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.