Category Archives: Opinion

Knowing What I Know Now: What I’ve Picked Up As An Undegrad

There’s a new undegrad student working at the lab (incidentally, their major is the same as mine was – Biophysics). It makes me feel a bit strange – not being of the youngest ‘generation’ at the lab anymore. It feels a bit weird being asked questions about this protocol or other and classes and stuff. Weird, but kind of good. I feel like I can actually help in some cases. On a rather nice coincidence, Jeremy Yoder is holding a carnival over at molecularecologist.com: Knowing What I Know Now – giving advice to yourself in the previous stage of scientific education/career. It’s very inspiring and full of excellent thoughts – I’m taking notes from all the contributions. And since I guess I’m now old enough – here goes a few things I’m glad I did as an undegrad and a few things I wish I had done better/differently:

Start Working/Doing Research (and actually show up)

I guess I’m mostly glad that I started working at a lab pretty early – at the start of my second year. It wasn’t paid or anything , I just started working towards what should be my Bachelor’s degree. I only wish I had started in my first year; maybe then that first year wouldn’t have been so depressing with only the often boring introductory classes to occupy me, but I just couldn’t make myself do anything about it.

To be fair, I don’t think I did too well at that first lab. For one thing, at least at first, I rather failed at the showing-up part because I used to be so hung up on the actual studying. Looking back, I needn’t have studied so hard. I know, it’s a bit weird, but I was so afraid of failing classes that I studied too much (my friends certainly thought so). I could’ve balanced classes and lab work better. Oh well. Showing up is key.

Try out different labs

The second thing I’m very glad about is that, after sticking with the first lab for roughly two years, I finally braced myself to leave (for some reason I was rather scared to do it). So I applied to a number of summer internships at quite a few labs (there’s this cool centralised science summer internship programme in my country, but I’m sure there are all sorts of different opportunities everywhere). And it turned out really well. So well that I’m still at the same lab more than two years later.

Also, It might be common knowledge but I didn’t know it and, in the transition process, I also realised that the work atmosphere and stuff like that is just as important as the research project. Or something. I pay a lot of attention to that now.

Take challenging classes

I’m also glad that I braved some challenging elective classes. Those turned out to be my favourite courses, even though I had to work more than I would have otherwise.

Going abroad to study for a semester is another idea I’m glad I had. I was told I should save it for later when I’ve studied more, but I’m glad I did it in my third year, even if I didn’t use all the opportunities that the trip presented. I managed to get reasonably good grades in a couple of rather tough physics classes, so it worked wonders for my confidence. Quite frankly, that alone would be enough for me to be completely satisfied about the whole thing.

I only kind of wish I had done more suggested (not required) background reading during those 4 years of Bachelor’s studies; all those books professors suggested at the beginning of each course – I checked out hardly any of them. Darn House, Doctor Who et al.

Feeling so grown-up, I think, I’ll go play with my Legos now to forget it,

Noodle.

P.S. I’m really not sure if I actually know anything. I just feel that instead of blindly stumbling in the dark, I have a candle now, but I still can hardly see. Maybe by the time I finish a Post-doc I’ll have a flash-light, or something.

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Anxiety, Maths, Quests and Stuff

First, I guess I have to say that I love Maths. Admittedly, not enough as to actually major in it, but I love the neatness of numbers and the way we can describe so many things in nature in the condensed form of equations. It’s reason, it’s logic, unencumbered by unnecessary weight of too many words. Now, don’t get me wrong, Maths doesn’t always come easy for me. Its tasks are daunting at times but so are many other tasks as well. I persevere and resulting light-bulb moments of understanding make the frustration (and sometimes tears) totally worth it. It’s like a quest for my brain.

Over the last several months I’ve been reading a lot about the fear of Maths. Folks want to give up on teaching Algebra for kids. People have done some research on the fear of Maths. They found that Maths anxiety actually causes people to feel physical pain, or something like that. It makes sense that anxiety causes physical unpleasantness, I know it only too well myself. What I don’t understand, I guess, is why Maths is singled out of all possible school subjects which may cause anxiety. Yes, after reading and writing, Maths is probably the next most important subject in our daily lives – numbers are everywhere, and all. I wonder, why reading doesn’t seem to cause much anxiety in people. Maybe it’s the actual thinking that’s always involved in Maths (reading becomes sort of automatic after you get it). I wonder if researchers asked their subjects to perform a logical thinking task that’s formed in words instead of numbers, would the outcome be different?

Also, I wonder why I don’t hear about these things in my home country. Maybe we’re still feeling the remnants of the Soviet Union repression when, it seems, it was forbidden to talk about pretty much anything of consequence. And yet, the kids go to school, study Maths and other stuff, some are better at it than others, but no one seems to make a big deal out of it when someone finds it difficult and needs to put in a lot of work to learn the Math.

I wonder why so many people succumb to the Maths anxiety so badly. Maybe it’s an actual disorder like social anxiety or something, when one can’t possibly fight it. I’m glad I don’t have it.

I’m off to battle things that make me scared and anxious because I don’t like giving up, fear cuts deeper than swords*,

Noodle.

*I’ve been working my way through Game of Thrones, I can feel a new obsession coming on.

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.

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.

Thoughts On Science As a Girl Thing, Also a Trip Down Memory Lane

Three weeks ago, the European Commission launched “Science: It’s a girl thing!”, a campaign trying to get more girls interested in Science careers. The site looks good enough, but originally it included a teaser video which was taken down due to outrage explosion on the interwebs (it can still, however be found, for instance, here). I was in a middle of a lot of things then and apart from following it on Twitter for a while and bookmarking some excellent blog posts, didn’t spend much time on it.

But now I’ve got a bit of time for introspection and I’ve been reading those blog posts (for instance, here and here) and clicking various links in them has taken me to some unexpected and fascinating places (more on that hopefully in future posts). All these people talking about how science obviously doesn’t need prettying-up to appeal to girls. That made me think / try to remember what made me interested in science.

I don’t actually have one distinct memory of how I got interested in science. But as far as I can remember, I’ve always loved knowing stuff and understanding things. I loved studying and learning. And science is the ultimate studying, because you try to learn things that no one has learnt before.

I remember my first scientific “ambition” as a 12-year-old was to become an archaeologist, go to Australia, find fossils no one found before and determine why dinosaurs went extinct. You’ll have to forgive my 12-year-old self for not knowing the difference between an archaeologist and a palaeontologist.

Then I started Physics, Biology and Chemistry classes. I was mostly unlucky with Physics teachers (I think my class had like 3 or 4 of them), but my Dad, who is a MSc in Astrophysics, would always help me with my homework. I was completely in awe with explanations he would give to stuff that happens around us. He would often stray a bit too far into background information or reminiscing about how they taught him things at University and, while that meant taking much longer with my homework than was necessary, I loved those stories and thought that studying in Physics department had to be the most fun thing to do.

There was also Biology. We got a teacher my whole class was very afraid of, I still remember how part of the class delegated me to ask her how meiosis works because we couldn’t get it and it took me half a recess to work up the courage. To be clear, she wasn’t a Snape-, but rather a McGonagall-type teacher, and as I got older we got on very friendly terms (I like to go talk to her whenever I visit my school). She was also probably the first mentor-type person I had. Her strict requirements, I think, was what made me look into everything deeper asking why, how does that work, why is this just the way it is? For example, even such seeming trivialities as why we need toothpaste that’s alkaline as opposed to acidic. I discovered secrets and connections all around and in my own body. I was mostly fascinated with the latter (though moss and lichen came in close second), so I worked for 3 of my high-school years towards Med school (in my country, one can apply for Med school right after high-school, it takes 6 years, then intern-ship and residency).

But before my senior year, I was made to reconsider. I came to realise I didn’t really want to practice Medicine. I mostly just wanted to do research, I didn’t even question it much, that was just something I wanted to do and I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else (well, apart from, you know, piloting a jet or directing the next best film of all time). There was also the stress of Med school and practising Medicine in general. I decided I didn’t need an MD to do research. Biology was my passion and Physics was my fascination. So, natural conclusion was Biophysics. I didn’t know much about it, but despite a bumpy start it turned out to be almost exactly what I wanted, and when it wasn’t, I would just put some effort to turn it my way.

So, circling back to the infamous video campaign, I guess even the 12-year-old me wouldn’t have been a target audience for it, because I was already interested in science because it is interesting, because it’s fun trying to solve puzzles and figure out things. Also, part of the appeal was the fact that all that mattered was your brain, your thoughts. One can wear whatever and like whatever they want, and it’s only one’s thinking that matters. Some bloggers (including Skepchick article I linked to above) actually expressed the idea (backed up by some studies, of course) that the overtly feminine girls in the video might actually have a negative effect and make girls like the 12-year-old me think that they can’t achieve science because you suddenly have to be both smart and pretty. I’m not sure if I summarised this well, just go and read the Skepchick article or this piece at NewScientist. It’s difficult to dig up the 12-year-old me, but I can definitely see that she wouldn’t be thrilled about such images of a “female scientist”. I think there’s no need to present science in any pretty way. I mean, in my opinion, children of either sex who could potentially get interested in science would be smart enough to see the fun themselves; someone should just help awaken their curiosity (I realise now that is what both my Dad and my Biology teacher did in their different ways).

Also, maybe this is a bit of a cultural thing, this thinking that there are too few females in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), and something must be done to encourage them. I mean, sure in the graduating Physics class at my University this year there was 1 girl for every 10 or so guys, but in my class of the Faculty of Natural Sciences (which includes Biology, Molecular Biology, Biophysics, Ecology, Geology, Hydrology, Geography, Genetics) the situation was reversed with probably 1 guy for every 10 girls, and the faculty is probably about equally distributed between genders (I’ll have to go through the directory to count, I’m really curious now). And my Biophysics class was actually equally distributed. Admittedly, that’s just a one year sample, but looking around the University corridors it seems like a representative sample.

I could’ve got into Physics, but I didn’t want to, I liked studying the part of Nature that replicates and I was better at understanding Biological processes than Physical ones (I mean, come on: both wave and particle at the same time?!). My point is that everyone should be allowed to choose whatever they like. Sure, it seems that there are more boys than girls choosing Physics, but there are more girls choosing Biology and nobody is starting campaigns to get more boys into Biology. I do, however, agree that encouragement should be provided if a situation comes up when a young girl is very good at, say, Physics but she has fears of getting into it just because she’s afraid of having to work with or compete against all the boys or something else that has nothing to do with her disliking the actual subject or liking anything else better.

And yes, I understand that there’s also the problem of girls sticking with Science after graduation, but this particular campaign clearly wasn’t marketed at college students or recent college graduates and this post is getting too long, and I need to go get Daddy to help me with my Physics homework,

12-year-old Noodle.

P.S. I have now went and counted male and female members of the faculty of Natural Sciences. I counted 149 females and 133 males. There are obviously different distributions within different departments, say, Hydrogeology has more male faculty, Biochemistry & Biophysics more female, Zoology is about equally distributed. However, out of 10 departments, only 2 currently have female department heads. I guess that says something, as well. Physics faculty is overwhelmingly male, with only a few females at most in the biggest departments.

Dear Young Adult Lit, Thank You for Bringing out the Ugly

More than a week ago, The Wall Street journal posted an article, which talks about how there’s too much violence, drugs and stuff in young adult literature. Quite naturally, a lot of people disagreed. They tweeted #yasaves and there were a lot of blog posts (one of my favourites). Now, the whole thing seems to have quieted down a little, but I was too busy to put my thoughts on the subject together then, so here goes.

The main point I got from the WSJ article was that there’s too much focus on ugly stuff in YA lit, and that it may somehow make the reader do that stuff and make them think that it’s OK. First off, I don’t think that most readers are that susceptible, and if they are, there’s a deeper problem there, which is not caused by reading, rather, it’s just brought to the surface. A very good point was made by many folks around the interwebs – if you don’t acknowledge something, you don’t stop it from existing. The ugly thing is still there. Talking about it helps. Reading or listening other people talk about it helps too, because it turns the ugly thing from the black unspeakable mess inside you into something definable, something that you can deal with. I mean, there’s got to be a reason why during group therapy everyone is encouraged to say whatever they’re feeling and stuff.

As for the argument that reading books containing, say, drug use or self-harm, makes one believe those things are OK and that you should do them… I haven’t read that many YA books, but the ones I did read (and that includes Melvin Burgess’s Heroin, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork Orange) had quite the opposite effect on me. Of course, there are always going to be people who react in a destructive way to a lot of things, but, I think, if there weren’t YA lit, it would just as easily be something else.

I do think that, if nothing else, YA lit can help a reader understand that it’s OK to have dark thoughts sometimes, that it’s OK to express them by talking or writing, and most importantly that you aren’t alone.

Kind of sad that there’s only one of John Green’s books available in this forgotten corner of the world,

Noodle.

P.S. As I was trying to think of a cool title for this post, I had a vivid mental image from an animated movie called Spirited Away. There’s a black creature in it. At first it looks nice and friendly, but then it starts demanding more and more food and it becomes quite frightening, and then a girl comes in and gives the creature something so that it vomits everything out, and it gets better. I don’t really know if there’s much point to that image, but I guess it’s just another way of showing that it’s better to get everything out. Or something. It’s past midnight and I don’t know what I’m talking about anymore.