Wanted: A Nation of Bill Nyes. Making science mainstream, fun, and relevant. Part 1.

The United States rose to superpower status through a necessary, aggressive push towards innovation and scientific discovery in the last century. Many of the technologies developed in the last one hundred years were products of research funding by the U.S. government. In the old days, the gap between discovery/invention (public sector) and product development (private sector) was more easily traversed and companies were more than willing to take that leap. What scientists and engineers viewed was almost certainly drastically different from what consumers viewed, but either way, it was progress.

The world is a much different place now. Research funding (minus stimulus funding) has remained stagnant and the outlook is bleak.

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One of the overlooked aspects of this funding is the community outreach and broader impacts that result from grants. This includes money for paying undergraduates and graduate students for research conducted in the grantee’s lab. From personal experience, most of the undergraduates that came through our lab when I was a graduate student were STEM majors. However, this is misleading because the goal after receiving their B.S. was to attend a professional school including medical, dental, and pharmacy schools. To date, only one out of twenty or so undergraduates from our lab later attended a STEM graduate program.

Why aren’t more students interested in STEM?

“A society’s competitive advantage will come not from how well its schools teach the multiplication and periodic table, but from how well they stimulate imagination and creativity”

Albert Einstein, 1953

Technology Education for Students Is Essential in Creating a Future STEM Workforce, and It Starts With Educating Teachers | Felix W. Ortiz III

This truly is a growing concern and rightly so:

Technology Education for Students Is Essential in Creating a Future STEM Workforce, and It Starts With Educating Teachers | Felix W. Ortiz III.

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.

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.