A Career Change is Quite Literally a Dream Changer

Those who may know me also know I can have weird or vivid dreams on a regular basis. For as long as I can remember, I have had dreams of tornadoes at least once a week. Another recurring dream subject for many years has been airplanes. Me on an airplane. You might not think anything of it, but some of these ‘airplanes’ were actually non-flying objects like a passenger van or a pharmacy in the basement of a local hospital I used to work. One of these dreams I clearly remember because I was flying the plane from a second cockpit in the plane’s ‘attic’ and had to continuously put oil on a gear to keep the plane in the air.

Over the past year, these airplane dreams have expanded to airports. Me in an airport. You might not think anything of it, but some of these airports were very small; the size of a restaurant (with bar). A year ago, I lost what I considered the perfect job promoting and writing about science emerging from one of the Departments of the U.S. The airport dreams started around the same time I was laid off.

I recently had a dramatic change in my recurring dreams. I no longer am at an airport or on a plane between airports. Suddenly, my method of transportation was not by air, but by sea; ships, cruise ships to be exact. Sometimes these ships were floating hotels with thousands of people watching high school basketball or attending a conference. Sometimes my family was on board and other times I knew no one aboard the boat.

I recently had a career change from science writer to science instructor at a local college teaching the wonderful subject of Biology. This is something I am very fond of and no stranger to with my Ph.D. in biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology. My passion for promoting science to the masses had to be honed to promoting science to the classes.

What does this have to do with dreams?

Dream interpreting is not one of my hobbies, but this one is quite easy for me to discern. Airplanes are a way to travel great distances in a short amount of time. One can cross the globe and be back home in a day or so. Imagine the sheer amount of contact a person can have with people on that journey. The airports were just a mode of transition. The dreams were no longer about flying but instead about what happened after landing. It was time to slow down.

What about the cruise ships? Ships don’t travel at break-neck speed, but they can get a person across the ocean or gulf and back within a week or so.This leaves ample time to explore the ship and get to know the people aboard; learn their stories and backgrounds. It gives time to tailor your message to those whom you see daily for a period of time until the next cruise when you start over with a new group of passengers.

 

There you go; a career change from science writer to science instructor. Or, as my brain sees it, jet setter to cruise ship director perhaps.

 

Now, if I only knew what the heck all the tornado dreams were about…

Graduate School Does Not Prepare Students to Teach Effectively

Graduate School is Great

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed most of my experience while in graduate school working towards my Ph.D. I was paid to fuel my personal curiosities about how bacteria make choices. It was a win-win in my opinion. I was contributing to the overall knowledge of the scientific community and making connections that I never would have dreamed of years before. I could safely say no one on the planet was investigating the same phenomena I was, so I held knowledge only I knew. Pretty amazing feeling. I read some article in Science Careers long ago about advice for graduate students. One nugget was that the student needed to become the expert of their project, not their advisor. I tried to make that my goal and knew I was succeeding when my advisor would ask my advice about observations she was making in the lab.

Graduate School is Good

Don’t get me wrong. Graduate school was not all a field of lilies. It was hard, very hard. Blazing trails and keeping up with all the latest research from around the world about my topic was daunting. Then, there was the preliminary exam (aka qualifying exam); six weeks of taking on an entirely different topic, becoming an expert, devising experiments to answer research questions, writing a full grant proposal, presenting to the department, and defending your ideas for hours is not for the faint of heart. However, the prelim (I had to go through twice) is like being thrown into the ocean as an infant and told to swim the English Channel. If you make it, you are a much better scientist for it. It was HARD, but I don’t regret all the effort it took.

Graduate School is O.K.

Working in the lab can be very time consuming. Many lab bosses expect the grad students to be in the lab 60 to 80 hours a week. I should have been in the lab more, I admit, but I also had a wife and a daughter the last couple years. I had a lot of expectations of me not only as a student and a training scientist but also as a husband and father. Only one of these four expectations was I an expert at after 25 years of schooling. Being spread so thin made each facet that much harder. Needless to say, my wife (and daughter, and in-laws, and parents, and brother, and the rest of the family, and friends, etc.) were very excited when I finally saw the fruits of my indentured labor.

Graduate School is Absolutely Horrible

Don’t get me wrong. I had opportunities to ‘teach’ students during graduate school. I taught a few semesters of lower-level biology lab sections early on. I enjoyed trying to make connections for the students. I remembered when it all came together for me and the light clicked. I wanted that so badly for my students; and much earlier in their academic career.

Now I am out of school with a degree I am very proud of. At what point in graduate school was I supposed to become an expert teacher? Much emphasis is towards shaping an independent scientist who can survive in the jungle, and rightly so. But, what about an emphasis on one of the tenets that come with many job descriptions those fledgling scientists would eventually end up with: instructing? No courses, no seminars. Am I missing something? Is the arena of instructing young minds preparing them for the future jobs we need them to take and excel at not important?

I am very fortunate. I have a faculty position now. I am an expert…but not at what I am expected to do, teach. I am a novice, an infant trying to very quickly consume as much information in teaching strategies and instructing styles that I feel I should have been exposed to in school. Do the science departments and education departments of our colleges and universities know of each other’s existence and absolute need for integration?

I want to be the best instructor ever. I want my students to get it every lecture/class meeting. I want them to appreciate the world around them and make logical decisions. Is that too much to ask? It is for the current state of a majority of graduate schools.

 

Academia as an Unwieldy Vortex

Vortex of Academia

 The safety of academia

In the fall of 2012, I left the comfortableness of the lab in which I had been nestled for 6 years. It was an exciting and terrifying time. I was not going the normal tract for a new Ph.D.; a post-doctoral fellowship. Are we not steered towards a career in academia? I was warned by several professors to make my choice wisely (and for good reason). My wife and I had a life in my town and the thought of uprooting for two to 8 years did not sound appealing. I was very fortunate to take a position as a science writer helping a federal department’s program in biological and environmental research. It was new territory for me, but I knew the opportunity was too great to pass up.

Exactly one year later, I found myself out of work due to reduction in force. I had never gone through such a thing. Those words when they were spoken to me gave me a sort of out-of-body experience, a nightmare really. It took weeks for me to come to grips fully of the immense toll it would take on my family.

Back to the applicant pool

Being a Ph.D. in a mid-sized market is a daunting thing. It seemed as if I was over-qualified or in the running with about 50 other sorry Ph.D.s for each position in which I applied. One part-time position became available as I was hitting the unemployment line as an adjunct professor at a local college. I was teaching ‘Health Science Research’. A great and appealing position if I knew exactly what health science research was. My wife was not as thrilled as I in this opportunity. Who knows, I could land a full-time position soon, I thought. I gladly took the position and kept searching for something permanent and life-sustaining. By early 2014, I had found a hand full of part-time spots to keep us afloat. I was looking several times a day at career sites and every other job portal for the biggest employers in the region. My search had grown to opportunities an hour a way from home. Academia, industry, government; it did not matter to me. I had mouths to feed.

Oh boy, what luck, er tragedy

My adjunct employer asked me to teach additional courses in the summer. However, this schedule overlapped with my wife going back to her position as an elementary school teacher. This meant we would have to pay childcare for a newborn. In other words, we would have to pay the equivalent of another small mortgage monthly for me to work. A catch 22 if ever there was one, but my boss knew my incredible urge to be taken on full-time.

A few weeks after regretfully declining the offer, I received an email on a Sunday morning from my adjunct boss. A faculty member in the Science Department was on life support after a ruptured aneurysm. I was asked to step in (in the middle of the quarter) and teach three additional classes starting the next day. I had no choice but to accept out of respect and duty. The next morning, I found out the faculty member passed away. I couldn’t be happy for my good fortune. How could I? His mother had lost her husband and son within 6 weeks time.

So, here I am stepping into a full-time role with two mid-term exams and a quiz my first week to prepare; not to mention hours of lectures to prepare with no slides to reference from previous quarters. I have not, and will not, complain about my circumstance. I think of his mother and sisters often.

Home Sweet Home

18 months after leaving the world of academia, I find myself thrown back into a forceful vortex. No time to stop and think about ivory walls or effective pedagogy. I’m treading the academic waters for a few more weeks. Going one lecture/class at a time trying to give the students my best efforts, for their sake. Don’t get me wrong, I want to become increasingly effective at teaching my students and getting them curious in biology. Just let me turn in final grades for this quarter first.

Trusting the Wrong Social Media Influencers Can Hurt You…Badly

(I am proud to post this on behalf of Kirk Englehardt, Director of Research Communication and Marketing for the Georgia Institute of Technology. Take it away, Kirk.)

We all want to fit in and be part of the crowd. We also want to be in the know, or at least to not miss out on something great that others learned about first. Marketers use this psychology to get you to purchase products and services, but when social marketing techniques move out of the consumer realm and into health, medicine and science – the results could be disastrous.

 

I started thinking about this after reading a great FastCompany article about the Psychology of Social Proof. Think of social proof as the way our decision-making is influenced by the beliefs of others, like experts, celebrities, friends and groups.

 

…but what happens if the others are wrong?

 

The article identifies 5 kinds of social proof used by marketers today. I’ve taken each a step further to give examples of when these seemingly innocent techniques can become dangerous for you and your loved ones.

 

  1. Expert Social Proof

How many times have you seen companies promote their products using endorsements by “experts?” These may be people you recognize or trust telling you why you need to purchase a product or service. You’re inclined to believe them and act on their recommendations.

 

When it gets dangerous:

In 1998 Andrew Wakefield published his research claiming there was a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. His paper fueled a worldwide frenzy that stopped many parents from vaccinating their children, putting them at risk for contracting diseases that were once under control. Wakefield was a surgeon and a researcher, an expert in the field.

 

As it turns out, science confirmed he was wrong. His research collapsed under scrutiny, and The Lancet retracted his paper. He was accused of being dishonest and irresponsible, and he is barred from practicing medicine in the United Kingdom.

 

While the debunking of Wakefield’s conclusions was widely reported, many people are still afraid of vaccines. There is also an anti-vaccine movement that continues even though there is no scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism. More children are at risk today because of the “expert social proof” that sparked the anti-vaccine movement.

 

When you blindly believe a so-called expert, or activist, without doing any additional fact-finding, you may be putting yourself (or your loved ones) in danger.

 

  1. Celebrity Social Proof

Your favorite actress shares which shampoo makes her hair so shiny and beautiful. Your favorite actor prefers Coke over Pepsi. Your favorite rock star plays only Fender guitars. You adore these people and want to emulate them, so you place value on their recommendations.

 

When it gets dangerous:

Jenny McCarthy is a beautiful model, successful television personality and a very funny actress. You can’t help but like her when you watch her on The View. You want to believe what she says is true.

 

But for years, she has been an outspoken activist against vaccination, and has claimed that vaccines cause autism. There are children around the world who are now unvaccinated as a result of her claims, which are not supported by medical research. Making matters worse, she has a huge audience of loyal fans. She has 1.16 million Twitter followers, a Facebook page with more than 585,000 likes and is a published author.

 

When a celebrity recommends a particular shampoo, it’s safe to assume it’s a paid endorsement, and that the shampoo won’t make your children vulnerable to contracting a potentially deadly disease. But when  celebrities share opinions on health, medicine and science you should do additional research. Remember, they’re not scientists.

 

  1. User Social Proof

The FastCompany article describes this as “approval from current users of a product or service, including testimonials, case studies and online reviews.”

 

When it gets dangerous:

Any eloquent writer can give you the false impression that he is an expert on a particular topic. This can become dangerous when people posting, commenting and opining online intentionally, or accidentally, share bad information. We still see this happening on the topic of vaccines. Even though science has proven them wrong, a vocal minority persists in wanting you to believe that vaccines are harmful. Many share their emotional and “personal stories,” which, for all we know, could be fiction.

 

Always consider the source when reading opinions on health, medicine and science. You should also be cautious when considering what you read in blog comments, on Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and other social media platforms. If you read something compelling on a website, find out who runs/sponsors the site. Doing these things may help prevent you from making decisions based on bad information.

 

  1. ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ Social Proof

If others are doing it, you should be doing it too…right? They obviously know something that you don’t, and you certainly don’t want to miss out on a good thing. That’s what marketers want you to think.

 

When it becomes dangerous:

You are putting yourself at risk when you let your opinions be determined solely by those around you. It’s always valuable to consider the input of others, but making important decisions by simply following the crowd is a very bad idea. This is especially important when the decisions involve your health. If you take the time to do even a small amount of research, you may realize the crowd is wrong.

 

  1. ‘Wisdom of Your Friends’ Social Proof

If 5 or 6 of your friends change their Facebook icons to a red equal sign to signify support for same-sex marriage, you may do it too. If other parents share excellent reviews of the new Spiderman movie you may take your kids to see it. If several of your friends tell you that under “Obamacare” you won’t be able to choose your own doctor, you’d probably dislike the law. Friends are strongly influenced by the beliefs and actions of other friends.

 

When it Becomes Dangerous:

If a handful of your friends decided not to vaccinate their children, would you think twice about doing it? If they told you the newest cleanse diet was good for your health, would you give it a try? Unless your friends are medical researchers or nutritionists you should be skeptical. It’s too easy to share, retweet and forward misinformation that sounds credible. Remember that you could be putting your health, and the health of your loved ones, at risk if you don’t check things out for yourself.

 

I hope this piece encourages you to consider the source of what you read, and to make good decisions based on facts instead of rumors and assumptions. Maybe one day we will all be educated consumers of health, medical and science information.

 

If I can provide one takeaway: Trust, but Verify!

 

 

Additional Resources:

Understanding Vaccines: National Institutes of Health

Vaccine Information: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

10 Vaccine Myths: Busted – Parenting Magazine

 

Kirk Englehardt is Director of Research Communication and Marketing for the Georgia Institute of Technology. He currently blogs about strategic communication in science and higher education at http://thestrategyroom.tumblr.com He also posts and interacts regularly on Twitter @kirkenglehardt.

What’s the Big Idea?: We Need to Focus on the Big Picture

global warming
Oh, the irony…
Photo credit: Flickr/Vineus

The Big Picture?

This week, the House of Representatives’ Science, Space and Technology Committee unveiled the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology (FIRST) Act. This legislation wants to prioritize the way the National Science Foundation funds projects in life and chemical sciences, computer science, and mathematics based upon how the projects specifically address national needs. To increase the muddling between science and politics, the NSF would be required to justify the projects funded to Congress and how each benefits the national interests. The measure comes as the Republican-controlled House is pressured to cut federal spending and this would filter out projects with no tangible or timely returns. The bill would also limit the NSF from funding projects that already have funding from other federal agencies in an effort to prevent mission creep and double dipping. The bill fails to address how some projects are complex and have components that have benefits at multiple levels.

This legislation is the latest in a long line of efforts the GOP has used to hinder the scientific community from using its internal peer-review process to advance research and development which in turn would lead to the next generations of innovation desperately needed to sustain the United States’ leadership in science and technology. GOP efforts to appease the extremists within their party by slashing spending no matter who is affected are naive and short-sighted to say the least.

Beginning with the powers of the oil and gas industries masquerading as a conservative, grassroots Tea Party movement, conservatives have fought tirelessly to create an absurd climate debate instead of working on a bipartisan effort to ensure the sustainability of our planet. Congressional leaders have used ‘data’ gathered by conservative think tanks and biased institutes to assert the ‘science is still out’ about the man-made cause of climate change. Ultimately, what are their interests, protecting those who fund their elections or protecting…well, the rest of us? Who stands to lose by enacting cap-and-trade, emissions limits, or biofuel standards? The public as a whole? However, who wins if these and other efforts are in place to fortify our environment for future generations?

Also this week, the U.S. Global Change Research Program released the latest National Climate Assessment stating climage change is no longer a future threat. It’s here. Climatologists have sounded the alarm about global warming for over 30 years. Now the science is as solid as diamond and the consensus is strong. It is very apparent Congress will not actively take measures to grant future generations the awesome pleasure of enjoying our national parks as we have or enjoy time on local lakes or rivers. 

If there is something I’ve learned in the past couple weeks, it is the precious time we have with those we love can end at any moment. I cannot help but think what happens when I am gone? What do I leave behind? How can I show my children how much I loved them and wanted the best for them? It certainly is not doing everything possible to ensure I am victorious every election cycle by bowing to fundraisers.

What can we do to help?

 

It is past time to take back the power by electing members of Congress who can see the big picture by looking past this term in office to the selfless good they can do to help us all. The big picture is increasingly heating up as is our atmosphere.

Storify: Scicomm needs a temple

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Using HIV to Cure Leukemia: Mixed Emotions About the Claims

For those who don’t know, I teach a health science research course at a local college. I love teaching this class because I am allowed to give students a foundation in scientific inquiry and build upon this up to current topics in health science like personalized medicine and systems approaches. All this builds up to an article summary the students prepare based upon a journal article of their choosing.

Two of the students pairing up to present a summary of their paper showed me last night a video they found that accompanied the research they were excited about presenting [see below].

First, I was surprised the principal investigator, Carl June, when asked if he was curing cancer, said unequivocally, “Yes”. I understand this is a promotional video produced by GE, but June really took the bait.

I truly recognize the enormous potential this type of therapy has. The week before being shown this video by the students, I gave a short lecture about science and the media. The main point was to be skeptical of the message portrayed by the media. It appears, I need to revisit this subject.

This promotion of research goes beyond the “Hidden DNA Code” press release that went viral as part of the ENCODE project from the University of Washington. Not only was the wording sketchy (using ‘HIV’ to cure leukemia), but the lead researchers are touting curing cancer (leukemia in this case). A very good article about this entire subject can be found here. In small clinical trials, the therapy has found success thankfully. However, the trials have been very small thus far and we are dealing with cancer; the correct term is remission, not cure.

I urge everyone, please do not read medical breakthrough stories and go away with a warm fuzzy feeling. Please take an extra step and dig a bit deeper. You will find the warm fuzzy feeling is not for the present story you just read but from the optimism you (and everyone else for that matter) should feel about the stories to come in the future when the science has been thoroughly tested and the therapy is real.

For ‘Emma’ in the above video and only Emma, today that therapy is real.