Thursday, December 22, 2011

British Marks and American Grades

There are rumblings that Britain may be very soon debating the relative merits of changing their university degree classification system to a more internationally recognized version of an American style GPA. This will be a huge challenge. Moving between the marking/grading systems (Brits say marks, Americans grades) was one of the most difficult cultural problems that I encountered when I started teaching in Great Britain There are two areas where the accepted way of doing things is reversed;  1) the reversal of categorical classification and numerical scoring for individual classes and final degree, and 2)  the calculation, or non-calculation of exit velocity (weighting end of program grades more heavily). In addition, there is no clear linear way to map the A to F 0-4.00 GPA system to Britain’s 1st 2.1, 2. 3rd  0-100 system.

The most obvious difference between the US GPA system and the British degree classification is that a British student gets a classification on their final diploma, whereas the US system provides a GPA as a general overall mark. The greatest weakness of the British system is an inability to distinguish within classifications. In Russell Group universities about 18% graduate with a first and 57% graduate with 2.1. This means that almost 57% of British graduates from the top 20 universities are lumped together with no way to distinguish them without picking through their transcripts. I should point out that degree classification is critical for a Brtish student’s future because most employers use these as a rule of thumb:  first means outstanding, hire them before the other guy does, 2.1 means good enough to interview, 2.2 means only interview if you have to (updated citation from the Guardian), and third means you’ll be lucky if they show up for work most of the time. Hence there is a great deal of pressure to get these correct because it really does matter.  In the US, an employer would ask for a GPA or perhaps class rank. These two US measures provide a much finer distinction between students and are based on results collected over more years (4 year degree in the US versus using only 2 years out of a 3 year degree in Britain). They are therefore a generally more accurate measure of performance over the entire student’s degree program.

Another important difference is that the British system attempts to classify the student as they are at graduation, whereas the US system gives an average measure of student performance over their entire time at university. In Britain, the final 0-100 scores are weighted to correct for exit velocity (weighting the last years more than the first years of the degree) before averaging to find the degree classification. One common weighting scheme is not to count to the first year, include second year marks and then count third year marks twice (weighting 0:1:2) to determine a percentage score which is converted into the degree classification.  Borderline cases are then dealt with in some standard or even subjective manner. Thus the British degree classification indicates the students’ level of performance at the time of graduation.  In contrast, a US GPA measures the overall performance throughout the students’ time in university. In the British system, the responsibility of correcting for exit velocity is the university’s call whereas in the US it is the employers’ job to look at the transcript and correct how they see fit for trends in grades. Thus, a US GPA is a nothing more than a raw and wholly unuseful number from the point of view of the current British system. On the other hand, this makes perfect sense for American universities with a broader curriculum. Here the trend for classes in one's major might, or might not, be the one an employer is most interested in. Who is responsible for correcting for exit velocity may be the single greatest obstacle to defining a universal worldwide consistent GPA or degree classification system. Either British academics will have to relinquish correcting for exit velocity (good luck with that) or the US will have to agree to similar weighting schemes. Not only would one side’s academics and students have to adjust to one way or the other, but the employers would also have to be re-educated on this issue.

Finally, the most confusing practical issue is the non-linear way percentage scores in Britain map onto percentage scores in the US system.  In the British system 70 and above is considered first class (a solid to high A in the US system). Furthermore, anything above 90 is almost unheard of and 100 for an essay exam answer simply never happens. The next level down is a 2.1 classification (B+ to A-in the US) that is between 60 and 70 in Britain. This is considered a well done job. The next level is a 2.2 from 50 to 60 which is a decent enough job (mid C to B) and a third from 40 to 50 (D- to C). Below 40 is a fail. 

Even trying to use a simple percentage or 0-100 scale instead of the 0-4pt GPA scale would not provide any more progress towards an international metric without great cultural change and re-education of academics and employers. The best one might hope to achieve is to provide a 0 - 100 mark for British degrees in British units to distinguish within the large groups of 1st and 2.1 students. Class rank might seem to work but it is clear that there are differences among years and trends in performance over years that rankings would not reflect.

It will be an interesting year if some British universities do follow through to begin work on such a move.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A New Hope: the end of philosophy and rise of education as the unifying subject of academia.

I recently heard a talk by a former philosophy student who is now training nurses. He argues that educational training in a university should address who the student wants to become, and that this goal must be integrated into learning professional ethics. The perspective and the ensuing discussion about ethics and values and focusing on what becoming means revealed to me why I have found education such an interesting field of study. Education has replaced philosophy as the primary unifying cross-disciplinary academic subject. I used to hold the ancient view that all other subjects at a university were somehow subtopics of philosophy. This might have been true in the past but now philosophy appears to have reasoned itself out of practical relevance, if not existence. Philosophy is now an inward looking if not inward practicing discipline just like all of the STEM subjects and most of the humanities. Now education is only the field whose thought invades and deliberately tries to shape every other department on campus.

At our university I am beginning to see more people in our education group asking how we teach ethics and professional values while facing important issues of how to help a student develop fully into the person he or she would like to become. The first step is attacking the problem of criticality and what it means to get a student to think critically and independently.  There are now real hints that at least at our university, the field of education may be on the cusp of a shift away from the current obsession with quantifiable assessment and the churning out purely practical products with transferable skills. Education researchers are now thinking about the ethical and quality of life goals of our students. Furthermore, education researchers see the value of doing this on a universal level looking for the commonalities and differences across disciplines. Education researchers are now the only truly fully engaged interdisciplinary academics. Ironically, one of my most influential teachers once wrote that to teach teaching is a meaningless statement without linking it to a specific discipline. But I am now convinced that the teaching field is the best hope for recovering what has been lost in our obsession with merely giving students the material and practical skills they need to do practical work for our society.  The real lovers of knowledge are the ones who care enough to think about how to teach students to be not just good at what they do, but to be good human beings, good citizens and ultimately good leaders.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Amazing ATP Synthase Animations

There are some really nice ATP synthase animations at Click on the animation links for more. This enzyme complex is sometimes used by Intelligent Designers as an example of something to complex to have evolved. What is nice about this animation is that the rotating parts are clearly evident fitting in well with it evolving from a flagella or swimming apparatus in bacteria.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Two organizations with the right idea.

Tonight I am attending the Annual Kerkut Trust dinner. This charity was set up by Gerald Kerkut to fund physiology graduate students at my university. The value of these cannot be understated. There is no place else consistently offering such no strings attached money for exciting new projects and students. The foundation is extremely generous and almost always responds positively to request for extra funds and especially travel money.  They don’t ask you to lie about potential future economic impact, only that the science be solid and new. The application is short and to the point. The result is an invaluable resource for genuinely novel and new biomedical research projects that would never get off the ground otherwise. This has to be the most underappreciated charity at my university given the magnitude of the effect I have seen it have on the faculties that it helps.
Coincident with my dinner is an announcement in Science Magazine that the NSF is proposing a new initiative, Creative Research Awards for Transformative Interdisciplinary Ventures (CREATIV).It is a program to promote what Science calls out-of-the-box research. What is new and exciting is that it is all about taking risks and working between disciplinary boundaries and actually exploring the unknown rather than just being the next step sort of science. The key requirement is that it must be transformative. Such a program would never even get a hearing today in Britain with the conservative government hell bent on only funding practical and safe translational research. It is nice to see that the US still has its revolutionary spirit.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Ode to A4 with thanks to Stephen Fry

Two of the best things in Britain are Stephen Fry and A4 paper. One of my favourite books by Fry has inspired me to honour both with an ode. The book, “An Ode LessTravelled” is a very accessible and fun way to learn about poetry in a clear and entertaining way. I now find myself walking around chanting ti tum ti tum ti tum ti tum ti tum and trying to hear the meter of words and sentences. This is not easy for someone as musically challenged as myself. One of the unfortunate results of reading his book is that he asks you write lots of poems along the way. I confess that I have not done every exercise but I have put together a Sapphic ode, anglicised like his examples by Pope. For those who want a clearer description of A4 and it’s useful properties see Wikipedia (

An Ode to A4
(dedicated to Stephen Fry)

The longer page allows more lines,
with extra words and lots more white
to free from letter size confines.
                          More room to write.

To make a perfect ratio
fold halfway down and when you’re through,
dividing width by height will show;
                          square root of two.

From home made cards to poster size,
your image scales with every fold.
A4 requires no compromise.
                       Your message sold.

Why two pads for different tasks?
Too long legal, too fat letter,
One size is not too much ask.
                        A4's better!

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Paradigm Shift Continues.

Sohal and Orr have seen the light! Two more giants of the old free radical theory have moved on from the death of the old free radical theory of aging.  In an in press review in FRBM, these two leaders in free radical research argue that structural based oxidative stress and the idea of accumulated damage is not the primary cause of aging, and that the effect of redox balance on signalling is likely more important. They then stake a claim to a new version of a free radical model by labelling it “the Redox Stress Hypothesis”. This review is a much more sober conservative take preserving a central role for reactive oxygen species model compared to Blagosklonny’s call to revolution back in 2008. What is clear is that the old idea that free radicals cause aging by direct accumulation of damage is being over thrown and several reasonable contenders are arising from the ashes.
Genuine Kuhnian paradigm shifts in Science are rare. It is really fun to be able to watch this one as it has been slowly evolving for the past five or so years. It seems so intuitive to think that the damage correlated with aging is the cause rather than the effect of growing old, but the opposite is being proven true. There are still many diehards out there who have not got the message. The next interesting validation of Kuhn will be to see how many of those don’t change their minds. According to Kuhn, a significant number will never be able to let the old paradigm go. At least not until their own redox signalling pathways become hopelessly unbalanced. For the laypersons who made it this far, the take home message is to not waste your money on antioxidant supplements to prevent aging.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Some aging research progress

There have been a couple of interesting ageing papers recently. One showing how caloric restriction works through a mechanism involving hydrogen peroxide and another on flushing out old cells in mice. Some people think I am little extreme in my views about the free radical theory of aging being dead, but I am right here. We do not just burn up or wear out and both of these studies shed light on how this works. We age because we cannot maintain the fine balance to perfectly control our repair and maintenance processes indefinitely. The beauty of the connection of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) to caloric restriction is that H2O2 is also a signalling molecule that can affect phosphorylation pathways. This helps to connect all of the known aging metabolic pathways to the balance of highly reactive forms of oxygen that can act as monitors of metabolic activity and stress. The difference between this emerging theory and the old free radical theory is that it is the balance, and not the direct damage from these reactive and unstable signalling molecules that is important. Unfortunately, the authors and the reviewers are both still hung up on the old free radical theory and seem to be missing the point by describing the process in terms of H2O2 resistance. Caloric restriction increases the expression of an enzyme that re-activates a peroxiredoxin (an enzyme that changes H2O2 to water) reducing the amount of H2O2.  The unasked question is why would lower glucose levels require a greater ability to scavenge free radicals?  The whole system is tied into a feedback loop so H2O2 levels would seem to remain elevated in the presence of normal or excessive levels of glucose. I fear that this paper is just going to add yet more fuel to the dying fire of the old free radical theory.
The other paper is also very interesting from a systems biology point of view. What they essentially did was to improve the mechanisms for removing dying cells. They made a mouse with a “kill this cell now” gene controlled by a promoter linked to a gene that tells sick and dying cells to eventually die. In these genetically modified mice, one can trigger the  ”kill this cell gene”  with a drug so that sick and dying cells are more quickly removed. The result is an improvement in overall maintenance and less age related problems for the animal as a whole. Interestingly, this shows that dying cells are not necessarily important for signalling repair mechanisms or the animals would have been less healthy.  The other good thing is that these authors noted that they only tested on one genetic background. Aging effects are notoriously dependent on all levels of environmental effects from the genetic to physiological and even social. The H2O2 study above was done with yeast which are strange in the way they age (not multicellular) and needs to be explored in much more detail in animals and across genetic backgrounds as well. So some progress, but no sign of immortality in our immediate futures.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Science Media Madness.

The media and science are natural born enemies; the one sells opinions while the other replaces opinions with facts. Journalist prowl the university press releases, stalking us like big cats, striking at the most unexpected times. When a journalist call does come, the first feeling is one of abject terror. Some of my fellow researchers are in the midst of one of these most dreaded aspects of doing science, the media frenzy.

What is going on now is probably the most benign type of media folly. Some of my colleagues won a grant to do a study on the effects of nanoparticles in diesel fuel on honeybees. It might or might not give us groundbreaking data on a number of important health and agricultural problems. The key word here is might. If they new the answer, then they would not bother wasting taxpayers money on the project. It is typical case of the media setting their own agenda by fixating on the unproven minutia. This is a minor side project as the Guy involved recently secured a large proportion of the nations research spending on climate change for the university. When the interview requests came in, I heard the conversations in our open office as the PI coached his post doc on how to give very simple clear statements that did not over sell, nor could be taken out of context. This is critical training because the press has lost it’s way and is no longer concerned with truth or anything higher like it’s special role in democratic states. All the major outlets seem to care about anymore is making money by stirring up controversy and problems. Reporters are out to get us to say something stupid and to miss-represent whatever we say in a way to get the most eyeballs on their advertizements. There are some good science writers that I have worked with like Amanda Schaeffer and John Whitfield, but most reporters already know the story they are going to write and just want to drag a scientists into it to give the story some appearance of credibility.

One of the biggest problems with science and the media is the resulting over sell by journalists. Preliminary studies and grants become breakthroughs and the science is usually not presented well enough for a poorly educated public to interpret. From our school in the past few years we have had watercress curing breast cancer based on a trial run of ten women, and curry as the magic food to slow Alzheimer’s based on one of the thousands of chemicals in tasty curry showing some promise in a fruit fly model. In both cases the lab groups involved seemed startled at the media reaction and really had no choice but to try and ride the wave of over-hype while maintaining their integrity.  I have not noticed any up tick in the number of watercress curries in our lunch areas.

There is one extreme form of media mistake that I think is border-line fraud. That is the deliberate misrepresentation of science for personal gain. In my field, every month I see some idiot out there saying that the science of aging is on the verge of breakthroughs that will significantly increase lifespan by some absurd number of years. This could not be further from the truth. Aging research is in a state of confusion today as the most popular theory, the free radical theory, has collapsed. There is absolutely no chemical or drug out there now that has been shown to slow the aging process in humans, period. Life spans are increasing because of breakthroughs in heart disease and cancer and not because of anything to do with modifying the general process of aging. The problem with these claims is that whenever someone says that we are the verge of immortality or curing Alzheimer’s, people actually believe it and expect it to happen soon. They want to know where these promised benefits are and then misappropriate funding to translational research (making practical drugs and treatments from basic discoveries) where there is very little if anything to translate. The most grievous case in my opinion was the first discovery of life on Mars. I immediately looked up nano-bacteria and my heart sank when I realized that NASA probably had it wrong, and most likely over-selling the story without technically telling any lies. The pretty pictures of the “bacteria fossils” were explained by inorganic processes within a year. This goes to show how far one can fall in science when truth is sacrificed for financial and political gain. Since then this same group claims to have more solid evidence but who can take them seriously after hijacking the Pope's and presidents' agendas for something so quickly disproved? I still sometimes see those tatter clippings of the so-called Martian bacteria posted on the walls in biology departments. Once put up an expression of the joy and wonder of why we do science, now with corners curling over trying to hide their shame.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Back to School Special: How to Study at University

This is something I post every year on Blackboard for my first year students in the Autumn. I sometimes think I worry about them too much. Obviously the marking scheme is British but the general advice holds for both sides of the pond.

1) Use your classmates.
 “Watch one, do one, teach one” is an old medical school adage about learning medical procedures. This correlates well with the 3rd, 2nd and 1st degree classification criteria in your student handbook which is the basis for assessment. The highest level of understanding of a subject is the ability to teach it to another which requires mastery beyond what is actually covered in lecture (reading around the subject). This is your goal and what you must accomplish if you want a 1st class degree. To teach one you need students, and the best way to find your students is to form study groups (aim for 4 to 8 students). This way you learn the material in the deepest way by explaining it to your peers. When you are confused, they can help you. When they are confused you get the invaluable practice and experience teaching them. Both sides benefit from the each exchange. Sometimes the better students wrongly feel taken advantage of, but teaching the slower students gives the top students a much better understanding of the subject than they can get by any other method.
Helping the other students will not hurt your mark by “raising the curve”. Your fellow students are not your competition!! We might raise all of the scores to adjust a curve if we feel that the assessment was too hard, but I know no one who lowers the curve to fit prescribed guidelines. Remember that every lecturer’s dream is to have an entire class of firsts. We use external examiners from other UK universities to ensure fairness and to keep our scale on par with other UK institutions. If your entire class performs at the first level then we will congratulate you and parade your results in front of our external examiner while bragging about what wonderful instructors we are!

2) Taking and using notes
Some of you are just now learning that attending lectures and scribbling a few comments on the handouts is not sufficient. You need to record information that is communicated verbally, add comments that will help you to recall or understand concepts, and most importantly write down questions about areas that are not clear. Always look at your neighbours notes during lecture, this is one time where copying is encouraged.
Keep a module specific binder for your handouts and notes. The best students tend to write a summary of each lecture after class. Keep notes from outside reading in this binder along with the module handbook and all lab practical notes and information. This forces you to organize the material and organize your work and study.
Follow up on your questions by looking up the answers in outside sources. Use the textbook, books on reserve, the library, and the internet. Internet sources especially need to be evaluated for credibility, but do not assume ANY single source is definitive. Different textbooks might say different things based on when they were published (the invertebrate phylogeny for example) or who wrote them. Don’t forget that you will inevitably learn other things while looking up the answers to your specific questions (reading around the subject) making this time count double. If you can not find the answer yourself then do not hesitate to contact the lecturer and by all means ask your study group to see if you found the right answer.

3) Studying for a factual recall test
Sometimes there is no other way than memorizing a vast number of facts and terminology. The big three techniques are:
            Flash cards: Write the terms on one side an index card and definitions on the other then test yourself or use them with your study group.  Sometimes just making the flash cards is enough.
            Drawing diagrams from memory: Redraw a figure from lecture or the textbook from memory labelling structures, developmental stages or whatever then open the book and see how you did. Another variant is to get a big piece of butcher paper and write out all of the information for the module on one single poster sized diagram. This can help you see the bigger picture for some modules and is a good study group exercise.
            Mnemonic phrases: To remember the order Kingdom, Phylum, class, Order, Family, Genus, Species, it can help to come up with a phrase where the first letter stands for each classification. For example King Phillip Came Over From Germany Seeking Valour" There are some more memorable ones on Wikipedia under Mnemonics, but some are kind of, well, a bit too “creative” to print here. You can do this for any ordered series that has to be remembered.

4) Essay questions
Outline, outline, outline. Your essay should have an introduction, three to four main points, and then a conclusion. You can always organize anything into at least three groupings i.e. past, present, future, or break it down how the topic was handled in the lecture. Write out the outline first, and then write your essay. Don’t erase or scribble out your outline because the marker will appreciate seeing it and think that you are smarter for it.
Practice writing essays on past exam questions, likely questions, or ideally the candidate questions that might be given before the exam. Use your study groups for feedback on your essays and look at what your fellow students are doing. Frequently tutors and tutorial groups practice this skill.
Make sure to cover what you think are the main points and then add something from outside of lectures to prove that you have read around the subject. The markers are usually ticking off points from a model answer. You can not get a first unless you get most of the important points and provide a relevant discussion of a point not directly covered in the module.

Students here frequently get into trouble when they do not think they have enough time to revise and decide to gamble by revising for only two (or one!) out of three possible exam questions. If you guess wrong.   .   .  you have no one to blame but yourself.
Be clear and concise, especially if you do not know all of the answer. The less you know about the answer the shorter your answer should be. We frequently see exam scripts full of meaningless or unorganized confused sentences from students who think that they can cover their ignorance with words.  In these cases, it is easier to give up and mark the student down than to pick through the garbage looking for anything vaguely coherent. Obfuscation is more likely to cover up the parts that you know than trick us into thinking you know more. The wisest move when you are stuck is to clearly state what you know and stop. You should take the opposite strategy on multiple choice and short answer exams and make the best possible guess.

5) Test anxiety
Some people panic about exams and do poorly because of the stress. The trick is to panic NOW and use that fear to motivate you to study. Use the fear to prepare, then lose the fear during the exam. My advice is to take a break and think about anything else but the subject in the few hours before the exam. As you walk into the room consciously try to forget everything you know about the subject. This way you feel refreshed when the exam starts. Once the exam starts read through the whole exam quickly while picking off the easy questions as warm up and to build your confidence. After the first pass, go back and work through the exam saving the really hard questions for last. If you run into multiple choice or short answer questions that you have no clue about, then guess and move on. You can go back later for these, but don’t agonize too much over the unknowns, just play the odds with these to get the best score possible.

5) Take care of yourself!!!
Your general health and diet has a great impact on your performance! I may sound like your mother, but if you want to perform at your best then get enough sleep, eat right, and don’t drink on school nights. Massive amounts of coffee and all nighters can be fun and even useful for study group nights, but not the night before the exam! If you do get sick or have any personal issues that might distract you or impact on your exam performance then talk to your tutor and see if you can take a make up exam. This school is EXTREMELY accommodating in hardship cases compared to any place I have ever been. The catch is that you must go through your tutor and get things documented properly.  Finally, don’t feel like you have to study ALL of the time. University study and life is intense, so socializing, road trips, and even blowing off a lecture occasionally might be necessary to maintain your sanity. Just make sure that you have the material covered and find the right work hard/play hard balance for you.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful; Public Speaking Lessons From the 9th Annual SoNG Meeting.

The Southampton Neurosicences Group held their 9th annual meeting this past Thursday. The theme was early career researchers and so included some of our best graduate students as speakers on the same day as two very prestigious speakers: Lord Robert Winston of BBC fame and Prof. Trevor Robbins. One unexpected lesson from the day was a display of the best and worse in public speaking expertise.

The Good:
Our graduate students were magnificent. Everyone one of them gave textbook and well practiced talks timed to perfection. They were prepared, had very good visuals, covered the material in an understandable way and all gave top notch talks. There was a prize for the best talk and the decision was so difficult that two were given. There was a third who also deserved to be top tier. At least on of these exhibited the poise and professionalism of someone with many more years of experience.

The Bad:
If preparation is the key, then Lord Winston broke his off in the lock. Lord Winston is a well know and accomplished front man for science with his outstanding BBC shows, books, and work in government. On this day however, he looked exhausted and failed to prepare a talk. The result was predictable. He wandered around talking about the politics of science in very general terms while casting hopeful sideways glances at the clock the whole time. Every once in a while he started to riff on potentially interesting topics (genetic manipulation in humans, GM plants, science funding policy) but then flitted away before saying anything interesting or provoking any controversy. Here is a tip if you ever find yourself adrift like this. Don’t look at the clock for a lifeline, look to the audience to save you. All he had to do was to engage the audience in a debate on any of the controversial subjects he skipped across, and then let the audience take it from there. This kills time and lets the audience supply content that you might be missing. It can get messy and wander off topic, but the audience will usually end up blaming each other rather than the speaker if things go too far astray.
In the end what I found most annoying about the talk was that he said nothing new. This idea of novelty is the most important aspect of any oral presentation whether it be a public talk or a simple presentation for work. All speakers need a hook to keep an audience’s attention. That hook must either tell the audience something they do not know or to get them to think about something in a new way. This is the fundamental core around which any speaker should build their presentation. Ask yourself what is new for the audience in what you are trying to communicate, then think about the best and most exciting way to present that. If you don’t have anything new to say then you really don’t have anything to say at all.
I can forgive a speaker for having an off day, especially one like Lord Winston who works so hard on promoting science and the arts. After the talk, many of audience were not so critical of him as I was.
For me, the two take home lessons from Lord Winston’s talk were 1) to have something to say, and 2) if  you are exhausted and unprepared you are probably better off cancelling.

The Beautiful:
After Lord Winston’s talk and a tea break, those who stuck around got to hear the best talk of the day by Trevor Robbins. This guy is really sharp. He has an H index of 123! This means he has published at least 123 papers that have each been cited 123 times or more. This very senior speaker told us about the neurobiology of impulse control underlying conditions from drug addiction to ADHD. His main point was that there are populations of people and higher animals who have problems putting the brakes on their impulses. This “type” maps to a specific region of the brain that functions to stop behaviour which is where Ritalin and abused drugs work. He termed this phenomenon an endophenotype and argued that we need to understand and define these behaviour/neurophysiology types more clearly.  It was amazing how he integrated so much neurobiology from real clinical behavioural problems to neuro-anatomy to pharmacology for such a broad audience. Note that SoNG members span many disciplines from social workers, to neurosurgeons, to people like me working on the very basics in model organisms. He was facing an audience where no one had all of the required background information, but everyone was an expert in part of what he was talking about. Only after thinking about his talk did I notice where the graduate students fell short. Where as the grad students gave picture perfect talks that one would expect at scientific meetings in their specific fields, Robbins gave a broader talk aimed exactly at the level of this particular audience. Gauging the level of an audience like SoNG is something that requires much experience.
Another thing Robbins did well was how he used images and figures to explain his points. Using graphics properly is not easy. You need to use them to reduce the amount of talking required to make your point clear. Images are not to be fillers, they are tools to shorten the presentation by making key points in the most efficient way possible. The Strunk and White principle of removing everything not necessary applies to Powerpoint slides as well.  Even though Robbins had to skip over some for time, it was only because he talked slowly while carefully explaining things as he moved from point to point. He knew what his goal was and got there without rushing or skipping key points. Robbins understood and put into practice that adage that you should never over estimate your audience’s knowledge nor under estimate their intelligence. It was one of the best and most interesting talks I have seen in a long time.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Accommodating the Evolution/Creationist Spectrum.

I recently discovered that I am an accommodationist. This is the dirty word atheist use to describe someone who thinks evolution is true, but who is not a member of the atheist religion. The one thing both hard core evolutionists and creationists have in common is their denial of any position in the middle. This is disingenuous as the middle position, termed either accomodationist or theological evolution, is probably where most classify themselves when it comes to attitudes towards evolution.

The spectrum of “belief” in evolution is not as black and white as the extremists would have one believe. At one end are the literal creationists. These people believe as a matter of faith that their creation myth is true. These include the two different stories in Genesis, native American mythology and many others. Intelligent design also begins with the fundemenatalist Christian stance that the Bible is the last word on the matter. Theological evolutionists are those who might only accept parts of the theory of evolution and or have some personal interpretation that does not preclude their God. This can range from those deceived by intelligent design arguments, to those who accept only micro-evolution, to complete acceptance of all the theory of evolution but with a God passively in existence. The other extreme are the athiests who deny the existence of God or any other supernatural beings and take a purely mechanistic view of the world.

It is important to understand two facts about the spectrum of the points of view. First, creationism is not scientific. Creationism requires a leap of faith and is not supported by any logical or scientific arguments or evidence. All of their pseudo–scientific arguments, including intelligent design are easily refuted and wise biologists don’t waste much time on them. Second, you do not have to be an atheist to think evolution is true. The assumption behind science is that there are no supernatural effects. This does not mean there is no God. Science asks, what happens when God or spirits or any other supernatural entities are not having an effect on what you are studying. Newton showed how the motion of the stars can be explained without God actively moving them. Darwin showed how all life including humans could come about without God lifting a finger. The assumption of no God is an unnecessary extra choice that scientists are free to choose or not choose. The caveat is that if there is a God, one must accept that he, she or it is not interfering in anyway with what is being studied in a detectable way. Thus, it takes just as much of a leap of faith to be an atheist does to be a creationist. Agnosticism with understanding of the assumption is the only real objective stance. And don’t be fooled by the argument that science must be right because it explains so much. Science explains everything under its guiding assumption that there are no supernatural effects. Creationists also believe that their system explains everything under their starting assumptions. There is absolutely no difference. Under the scientific world view, any real miracles would either be wrongly explained or will be set aside to be explained later. Science is willingly blind to any acts of God. The strength of science is that it explores all of the power that God might have left to humans.

Understanding where teachers and students fall on this spectrum is especially important. Teachers must always assume they are facing a classroom consisting of the full spectrum. The important question is how a teacher should maintain their own integrity while teaching the facts and theory of evolution. The goal is to help each student understand as much of the theory as the student’s belief system will allow. Ideally, a good teacher might get a student to question their beliefs, but deliberately trying to change a student’s religious belief to that of the teacher is not an ethical learning objective. If we must respect our students’ religious beliefs then those at the atheist and creationists ends of the spectrum who are trying to convert students are misbehaving. The only ethical and non-faith based stance for teacher is then that of an agnostic accomodationist. Thus neither Dawkins nor Behe should ever be allowed in a classroom to teach evolution.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A scientist without a country

When I was about 6 years old one of my aunts, aunt Hilma, died of breast cancer. Before she passed away she gave me what I suspect is a first edition of A Man Without a Country. She was one of those relatives that you really wished you had the chance to know as an adult. Much later in 1999, my career took me away from the US to Switzerland and then to the UK. When you leave a place that changes as fast as the US, it changes and you change so much that going back to the country you remember is never possible.  I can't help comparing myself to the exiled main character of that book. Although my exile was economic and self imposed neither of us could ever really go home. During Noland's exile he kept a map on his cabin wall recording the growth of the nation he turned his back on as it spread across the continent. He watched the birth and growth of a great nation from outside, knowing that he was missing something amazing. I find myself in the opposite position, watching my homeland recede in greatness. When I left the there was budget surplus, no wars and the biggest problem was a president who could not keep his trousers up. Since then I have watched from Europe and Great Britain as my homeland declined step by step from a beacon of freedom and hope to being just another fearful nation sinking into poverty while flirting with tyranny.  I still think that the US is the worlds greatest hope and will rise again, but only because it is ideologically better positioned to thrive in the fast changing world that is rapidly overtaking us. Change and hope are the two things that the US does best so I know better than to despair too much at some of the directions the country has taken. I will probably have more to say on this later.

Living as a an immigrant has taught me exactly how real rights and political ideas are. I have been taxed without representation for over a decade, had to register regularly with the local police for years while living in Switzerland and faced the usual subtle discrimination all foreigners get. The positive side is that I now see my culture and other cultures from a perspective that I never imagined possible. This is the perspective I hope to share with this blog.

That is the source and meaning of the title. However, much of this will  be science as well. I am very interested in biology and higher education and have much to say on those subjects. I decided to start this little project in order to get more practice writing. My wife tells me that I am a terrible writer and need the practice. I will also confess that reading the excellent blog of a friend of mine, Rich Edwards, inspired me to give this a try. At some point there is ikely to be some gardening updates, workout reports and 3D photography. It is now getting late so this will have to conclude my first post. Let's hope that I can improve with practice.