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Posts tagged “science

Work vs. Play vs. School

I’ve always had high expectations for myself. I’ve always set as my “someday goal” an upper level management position, or a significant government post, or a professor at a named institution. I’ve just always oscillated between these as I changed my interests and my ultimate destination. Many friends of mine never questioned what they were going to do with their lives. (High school friends who knew they were going to be doctors and just partook in their white coat ceremonies, for example.) But I’ve never really known. I took a windy path, one could say, to end up where I am now.

But I had a moment last week that reminded me that where I am now is exactly where I want to be. It was the weekend, I was reading for fun. I was reading Science (if that doesn’t tell you a bit about who I am becoming…) and came across an article about “Yellow Lights” in science – basically that the current stop & go regulatory frameworks that are commonplace make it incredibly difficult to innovate in expensive industries. The article focuses on the complex FDA requirements and high biomedical expenses and argues that more flexible regulations – a yellow light or “California Roll,” if you will – could allow new and safe products to get to market (and help patients) faster. (Interestingly, an earlier magazine (June 12) focused a lot on innovative spaces – primarily in Cambridge, MA and the SF Bay Area – that allow biomedical startups to share workspaces and expensive machinery to compensate for these difficulties.)

Remember, I was reading for fun.

And then I realized I was also reading for work. Because my current task is to analyze the FDA regulatory structures and attempt to find ways the NRC could potentially mimic successful FDA frameworks. And this yellow light idea is definitely one to steal, for it would allow reactor designs that are more efficient but differ significantly from those currently on line to be approved in stages. This would in turn allow the designers to find funding in stages, instead of looking for a couple billion dollars on day one.

And then I realized I was also reading for school. Because part of my research project this fall is to look at other industries – I had planned originally to focus on technologies that inspired a regulatory overhaul, but the FDA parallel structure briefly mentioned in the article (and which I’ve thoroughly researched since then) could also be a perfect case study for comparison. Oh wait, that’s what I’m to complete over the next two weeks at work! And then I’ll rewrite it for school. And the book I’m currently reading for fun is about the beginnings of computer science; I haven’t gotten to anything significant about regulations, but I’m only 1/3 of the way through the book. So maybe my fun reading will become school too. Less likely, but still possible, it might become work.

So work is becoming school is becoming play is becoming work is becoming …

And while I know my parents have discussions where they go back and forth – one is proud of what I’ve done and the experiences I’ve had, while the other is distinctly more aware of the incredibly accomplished people my age who knew what they wanted years ago and have a much more focused resume – I always remember what I’ve noticed about the CVs of the professors I’ve admired and the industrial professionals I’ve looked up to: they’re usually missing a few years. Their resumes and CVs list their undergraduate graduation date and, with only a couple exceptions, nearly nothing can be found within five years of that date in either direction. Maybe an internship with a particularly significant politician, or a summer job at a big name company. But usually, nothing.

I often remind my friends about this while they stress about finding the perfect job today that will set them up for their dreams tomorrow. I remind them that the people we dream to become did something, presumably, for those few years, but it didn’t hold enough importance, relevance, whatever. Even just ten years out, those few post-college years became professionally irrelevant.

Obviously, I don’t want to aimlessly wander for a few years on the assumption that I can take them off my resume when I become who I want to be. I’m not squandering my immediate future because the resumes of people I idolize don’t mention that part of their lives. But I am using this reality – because it is reality – to remind myself that this is the time of my life when I should be doing what I want to be doing. This is the time when I should pursue jobs where expectations at work and the things I’m passionate about align, because that’s how I’ll get to the dream jobs I’ve always seen myself in.

And with that, I’m off to read an article that’s long been on my list of things that sound interesting. My fun list, if you will. I just put it off until an hour when I could say I read it for work, because its relevant to that too. 😉

“Fewer is More”

If I have a mini-passion inspired by my life experiences, its that scientists need to learn to communicate more effectively. We learn all these amazing things about the world around us: in just the past week, scientists have made discoveries as large as ancient ice on Pluto and as small as the existence of pentaquarks.

While images of Pluto are breathtaking and inspirational, a significant amount of discussion has been had in recent days regarding how to justify to the public the importance of visiting the outer edges of our solar system. An entire generation of scientists – the generation of scientists who are making these incredible discoveries today – were inspired to be where they are now by the Apollo explorations of yesteryear. And yet, they have no idea how to convince the general public that the next generation of scientists are being created today by the very same thing: inspirational trips to discover the unknown.

For someone like me, who already knows and loves physics, the announcement of the pentaquarks is even cooler. We know protons and neutrons, which combine to form the nucleus of every atom of every element, consist of three quarks. Scientists have discovered two different particles composed of five quarks each, and though we don’t know what they create, we know they contribute to explaining the Standard Model. Beyond that, who knows what this discovery will mean? Perhaps the next generation of scientists, the kids in classrooms who watched the images New Horizons sent home last week, will figure it out for us.

And herein lies the problem: the current generation of scientists doesn’t know how to talk to the next generation of scientists (or their parents). We barely even know how to talk to ourselves. Regardless of what I decide to study when I move to the next phase of my schooling, I’m absolutely not going to be studying anywhere unless they have courses in science communication. I want to learn how to speak to other scientists, especially scientists in other fields, and explain what I’ve learned. But most importantly, I want to be able to speak to non-scientists. Scientists need to be able to speak to non-scientists.

We can’t just assume that science journalists will do our job for us, because the journalists are easily duped by false science (case in point: the chocolate is good for you study) and the reality is that you can only truly explain what you understand. So if a journalist can understand 50% of the significance of a discovery, then the public will, at best, get 50% of its importance. But if scientists could learn to express the significance themselves, then the public has a better chance of understanding the fundamental beauty of whatever has just been added to the body of human knowledge.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just that scientists don’t know what to say, they also don’t know how to say it. The number of times I’ve bitten my tongue to not correct “fewer” or “less” over the past five weeks is innumerable. And its not just to my fellow students; professors, lecturers, and lab techs have all said “less data points support this conclusion than that” or “something has fewer probability.” (Don’t remember which to use? Just remember: your grocery store is probably wrong.)

We have a 1,500 word research report due in a few days, and everyone is stressing because they don’t know how to put their thoughts and understanding down on paper. They’re more worried about the paper than the presentation that will require standing in front of ~20 people, not because they’re comfortable speaking in front of groups, but because they’re terrified of writing a paper.  (For reference, this post in total is 704 words; I wrote it in about 20 minutes.) Now, I’m not saying that I am always grammatically correct, or that I have perfect English. But scientists are the people who have discovered the world, and so many have no way to express it. How many incredible discoveries have been lost to history because the report manuscript was rejected for poor clarity? How many were lost because the research proposal was indecipherable? How much time and energy is wasted because nobody bothered to teach the scientist how to teach the world?

Well, that was cool.

Yesterday, we took a day trip into NYC to visit the Memorial Sloan Kettering cancer research center for what was actually a phenomenally interesting tour. It started with a bunch of presentations by various program heads about their particular research, including recent/ongoing projects as well as historical accomplishments. (Side note: one thing that is fabulous about this program, which I think most people don’t realize, is the fact that the important people themselves are giving us our tours. When we visited Stony Brook University, it was the head of the Chem department, not some grad student, who showed us around. I’ll talk a bit more about who, what, where going forward, but it blows my mind every time someone gets introduced to us. It is increasingly clear to me that this program isn’t just about providing an interesting educational opportunity for students potentially interested in nuclear and radiochemistry; it really is about finding for each of us the subset of nuclear/radio-/isotopic chemistry that fascinates us and giving us all the connections we need to really get into the field.)

At MSK, the head of radiological research came to talk to us; the director of the cyclotron took us around and answered all our questions; the head researcher brought us into the small animal lab and showed us every single imaging machine (even the brand new C-13 magnetic imager that hasn’t even been used in more than a dozen experiments yet).

On the one hand, MSK wasn’t all that exciting for me, because I’m not interested in cancer research. Nearly everything we got told about was the application of radioisotopes to diagnostic imaging and cancer treatments. That said, the tour of the cyclotron and the isotope production labs was awesome. This is where nuclear engineering, biomedical engineering, radiochemistry, and organic chemistry have all come together to create an incredible process. Radioactive nuclides are created in their cyclotron – mostly F-18 from enriched O-18 water. (Water with O-18, which is stable but rare, instead of the normally occurring O-16.) F-18 is used in a half dozen commonly used tracers, which are used by oncologists to find and track the growth of cancerous tumors in various imaging modalities. (PET, MR, etc.) Once the nuclide is produced, it gets sent to hot cubes, which are basically lead lined 3’x3′ hoods where the radioactive nuclide is isolated and the organic chemistry gets done to put the nuclide into the molecule. The thing is, since they’re so hot (radioactivity, not temperature), most of this work is done using robotics where possible or by operators controlling robotic arms. Once the molecule is made, it gets tested in quality control and then sent upstairs to the hospital and used. They’re currently working on obtaining FDA approval to make a certain F-18 compound that is used in approximately 50 images daily at MSK alone – once they have that approval, they anticipate making the compound and selling it to hospitals around NYC and up the eastern seaboard. The combination of research and business all to find, diagnose, and cure cancer is truly incredible. (MSK runs an annual profit upwards of $2b…) So I guess, while the actual medical application wasn’t all that interesting, the technology that underlies all of it (literally – the cyclotron and accompanying labs are all in the basement) was fascinating.

It was also amazing to recognize how much we’ve learned in just two weeks. I can only assume that a relatively constant level of complexity was maintained throughout their presentations, but when the presentation was about specific biological uptakes in cancer cells or the mechanisms of cancer in the (human or mouse) body, I had no idea what they were saying. BUT, when they talked about the processes of producing isotopes and using them to tag organic compounds, it felt like they were talking below us. Even though its only been a couple of weeks, I’ve got a pretty solid understanding of a wide base of nuclear and radiochemistry. I can’t wait for what the other three weeks of classes will hold.

Wait, Kathy! I thought this was a six week program? But only five weeks of classes? Huh?

This week – Week 3 – is all tours and experiences and guest lectures. First of all, Friday is July 3, which is a national holiday, so no class on Friday. Yesterday, we went to MSK. Today, we had two guest lectures given by two scientists who have worked here for 30+ years each. They are senior scientists working on the linear accelerator (BLIP – Brookhaven LINAC Isotope Producer) and the cyclotrons (technically, there are three…) They each talked about their respective machines: their histories, their construction, their functions, and the research they are currently being used for. This afternoon, we’ll be going on a tour of them. Unfortunately, BLIP is currently running, which means we’ll only get to see the outside and the control room, but if its anything like the time I toured ATLAS, it’ll still be really cool. And then we get to see the cyclotron too! Tomorrow, we’re heading out to Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant for a tour of that, which may very well be the one thing I was most excited when we got our six-week schedule on Day 1. Then, on Thursday, we’ve got a lecture from two professors at the University of Notre Dame about nuclear forensics; I know the same process can be used in geological dating, anthropological dating (mostly on ancient ceramics), crime analysis (for example, gunshot residue differs from one shot to the next) and “detonation materials” (bombs – you can tell who supplied the material based on its fingerprint). I’m excited about that one too, since a lot of these techniques, and the research into facilitating faster forensic analysis, is being used and funded by the IAEA.  And then next week we get back into hardcore classes with a professor from UNLV (I think…)

As we go into week three, I’m experiencing the 18-ish-day slump (whereby I get tired of being wherever I am somewhere in the middle of the third week). I’m a bit tired of living in a dorm again; tired of having to carry my shampoo to the shower every day and of having to carry my food from the mini-fridge in my room to the stovetop/microwave downstairs in the kitchen. As much as I love the people here with me, spending basically all day every day with them has made me a bit tired of them – some act young, some act out, sometimes I just want my space and my porch and my friends from school, or my farmer’s market and my street and my family. But I know it’ll pass; I’ve retreated into a book and I’m sure by the time I finish it I’ll be ready for another three weeks with ’em all.

For now, I’ve got a lab report and some research to finish up, not to mention a couple tours to go catch. More to come, I promise (I might even get around to our various trips into NYC on the weekends for fun…)

Thanks Are in Order

As a student of the sciences, I think it is high time I thank the people who have saved me over and over again over the years. And no, I’m not talking about my parents. (Although they did provide me with a brain capable of comprehending…so thanks to you too, I guess.)

No, I’m talking about all those authors who write science books for non-scientists. This is a genre of books I’ve always loved. I loved the science for kids books and, as I grew up, I’ve loved books that explain something (anything, really!) to me. But this week, I need to express a particular appreciation for Richard Martin, author of Super Fuel.

Eventually, I’ll finish the book, and you’ll get a TBTW about it, I promise! But for now, I just need to say:

If you got past Science 101 in college, then you know that science textbooks go very quickly (read: instantaneously) from 1) a superficial overview of a number of topics that include gross generalizations and simplifications in order to expose the student to a broad swath of the subject to 2) a very specific consideration of a topic that assumes complex understanding of about a million classes you never took.

For example, in chemistry, quantum mechanics assumes you already understand all of kinematics, and kinematics assumes you get quantum mechanics (does anyone really get quantum mechanics?) Or in physics, where the advanced lab course requires the topics taught in optics, and optics requires the lab technique taught in the advanced lab course. Regardless of the science you’re studying, there will come a time when the textbook assumes intimate knowledge of topics you’ve never heard of (and the Wikipedia page is similarly bad) and you will want to cry because nothing you’re supposed to be learning makes sense.

Enter science for non-scientists. Specifically, books that have to do with topics you’re intimately interested in.

Because every so often, your Fundamentals of Nuclear Reactor Physics textbook’s pages upon pages of equations do an exemplary job at explaining something like nuclear flux without any actual words, so the wikipedia page (which is all words, and no equations) makes just as much sense. But then the kind science writer explains “in technical terms the ‘neutron flux’ – the density of neutrons zipping around” (pg 68) and all those equations instantly make sense. In just two pages, the entire chapter that made very little, if any, sense at all, suddenly makes sense now. Not because the author incredibly compacted 40 pages of equations into two pages of text, but because he provided the words and the analogies that made the complex ideas “click.”

So thanks, Mr. Martin. I look forward to the next 150 pages of your book.

(And yes, when I got fed up with my nuclear physics, I went running to nuclear physics to escape. Don’t judge.)

I’m Published!

The summer has come to an end, which means that my internship at Forum is over and I have moved on to what is shaping up to be a crazy fun, crazy busy, and crazy difficult senior year. But, over the course of the summer, I was working on something at Forum that I haven’t written about here. Namely, I was writing!

In addition to my internship duties at Forum, helping with researching shows and finding guests and everything else, I’ve been working to write blog posts for other parts of KQED based on Forum shows. In essence, the station tries to connect online, TV, and radio coverage as much as possible by cross-referencing. Things that get put on air are often written about online, and the articles include the audio clips. Forum has a social media specialist who usually writes posts like these, but she was on leave this summer. I like writing, so I tried to write some posts along those lines. I wrote and had four posts published for both the State of Health blog and the Science blog:

Using Disney Movies to Reach a Son with Autism: This was the first post I wrote and, interestingly, the last one that actually went online. From the beginning, I helped with this guest for Forum, reading most of Suskind’s book before he joined us on air (book review here), and even having a really interesting conversation with him about Sleeping Beauty after the show. This post was fun to write, and was based a little bit on the Forum hour and a little bit on the book itself; it was the only of the four posts I wrote that dealt with our second hour, and the hardest to write but a lot of fun.

5 Things You Should Know About Sun Protection: The second post I wrote and the first one online, this was a lot of fun but also a bit challenging. I listened to the full hour twice over, collected all the experts’ tips, and then distilled them down into a single post of five tips. I got a lot of suggestions from the State of Health editor on how to make it a better post, which turned out well for my next two posts also.

Sleep Apps, Myths, and More: Strategies for a Good Night’s Rest: I wrote this post on my very last day at Forum – the hour was Tuesday morning, I wrote the post Tuesday afternoon, and the post was published later in the week. It was nice to get a rapid turnaround for the site, and to show myself and the KQED editors that I was able to get it done. Also, this post was published on the State of Health site, but also linked to and visible on the Science page, which I found exciting.

Gardening in the Drought: What Makes a Plant ‘Drought-Tolerant’: My only post for the Science page exclusively, this one was the only post for which I did serious research in addition to listening to Forum. Instead of basing it exclusively on the hour, I used our drought-friendly gardening hour as a peg for a post that answers a question I’d been asking myself – why are some plants called ‘drought-tolerant’? I did the research and wrote the post from both my research and our guests’ quotes, which was an interesting challenge that I think I was able to complete.

As someone who isn’t a journalism major, I came into my internship feeling a little bit out of place. But the conversation we had at the beginning of the summer, in which we were encouraged to write for the KQED blogs, I felt a little more in my element. After all, I write a blog on the regular, so to speak. Once I got started, I actually enjoyed the process much more than I expected. I received a lot of valuable editorial suggestions, and was able to publish four posts on the website of the largest public radio station in the nation, and one of the biggest news sources in the greater Bay Area. I got compliments from the editors, who said they were impressed with my writing and my ability to take corrections/make edits. Most importantly, I discovered that I really enjoyed the process. Even though three of my four posts were primarily health-based, they all have at least a bit of a science spin to them. I don’t know if science journalism is something I want to actively pursue, but it would certainly be some good fun, and it is (yet another) idea to keep in mind.

Welcome to Nerd Heaven

If you live in the Bay Area and didn’t visit the Maker Faire this weekend, you missed out. If you don’t live in the Bay Area (or you do and are visiting anywhere ever), check out this list of other Maker Faires around the nation and the world, and visit the one nearest you.

Before we get into this year’s Faire, a bit of Maker Faire history. The very first Maker Faire was hosted by Make Magazine here in San Mateo in 2006. 20,000 people went, even though it was a complete unknown.  There are currently Faires in New York, Houston, and Detroit, as well as international Faires in England, China, South Africa, and elsewhere. Last year’s Faire has 110,000 visitors, and this year’s Faire definitely had more than that. Way more visitors in two days than the county fair has in two weeks. More people than the whole city of San Mateo, in fact.

The Faire is full of crazy cool stuff. I remember that the coolest thing a few years ago was the 3D printer, the printer that melts plastic and prints it layer by layer into three-dimensional hollow figures of any shape and size. They were just for show, although you could bring home a brightly colored robot for free. This year, a smaller version of the printer was on sale for $299, and sold out by the end of the first day.

The life-sized (giant, actually) mouse trap game still works, and Adam Savage still comes and speaks. The giant bubbles from last year were still flying, though the laser-beam harp was new this year.

As Robby said, only at the Makers Faire do you see a robot wandering through the parking lot and merely say, “hey look – another robot.”

Trees, Fish, and Einstein

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

-Albert Einstein [1]

If you haven’t seen this quote, either you don’t have internet access or you don’t have friends that spend hours and hours aimlessly wandering the internet and posting semi-relevant links and quotes on your facebook wall. If you have seen this quote, you probably looked at it and thought “Huh. Interesting.”

Or you might have thought, “This is the problem with American education. We need to get rid of standardized tests.” That was my response the first time I saw it. I saw this cute cartoon, and I thought it was quite well drawn. Is that a question mark above the fish’s head? A hook to help it climb?


But then I was watching Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk about schools and the dearth (death?) of creativity they create, and I remembered the quote. But not correctly. I remembered it like this:

If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will think it is stupid. [2]

I forgot the “Everybody is a genius” part. Does that mean I don’t think everyone is a genius? No.

Okay, yes.

I think everyone has individual talents. Some people are natural-born artists, others are incredibly skilled at sports. Pelé? Soccer genius. Freddy Adu? Brilliant, amazing, talented. Not a genius. Robbie Rogers? Super brave, certainly skilled. Impressive, but not a genius.

This leads me to something that has bothered me about our education system for a while now. Every parent wants to put their kid into “gifted and talented” programs. Look at the New York City issue with kindergarten testing. Now I’m not oblivious to the harsh realities of our school systems. Rich parents get to send their kids to expensive private schools with smaller class sizes. These schools don’t have to adhere as strictly to state standards, giving these schools and their teachers more time to focus on subjects like art and music, or to emphasize topics within standard educational subjects the students will actually enjoy. I’m not oblivious to this because I lived it. I went to a small private school where we literally voted on what we wanted to study in 7th and 8th grade Humanities. [3]

If we go back to our fish and tree analogy, I am a monkey. Climbing trees comes easily. I got lucky in that my talents fall squarely within what our school system aims to foster. Math, Science, English; they all come easily. I “get it.” Interestingly, when I look back at my small, private school education, my worst grades by far were in Art and Chorus, where I was told I needed to focus more and put my mind to it. I remember getting those comments and being frustrated. These teachers also saw me in Math and Social Studies, they knew I was smart, they knew that I always did my best. Why were they giving me bad grades in classes that I was trying hard in, but good grades in classes I barely had to work at?

Why did they expect me to be a good artist when no-one expects monkeys to swim? [4]

My school was for gifted and talented students, and looking back I realize that definition was independent of species. There was definitely a fish in my class (we’ll call her Talia; she’s an amazing artist and loved Writing but always struggled in Math and Science), and I’d say there were some other types of animals too.

The education I received was wonderfully tailored. There was time for each student to get the help she needed in every subject, and there was time to prepare us all for whatever came next. We each got to pursue our own passions for the full month of January and every Friday afternoon. We learned table manners on school trips to Ashland, Oregon, and made memories everywhere from LA to Japan. Each student was recognized for the animal he or she was, and was given the appropriate challenges. Yes, fish were forced to climb trees and monkeys had to swim, but the teachers really focused on letting each student grow in the direction they wanted to.

But I was lucky, and not everyone has the opportunities I got in terms of individualized education. In normal schools, monkeys are never really forced to swim – the closest they have to get is dipping their toes in. But all the fish have to climb trees. Many of them aren’t very good at it. But some of them are.

Here’s my question, and its two-fold: What do we do about the fish that do climb trees? How should education be changed so that students entering our schools now and in the future aren’t forced to study “normal” subjects they don’t care about, and what do we do about the left-brained students already halfway through their education, torturing themselves to memorize facts for tests they’ll forget in a week?

There is an argument that can be made, and a valid one in my opinion, that every member of society ought to have a broad base of knowledge. Ideally, everyone who graduates from an American school is able to read and write, and has the basic math skills to compute tip when they go out to eat, or calculate the change they are due. But this broad knowledge needs to go beyond what current standardized tests are testing. Graduates should know a bit of world history, and maybe a smattering of a second language. They ought to know how to solve a problem they are facing, and have something to turn to in times of stress.

American high school graduates should not be mathematically inclined English speaking robots. Incoming American students are a diverse group of people, and they should leave our education system the same way. But they should have grown. Each student has a passion; the purpose of the education system ought to be to help each student find and nurture his passion. Kids are incredibly creative, and that creativity shows itself in every imaginable way, and then some. Some kids draw, some tell stories, some have an aptitude for algebra, and some for the violin. We need to stop pretending that there is a job for every college graduate, stop forcing students to major in things they don’t want to study so they’ll get a job.

I’m majoring in Chemical Physics and Political Science. (If you’re in the maths or sciences. If you’re a humanities or social sciences major, I’m majoring in Political Science and Chemical Physics.) Regardless of who I talk to, their first response is always “What are you going to do with that?” I have no idea. Not a flipping clue. I’m interested in Comparative STEM Education Policy. Or Nuclear Energy Policy. Maybe I’ll become the much-needed person sitting at the table with the politicians and scientists translating one language into the other. Maybe I’ll throw away the $200,000 my parents have so kindly spent on my education and travel the world instead. Regardless of what I want to do now or where I think I’ll end up, I’m studying things I love, taking classes in subjects I’m genuinely interested and passionate about. I have hope that my passion and dedication will be enough to get me a job. Because I’m an idealist, and I think it should.


1. Who knows if this quote is actually Einstein? The internet says so, but the internet also says Abraham Lincoln said the thing about quotes on the internet is that you cannot confirm their validity. If you don’t understand the irony here, please leave.

2.In case you’re interested, there actually are fish that climb trees (catfishmangrove killifishgourami).


3. It was South Africa and the Renaissance, if you wanted to know.

4. Most monkeys will cross water bodies when necessary, but prefer not to. Except these guys.