I don’t particularly feel like getting into the sort of thing that I’ve been doing so far – microfabrication, surface chemistry, biochip fabrication, that sort of thing, at leats not as the main focus of my work.

Neurobiology / developmental biology is extremely interesting. However, I’m a bit worried about the amount of genetics involved, because after photosynthesis, that’s the biology topic I find most difficult. Though that’s not necessarily a bad thing, challenges make things more exciting; genetics and epigenetics fascinate me. Plus, I would get to work with fruit flies whose brain light up in different colours.

Cell biology: stem cells, cancer, all that stuff. I have a bit of experience there now and I’ve taken quite a few university courses in that general subject, so this one feels most comfortable in a way, but there’s also stuff going on there that makes things interesting – genetics / gene expression, proteomics, and that’s just glancing through a fairly random sample during a couple of days.

Just realising that I haven’t stumbled upon any laser-tech-involving topic yet and wondering whether I even want to,

Noodle.

Some Science That Surfaced This Week

I’m trying something new here. I’ve long admired many other science type blogs out there which offer a news round-up sort of thing, once every week. So, I decided to make an attempt at it too. Please, forgive the feebleness.

Oh, and a disclaimer, I suppose. This in no way reflects the actual field I’m doing research in at the moment. It does, however, reflect the random things that catch my attention in the never-stopping science news flow that I happen to catch. I should probably make a better effort to keep up with news that are more relevant to my research (note to self).

Pulling all-nighters to study doesn’t really help (much). Ha! I knew the system of studying more or less continuously (which I used all through high-school and university) and then just going to bed early before tests worked much better than late-night cramming, and now there’s actual data on it.

Green tea 1:0 tumours. I’m always a little sceptical about the studies that find yet another way to treat cancer in mice, but so long as we know that this just ‘shows promise’, sure, why not. However, I love how they used something as simple as tea and added it to these little vesicles (which are kind of bubbles of fat with a space within them) which also carry a key (protein transferrin) to unlock and get into cancer cells (they have transferrin receptors to which the protein attaches and then the cells eat it and the vesicle).

This is from last week, but it’s still cool this week, in my opinion. A new family of spiders discovered in a cave somewhere. If you don’t like spiders, better not look – there are some awesome close-ups in there.

Not strictly news, perhaps, but I guess this article on Yoshiki Sasai, a scientist trying to understand and control stem cells is probably the most relevant thing to my own research that I managed to catch this week. Some pretty fascinating stuff, though again, lest someone blows this out of proportion, these are just delicate tissue layers and not, you know, actual developed eyes.

Genomic sequencing of bacteria helps track a breakthrough. I have no idea how this works. A group of smart geneticists did a load of sequencing and saw answers in the results. I envy them.

Also, not a news item, maybe, but a cool article on Nature site, about computational sciences taking a turn for the social. First, it was physicists in mid 20th century leaving their field to study Biology, now this. Interesting.

Lastly, a study on theatre audience demographics (I hope that’s the right word for it) which I find interesting because I love going to the theatre. I guess, I belong to the “cultural” group.

Science-ing out,

Noodle.

P.S. The new broke out while I was writing this post that Neil Armstrong died. RIP. Almost exactly a month ago, Sally Ride, the first female US astronaut died. RIP.

Thoughts From Copenhagen

That was a very strange feeling: when the train approached the familiar city that wasn’t my home. I hadn’t experienced this before – coming back to a place that I had lived in, even though just for a few months. It felt kind of cool. I must say that I love that I’m old enough that I can come back to a place I had lived in before and which isn’t my home country.

I went to visit Copenhagen last weekend. I lived and studied there for a semester a couple of years ago. This weekend was nothing extraordinary perhaps. We didn’t party with the Pride Parade that just happened to be happening that weekend too, or anything. But it was so lovely when a familiar face greeted me at the station and I spent Saturday and Sunday with friends I hadn’t seen for a long time, just hanging out, geeking out at pretty Charles Dickens editions or just talking about nothing in particular (LeakyCon, VidCon, Doctor Who, Dexter, Bones, House were mentioned, among other things).

I wrote this up while on the train back to Sweden, so please forgive my sentimental side, it always wakes up on trains, for some reason,

Noodle.

I’m a Minority?!

This is something I only started thinking about recently as I somehow stumbled upon some blog entries discussing various aspects of being a female scientist, scientists who are LGBTQ, why heteronormativity* is a problem in scientific institutions and so on (sadly, in my frantic reading, naturally, I forgot to bookmark those posts). And while I was reading social studies papers on people in Science-Technology-Engineering-Maths fields, it suddenly hit me – that I’m a minority in science too, because I’m female. I mean, I don’t know if it’s weird or not, but I never thought of myself like that before, even though for the last couple of years I’ve been doing my researchy stuff at a laser technology department which was 100% male before I came along, and my supervisor keeps asking ‘are the guys treating you all right?’ pretty much every time he sees me**. But the reason I’m writing about this today is that I found this post by Suzie Sheehy and this video.

The video is about two female inventors/businesspeople who invented this bike helmet that is sort of like an air bag for your head which, in my opinion, is very cool. But then (and this is the part the post takes issue with) they get to talking about how it’s all totally amazing that two girls managed to do this. Um, what them being female has to do with anything? Apart, you know, from the fact that this sort of “helmet” doesn’t squish your hair (unless there’s an accident, but in that case I think your hair is the least of your problems), but with Edward Cullen and Justin Bieber inspired hairdos for men, I’m fairly sure guys would appreciate that too. Anyway, I digress.

And now I’m just going to quote Suzie Sheehy from the post I linked to, because she basically expresses my thoughts too***:

I’d like to know who these mysterious people are who think women can’t do things… because as far as I can tell they don’t exist. As far as I can tell it’s only ever women who say ‘no-one expected us to do this because we’re women’. This is my whole problem with a lot of ‘women in science/engineering’ stuff. By making out like there’s something special about your achievements because of your gender, you’re undermining the whole achievement.

I guess this comes in part, with our cultural heritage/identity or whatever. I mean, men have been “doing things” for centuries while conveniently keeping women with baby cribs and pots, so they (we) had little opportunity to express our abilities. And during like the last 100 years, we started getting more opportunities and it’s like whenever a woman achieves something, she (and some other women) are like: oh, wow, I didn’t know we could do that! So, yeah, I think, humankind has a bit of growing to do there still. And in the interest of full disclosure I guess I should admit that I’m not entirely free of stereotypes either. I mean, for instance, part of the appeal of the Physics department for me was the fact that there were a lot of guys in it and I thought it should be free of drama and other sort of craziness.**** However, looking at my experience since starting University, I have to say that I’ve met a few male professors which I rate rather high on the wacky/irrational/narrow-minded/’I’m-always-right’ scale, but no such female professors. I know they are out there, though.  My point is that there are all sorts of people and their gender most often doesn’t matter. It’s difficult to get over prejudices/biases though, but I’m trying. I’ve always took pride in my achievements (however small they might have been so far), like kicking ass during exams and stuff, not because I wanted to prove that a girl can do something like that (because I think that should go without question), but because I want to see that I can do it. If that makes sense. Though in the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I do sometimes feel proud that I’m a girl who isn’t afraid of wires, screwdrivers or lasers, simply because I haven’t met that many other females who are like that, but IRL and interwebs experience is quickly teaching me that there are loads of them and that this isn’t something extraordinary.

Wondering if I managed to make my point clear,

Noodle.

*I didn’t know what it meant at the time: it’s an assumption that everyone is heterosexual until revealed otherwise.

**’Yes, they’re OK.’ is always my answer. And it’s true. I’ve always thought that was nice of my supervisor to ask that. However, in the light of the thoughts I expressed in this post, I’m wondering whether I should be a little offended at his question. I think, I’ll choose not to be offended, because ‘mistreating’ could also be the guys looking down on me as though I couldn’t understand things which they’ve never done.

***This post somewhat reinforces the point.

****I chose a different department in the end, but I’ve had a fair share of classes at Physics.

WTF Is My Area/Field/Forest of Interest?

It’s been rather slow these past few days, so I’ve been thinking a lot. Mostly about the prospect of starting my PhD studies. I’m working towards a Master’s degree right now; I’m graduating next summer. It seems quite a long time, but it’s not too early to start thinking about it, right?

There are, obviously, a load of factors to consider, and quite a few of those will probably ultimately boil down to be determined by “whichever place accepts me”, but I decided that I should at least determine what sort of topic / area / field / whatever I’m most passionate about and would like to devote 3 or 4 years of my life for.

Because, the thing is, I had never made an entirely conscious decision to choosing a research project. Let me explain. I first started looking for research opportunities when I was a freshman at university because I was bored out of my mind and because doing research was what I wanted to do, but being freshman I didn’t really know what I could do and how to find a lab and stuff. So, I simply went to my study programme’s supervisor and was, like: “Um, I want to do research, can you help me?” He asked me what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know, so we determined that using a simple process of elimination, and I ended up deciding that I’d like to work with small things (like cell cultures and stuff), and he helped me set up a few meetings. After a couple of misses and some more help from other people, I ended up at a cancer research lab which was fascinated with Nanoscience applications in cancer detection and treatment. I worked there for a couple of years and a series of baffling and unreproducible results (but I had an excellent supervisor and learnt loads). Then I found out about a summer science internship program which came with a stipend. I applied for a number of bio/chem/phys field internships that sounded interesting (a lot of them sounded interesting). Funnily enough, the only internship I ended up accepted for was one I almost didn’t apply for because the description sounded rather intimidating. And here I am, two years later, continuing and expanding on the project for my Master’s thesis, making stuff with laser light. It would seem that this slightly random process has been rather lucky for me. But I don’t know if I want to trust that same process with my PhD; I think that I should have at least some sort of sense of direction.

Thus, I come to my problem – I find the whole frigging world fascinating. Nice problem to have, when you come to think of it, isn’t it? Well, at this point I probably won’t head into Geology or Astrophysics. But the part of Nature that replicates is still rather wide open. Though I can narrow that a bit further because I don’t fancy field work much, I prefer the controlled environment of the lab bench or even laminar-flow hood for cell cultures (which, after 6 weeks of internship I hardly ever find annoying anymore). But where to go from there? Do I try to decide what problem I find most pressing in the world? That would be climate change, I guess, but that’s largely a political problem too and I just get frustrated by that sort of thing very easily. I don’t know if I’d like it to be my job. And at this point it occurs to me that perhaps the advice to not do a PhD until you’ve figured out what you’re most passionate about is not so bad (even though I actually decided that I didn’t want to wait, though I reserved the right to change my mind). At the very least, it gives you time to explore (maybe I’d find that environmental science or solar panel development is actually something I’d like to do). But what if several years from now I still won’t have found THE area? Because I know one thing right now – I know that I love doing research, I love learning, I love exploring how Nature works, be it in the form of a bundle of cells growing in a flask, or tiny balls of atoms glowing in the dark. And, ultimately, I want to share it with other students, and I pretty much need a PhD for that (or at least be in the process of getting one), so why wait? Perhaps THE area isn’t so important because I’m fascinated by so many things? I also must consider the fact that if I narrow in too much*, I won’t have much choice and the chances of not finding a position increase. And it’s not like I’ll be stuck with whatever I do my PhD in for the rest of my life, right? Perhaps I should just trust that the slightly random process that led me here, will continue bringing me to cool places? Are there any options I haven’t considered?

Lost in thought,

Noodle.

P.S. Yes, I realise that I started the post with the decision that I should determine an area of interest, but ended up thinking that it’s not so important after all. That’s how my thought process works sometimes – I’ve just been turning this around in my head for a while now and wanted to get it out there (and hopefully get some feedback), so I can move on.

*And I don’t want to narrow in too much at all – I chose to major in Biophysics (partly) because it covered the widest range of subjects in the first place.

OMG I Love Science!

That’s strange but it’s the main thought I had after what was the most action-packed weekend I had in a very long time. Well, when I say action, I don’t mean, like, Die Hard movie kind of action, just that I didn’t spend it all reading or in front of the computer. Just so you don’t get the wrong idea.

On Saturday, I went to Stockholm. We saw a couple of museums and the Royal Castle. First, we went to see the Vasa, a very unlucky ship which sank like 20 minutes into her first journey and was fished out some 300 years later and which has her own museum now. The tour guide gave quite a lot of scientific background information on why the ship is in such a good condition and how they’re preserving it. It made me smile when the guide mentioned that they used poly-ethylene-glicol (PEG) to cover the ship to preserve it because it’s also used a lot in cell culture related applications – it’s a very good cell-repelant (if you don’t want cells to grow in certain areas of a substrate, you cover them with PEG). Yay, science, figuring out many uses for the same stuff.

But that wasn’t the most exciting science-y thing of the day. Next, we went to the Nobel Museum. It actually seemed a bit of a let-down at first, especially right after the Vasa Museum which had lots of cool stuff, like skeletons – it had actual skeletons of a few people who were on the Vasa on that ill-fated journey. I like to look at skeletons. And mummies. But we’re at the Nobel Museum now. It doesn’t have that much stuff, but if you have time to hang out you can watch some short films about various Nobel laureates (I kinda wish I decided to stay there longer and to see some more of those). But the part where I geeked out most was this temporary photo exhibition: they had invited a number of previous Nobel winners to sketch the stuff they were given the Prize for and then they took pictures of the scientists holding their sketches. The first picture we saw was of Peter Agre and his sketch of an aquaporin (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2003), and I was like, OMG we actually studied this in class! We went on and before I knew it, by every other sketch I was excitedly launching into explanations of how telomerases work (Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 2009), why a little worm Caenorhabditis elegans (it helped folks get Nobel Prizes on 3 separate occasions) is often used in genetic experiments or why someone got a Nobel for extracting the stuff that makes jellyfish glow green (a.k.a. the green fluorescent protein). I did, however, have to admit defeat to nuclear magnetic resonance (actually 2 Nobel Prizes in Chemistry: 1991 to Richard R. Ernst and 2002 to Kurt Wüthrich) – even after covering it in 3 or so different classes, I still don’t get it. I just hope my friend didn’t get too fed up with me talking about that stuff so much, I was just so excited. This field trip made me realise once again just how much I love science and talking about science. Perhaps this science teacher idea isn’t so bad, after all; if only teenagers weren’t so scary.

The Royal Castle wasn’t nearly as exciting as the Nobel Museum, though I did like the royal shinies in the cellar and the guide actually made it rather interesting, by sharing facts like this: the old wooden castle burned down in the 16th or 17th century and the only person who died in the fire was actually killed by a book that someone threw out of the window trying to save it from the fire. Afterwards, we actually saw a couple of those books and it was suddenly clear that it was very easy to die from getting hit with such a book.

On Sunday, along with a few other people I went to partake in a traditional summer activity of my native country – berry and mushroom gathering in the woods around this town. Gosh, I love these woods so much! They’re just beautiful! Moss-covered huge boulders sprinkled among the trees, blueberries and old trees. I didn’t do so much actual gathering, I like the hiking and berry eating parts better.

Not feeling like moving much today,

Noodle.

Abandoning Algebra Leads to… Robot World Domination?

USA has always been one of my top dream countries. It has probably half of my Facebook friends living in it, it has a bunch of cool universities, it values hard work and smartness. Or does it? Yesterday, through a bunch of outraged tweets* I found this article. It expresses the opinion that growing generation of Americans doesn‘t need algebra, because it‘s too difficult for both students and teachers. I mean, seriously, America?

OK, I understand that it‘s just one person speaking, and it‘s not an official policy or anything. But, in fact, a few years ago, someone else expressed a similar opinion. The mere fact that this opinion keeps cropping up is rather frightening to me. I mean, USA is like a big deal in the world. Even though people who fail high-school algebra are probably unlikely to run for government positions but presumably they vote on who is going to take the positions of power. Some people might think that one doesn‘t need algebra or any sort of education to make such decisions, but I disagree (as does this post which also cites some research articles showing that well-rounded education is good for the people and the country). Algebra, among other things, teaches you to think. Admittedly, other subjects do that as well. But, I think, knowing just history or literature leaves one rather lopsided in their thinking, so to speak. I would rather my country‘s voters were well-rounded thinkers. Mind you, I‘m the one to speak – my country is plenty messed up, but at least I haven‘t heard people talking about taking stuff out of our high-school curriculum. If anything, it‘s the opposite. For instance, in 11th grade at a (very good) public school I was studying the sort of maths that my parents only studied at university.

Someone says that they live a happy life without any algebra – but they have had it at school, haven‘t they? So, in my opinion, they can‘t say that they‘re living without it or that they don‘t need it, because it‘s there, in their brains, however small the effect of those algebra classes was, they still fired up and shaped their neural networks somehow – human brain works in mysterious ways, there‘s no knowing what algebra did to their brains. Unless they just came in, put their fingers in their ears and hummed to themselves the whole time. But I wouldn‘t put much stock in the opinion of people whose solution to a difficult problem is to put their fingers in their ears and close their eyes.

And here, I simply have to stop for a moment and disbelievingly marvel at the fact that an adult can say they don‘t need something they studied at school. I mean, isn‘t that something children say? That they won‘t need to know fractions or how air moves in and out of our lungs or what the key points in world and country history are. Adults are supposed to tell kids that they‘ll need everything, that it‘s important to learn. But thing is one can never know what they‘ll need in the course of their life. In 12th grade I had already decided I was going to study Biophysics and I didn‘t think I needed to pay much attention in history, because why would a scientist ever need to know dates of some random battles? I actually spent my history classes doing my maths or science homework (I‘m sorry, Mrs History). Now, as I go abroad or meet people from other countries, I often find myself scavenging my memory for stuff about my country‘s history. In a similar fashion, once at university many Molecular Biology students in my year who had similarly ignored physics found themselves stuck in physics and maths classes again and probably couldn‘t even do their work without statistics**. So, I think, a well-rounded high-school education is very important, because it should have one ready to learn things their lives might require or tackle various problems. Of course, everything won‘t happen to you, but you never know, and whatever you have learnt will add to your person, not take away from it. At the very least, you‘ll have learnt to look at a problem from a bunch of different perspectives, try and solve it and not run away because it seems scary at first glance.

If such a huge per cent of students fails algebra (or any other subject), evidently, there is a problem. But is erasing it really the best solution? – See? Problem solving in action. There don‘t seem to be any x‘s or y‘s in here, and yet, we still need to identify the components of the problem and their relations in order to solve it, don‘t we? My understanding of the USA public school system is rather limited, but from what I gather, there are a few components to the problem. There are students who don‘t want to learn / don‘t pay attention. There are teachers who are ill-equipped to teach. The latter is somewhat of a problem in my country as well: fewer and fewer high-school graduates choose to study to become teachers, thus, only the ones who don‘t get in anywhere else, end up there. And even they don‘t like to actually go on and teach. It‘s difficult, it pays little. So, a couple of years ago, a bank teamed up with a teaching institution to start a programme to get fresh college graduates into teaching. The idea is that, say, someone with a degree in Biophysics could go into a summer training programme to learn teaching skills and afterwards they‘d have to work at a school for 2 years teaching physics, for example, and in addition to the usual teacher salary (which is even smaller when you start out) they‘d get a scholarship. After those 2 years, they could choose to continue teaching or move onto something else. That‘s obviously not a full solution, but I think it helps.

Then we have the students. I confess, I can‘t really understand people who don‘t want to learn. It‘s as though they don‘t like thinking which is one of my favourite things to do. As for the rest, I refuse to believe that such a huge per cent of kids as cited in the articles above is simply unable to get algebra. Obviously, there are a number of reasons one might fail – they give up too easily, they don‘t understand, they don‘t get enough help or yet something else. It‘s difficult to say anything without more detailed data. I can just share something else that we have in my country. That is, an option to those who don‘t want a college education or are failing at school. After 10 grades, they can opt to leave high-school and go to a „profession school“, where they complete their high-school education with a somewhat easier curriculum, so they don‘t usually go onto college because that‘s usually not enough to get good final high-school exam results***, but they get profession training (like carpenter, mechanic, hairdresser, and so on).

There‘s one other thing that particularly irritates me in the articles linked above. Those guys are talking that algebra is too difficult, too abstract for American students to grasp. Do they think that teenagers in the USA are less smart, less able than kids from the rest of the world? Way to make the kids feel good about themselves, as if the actual failing wasn‘t enough – now, the kids have an adult actually telling them they shouldn‘t even bother because they won‘t get it anyway or it‘ll cost too much effort. Way to help bring up hardworkers (I thought that‘s who the grand US of A is standing on). Also, algebra too abstract, too difficult to grasp? Letters, numbers and symbols – it‘s the most distilled down, most condensed version of problems you‘ll ever get, how can someone deal with life problems involving people or issues that are far more complex if they can‘t deal with a simple equation? Oh, and heck, if we’re starting to question the worth of algebra, why stop there? These guys see no “compelling answer” why they should bother with algebra. My brother could say the same about literature. He would have lived a happier life if he had never met his lit teacher. Trying to understand the convoluted sentences of Shakespeare**** or plough through Crime and Punishment had no visible effect on him. And what use is the exercise of memorising poems or dates? It’s not what you’re going to need for a job. This post over at scientopia blogs sums up my thoughts on why thinking of high-school and college education as job training is wrong. Education should have people ready to learn stuff needed for a job.

Anyway, I guess this problem boils down to whether we want the population to be able to think or not. It looks like at least these two guys think that it‘s too much effort to try and bring up thinking people. I guess I won‘t be so surprised if one of my professor‘s prediction comes true – that we‘ll soon invent actual artificial intelligence to do stuff for us and it‘ll become smarter and enslave us, Matrix style or worse.

Wondering how I managed to start with the importance of algebra and arrive at an apocalyptic scenario,

Noodle.

*Man, I love twitter. That‘s pretty much the only news outlet I‘m able to reach from under my rock.

**My examples are as limited as my experience, if you‘d like more, specifically related to maths, take a look here.

***In my country these are national. Students can pick from 2 difficulty levels. The easier level is graded 1-10 based on how many points they get and is usually not enough to get into university programmes which have any competition (but in recent years, some science programmes accepted everyone who applied, because there were fewer people applying than there were available places). The more difficult level is graded in 2 stages: first, there‘s a point mark which determines pass or fail, and then the students from the whole country who passed are graded in a curve and get marks 1-100. 1% of students who got the most points get 100, then the second 1% get 99 and so on.

****I imagine that’s my brother’s opinion. I personally read Othello in English just last year, and while it took me some time and reading aloud to start understanding it, it was a very satisfying and fun experience.