Paid vacation and graduate school

No, the title isn’t meant to be a punchline.

I was reading an article about the United States’ abysmal paid vacation and holiday policies. What makes them so abysmal is that they don’t exist. A study from The Center for Economic and Policy Research explains:

The United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation. European countries establish legal rights to at least 20 days of paid vacation per year, with legal requirements of 25 and even 30 or more days in some countries. Australia and New Zealand both require employers to grant at least 20 vacation days per year; Canada and Japan mandate at least 10 paid days off. The gap between paid time off in the United States and the rest of the world is even larger if we include legally mandated paid holidays, where the United States offers none, but most of the rest of the world’s rich countries offer at least six paid holidays per year.

I really encourage you to read the rest of the article if you’re interested. It addresses things like the paid vacations given by employers (they still suck compared to other countries) and how it breaks down depending on your pay level (poor people get screwed, what a shocker). It baffles me why employers wouldn’t want to make their employees happy, since happy employees are more loyal and productive and ultimately benefit a business in the long run. Everyone wins!

As someone who has been a perpetual student her whole life, I’ve never really experienced a “real job.” Working minimum wage at a golf course doesn’t seem to count for this discussion, since I didn’t have any benefits. But grad school has its own unique situation when it comes to things like paid leave, partially thank to the weird student-employee limbo it puts you in.

Other programs may work differently, but I’m paid on a stipend through a fellowship from the National Science Foundation. What that means is I get a paycheck deposited into my bank account every 2 weeks no matter what. It doesn’t matter if I’ve worked 80 hours or 8, if there were national holidays, if I took a vacation, if I got sick, etc.

It’s both a blessing and a curse.

The blessing part is obvious – I get paid no matter what. The potential problem is that because of this lack of regulation, workplace standards are basically up to your adviser’s whim. My adviser happens to be extremely hands-off and doesn’t care what hours you’re in lab, if you’re working from home, or if you’re taking vacations. He just cares that you’re getting good work done, even if that takes less than 40 hours a week because you’re efficient. He allowed a grad student to work from abroad a month at a time because she was in a long distance relationship and her work was purely computational. You don’t have to approve vacation times with him ahead of time, or even really warn him about it . He expects you to be motivated enough to manage your own schedule and only take vacations if you think you can. So when I wanted to see the Postal Service play in Portland last Wednesday, it was no big deal to take a day off in the middle of the week. The downside to all of this is that our lab tends to get empty thanks to our random hours not really overlapping, and sometimes I wonder how long it would take him to notice I was gone if I dropped dead.

But the curse is more obvious if you have a more stereotypical, demanding professor. From talking to other grad students, the following experiences seem all too common. Many professors expect you to work weekends and put in more than 40 hours a week despite us not having paid overtime, arguing that’s just how grad school is. If your vacation request isn’t outright rejected, expect emotional manipulation to try to guilt you out of it. You’ll be compared to “harder working” grad students and be told “this is just how things work in academia.” Your desire to want your job to be treated like a job will risk you getting labeled as unmotivated and not willing to make sacrifices in the name of science. You’ll worry that attempting work-life balance will lose you that letter of recommendation, regardless of the quality of your research. Yeah, maybe what you did was excellent, but you could have always done more.

PhD comics by Jorge Cham

Regardless of the type of professor you have as an adviser, there’s another element to the curse: Without set hours and policies, you feel like you’re always working. Your research never stops. You may have headed home for the night, but you’re still thinking about how your experiment went wrong or what analysis you can do next. You feel obligated to read another paper or keep working on that code you couldn’t debug during the day. There’s always something more you could be doing with your project. But when you feel like you’re working every minute of the day with no reprieve, you become exhausted. It’s harder to focus when you’re actually at work because you’re burnt out. And that in turn makes you feel guilty for not working hard enough, so you keep working when you’re at home, which makes you exhausted…etc, etc, cycle of doom.

But without set policies, it’s difficult to set a regular schedule. Having “sick days” you can use lets you know its okay to take off work when you’re sick, instead of feeling guilt to come in or keep working from home. Having “vacation days” encourages you to actually take time off for your physical and mental well-being instead of burning out from feeling required to work 24/7. Some people are great at self imposing work restrictions, and I think that’s often a key to success in academia. It’s still something I’ve yet to figure out, and its made more difficult by the “You Must Always Be Working And Only Care About Your Science” mentality that grad school promotes.

Unfortunately that mentality is pervasive through academic culture. You see it when academics tell students they shouldn’t care where their postdoc or faculty position is located because they should just be happy they have a job. They should be nobly pursuing SCIENCE; the fact that the job is located in a place that makes them miserable or separates them from a significant other should be irrelevant.

I’m certainly not trying to say grad students have it the worst. With the right adviser and self control, we can have amazing flexible schedules that don’t drive us crazy. I’d say I’d wish grad school was treated with the same standards as a “real job,” but then I remember the sad facts I presented at the beginning of this post. Many Americans don’t get paid vacations at all. Even when paid sick leave is required, employers don’t necessarily give it. And all of this isn’t even getting into bigger workers issues like minimum wage vs. living wage, or wage theft, which arguably also happens to graduate students in the form of required student fees. In what other job would it be acceptable to have to pay 5% of your salary to keep being employed?

I guess I have to keep things in perspective. At least I don’t work for Walmart.

Sometimes, life gets hard

First off – yes, I’m alive.

Even though my blogging frequency has been pretty pathetic recently, I still get a steady trickle of emails from concerned readers who miss me. It’s an odd feeling knowing total strangers want to make sure I’m okay and miss my writing, but I do sincerely appreciate it (even if I don’t reply, sorry). It also makes me realize that not everyone follows my twitter feed, so many of you have no idea what has been going on in my life.

No, it’s not just grad school that’s been keeping me busy. These have been the hardest months of my life.

On March 15th, my mom called me. My family knows I hate talking on the phone, so when my phone is ringing and it’s not a holiday, I assume something is wrong. Usually that’s just my irrational anxiety talking, but unfortunately this time it was right. It was news I never wanted to hear – my mom had cancer again.

She had been cancer free for 8 years, after winning her battle against breast cancer during my senior year of high school. I hate to say this, but I had never been truly worried during that time. Part of it was knowing they caught it soon and that she had wonderful doctors, but part of it was definitely being a naive 17 year old. At the time I didn’t realize it, but my parents had painted a rosy picture of the situation to keep me from worrying. What I remember is my mom scheduling her chemo appointments around my high school golf matches, because she didn’t want to miss them for the world. The worst of it was kept behind the scenes.

But now I was a little bit older and wiser. In this case, being a geneticist was not very comforting. I was more aware of the realities of a cancer diagnosis, especially when cancer had come back. But I tried to stay cautiously optimistic, since there was still no official diagnosis.

A week later one morning, I was laying awake in bed worrying about my mom. My phone rang, and this time it was my dad. Getting a phone call in the morning is even more terrifying, and I knew instantly from his voice that something was horribly wrong.

He told me my mom was going to die within hours.

Hearing that out of nowhere, while stuck thousands of miles away across the country, was… I don’t even have an adjective that can describe that. Horrifying? Devastating? I was literally in hysterics, sobbing and shaking for hours. It felt like a nightmare come true. I’m so glad my boyfriend had been there, because I don’t know what I would have done without his immediate support. In the span of a week my mom had gone from perfectly healthy, living the stereotypical retired life golfing in Florida, to “going to die.”

A couple of days earlier, my mom had fluid (caused by the cancer) removed from her abdomen, and that change in pressure had caused massive blood clots to move from her legs to her lungs. “Why didn’t the doctors check for that ahead of time?” I asked myself. She couldn’t breathe. She had a 10% chance of making it, but thankfully our hometown hospital is one of the top 50 in the nation and had a cardiologist present that specialized in dealing with this problem. Also thankfully this happened at 7am on a Sunday morning, so the emergency room was empty. Who knows what would have happened to her if she hadn’t been the only patient there.

She survived. I flew out the next day to be with her.

Even though the clots had been removed, there was little emotional relief. When I got there, we were bluntly told that she may never wake up from sedation at all, or if she did she could be a vegetable. The first thing I saw when I arrived was that her tongue had swollen to grotesque proportions, filling her whole mouth and spilling out. The doctors still have no idea what was going on there and originally blamed the tape holding her breathing tube in, though my dad and I suspect they accidentally gave her antibiotics that she’s allergic to and wouldn’t admit it. When I noticed her face was starting to swell as well, they ignored me…until we had come back from lunch and her whole head had swollen up. It was devastating seeing her like that – seeing someone you love and thinking “that can’t be my mother.” Once her whole head was ballooning up, they finally admitted I had been right, and maybe they should start trying to reduce the swelling. Yeah, you’d think.

(I wish the tongue thing was the only time we dealt with incompetence from doctors and nurses… They constantly ignored call buttons for 30 minutes to an hour and I had to go run and find nurses in emergencies, they tried to give her medicine for other patients which thankfully my dad caught, they tried to give medicine in her left arm despite signs everywhere saying not to do so, some wouldn’t use gloves and were obviously not using sterile technique, doctors fought in front of her which destroyed her confidence in them… Yes, they saved her life, but at the same time my faith in doctors has definitely been shaken.)

Thankfully again, my mom beat the odds. After a couple of days she woke up. We talked by her first pointing to letters on a sheet, then by her writing, and after weeks she was able to barely speak. I can now say that months later, she can talk fairly normally and has all of her mental faculties. I feel like I can’t even thank science or medicine here – she got lucky.

The problem was, you know, my mom still had cancer. And the equivalent of a massive heart attack followed by aggressive weekly chemotherapy is not exactly a good situation. She was getting chemo even when she was still bedridden and unable to walk. She was in the hospital for 90 days, but thankfully has been home for about a month now (and is still getting chemo). Just imagine not being able to leave a hospital room for three months – no sunshine, no idea if it’s day or night, no food (thanks to the swollen tongue)… You don’t even realize the little things you take for granted, like being able to cuddle with your pet or wear your own pajamas.

As for the cancer, the chemo does seem to be working very well, which makes me rejoice. We were glad to find out it wasn’t breast cancer again, because that would have been the worst prognosis. Unfortunately, it was ovarian cancer, which is scary in its own right. We have no family history of breast or ovarian cancer, but having both occur independently in the same individual is a huge red flag that the cancer may be heritable – that is, that her genome has some mutation that predisposes her to that type of cancer. If correct, that means I would have a 50% chance of having that same mutation.

My mom could honestly care less what her genome is, since it wouldn’t really change her treatment (“Yep, you still need chemo”). But she wanted to get genetic testing for my sake. Thankfully her results said she has normal copies of BRCA1 and BRCA2, the two main breast cancer genes. Having a mutant copy of one of those greatly increases your odds of getting cancer, so hearing that news was a relief. But to a geneticist, it was a minor relief. I knew there were dozens of genes that could contribute to cancer, and dozens more that we probably haven’t even figured out yet. This just ruled out the common problems.

After my parents told her genetic counselor that I was getting my PhD in genomics, the counselor decided she would just rather talk to me directly. We chatted on the phone and she discussed how she wanted to test a larger number of genes, especially since gastrointestinal cancer runs in my mom’s family and may be related to her case. She told me her current problem – getting my mom’s insurance company to okay the test. She explained how insurance companies don’t like tests that utilize modern technology like next generation sequencing, because they rather have you pay a deductible on each individual gene than have one test that covers the whole genome.

(Yeah, they rather squeeze more money out of their dying cancer patients than do an efficient test. I never had any faith in the insurance industry to be able to say I lost it, but let’s just say my rage against them has grown. At least my parents have insurance, because after a month of treatment alone the bill was at one MILLION dollars. It’s horrible enough worrying about my mom’s health; I’m glad I don’t have to worry about their sudden bankruptcy as well.)

But I knew something this genetic counselor did not. I told her that Mary-Claire King, the scientist who discovered BRCA1 & BRCA2, worked in my department and did a cancer gene panel that was twice as large as the one the counselor was considering. After the counselor got done fangirling and squeeing over Mary-Claire (no, really, nerd glee), she asked if I could try to get my mom enrolled in MCK’s study. All it took was one email, and minutes later MCK had said yes. My mom no longer had to worry about insurance, she would learn more about her genome than from some company’s test, and she’d contribute to a growing body of knowledge about cancer genetics.

While I’m relieved to know I’ll have this information, it has been an emotional process. Part of me is terrified for myself. I’ve seen how cancer has affected my mom. The physical weakness, the loss of hair (which can really hurt a woman’s self-esteem), the inability to eat (how I wish Indiana had medical marijuana, or that I could smuggle some from Seattle). Not to mention the giant cloud of doom reminding you that, yeah, you may die from this. It really scares me wondering if I’ll have to go through the same thing when I’m her age, or if I’ll get unlucky and it’ll strike me sooner.

And at the same time, I feel guilty for worrying about myself at all. I feel selfish worrying about what might happen to me in 30 years, compared to what’s happening to my mother right now. I feel guilty that I can only visit her a little bit before I have to come back to work, even though she’s told me that me finishing my PhD is the most important thing to her. I feel guilty that my dad has to be her full-time caretaker and home nurse now, while I get to go “back to normal.” I feel guilty every time I have a moment of happiness when I’m back in Seattle, because I feel like I should always be worrying about her.

I’ve never been good at prioritizing taking care of myself, but now it feels damn near impossible.

And that’s partly why I’ve been so depressed the last couple of months. Worrying about my mom, worrying about myself, feeling guilty about worrying about myself… I wish those were the only things stressing me out, because I could barely handle those. My boyfriend is graduating with his PhD this year (yay!) but that means we’re worried that he won’t be able to find a job in Seattle and will have to move far away (not yay). Grad school has been rough (which is a redundant statement, right?). I’ve been feeling very lost and without guidance for a while now, since my project is very unique and I’ve basically created it from the ground up (or as another grad student told me, I went straight from undergrad to a postdoc). My current experiments aren’t working, and even though troubleshooting lab work is totally normal, it can be crushing when you’re already down. It makes me feel like a failure and an imposter who shouldn’t even be in grad school. My lab is also having some funding woes, so I feel a lot of pressure not to screw anything up or waste supplies because we may not have the money for a round two. The cherry on top is that the two other grad students in my lab are graduating in the next month, so I will be the only graduate student left. I already felt lost and alone, but now it’s just going to be me, my adviser, and our research scientist.

The problem with depression is that even if you have understandable reasons to be depressed, it can make you unreasonable about everything else. I have particularly bad anhedonia – nothing really give me any pleasure. When asked to list my hobbies, I list things I used to enjoy. I have no motivation to do anything, even “fun” things.  Getting out of bed in the morning is a chore. I haven’t had an appetite in weeks, but I just keep feeding myself because I know I have to. I had convinced myself I had no friends who actually cared about me or wanted to hang out with me, which turned me into an even more lonely hermit. I’ve lost all of my goals and dreams, and when I think about the future I just despair. Every news article or opinion piece I read just makes me think how fucked and unfixable the world is, and I feel hopeless to do anything to make the world better.

And the fucked up thing about depression is that it convinces you that all of this is true, and you are the problem. Depression is like having sunglasses glued to your head and insisting the world is dark, even when you rationally know its bright. I was literally convinced for months that there was no hope in the future and that I would never feel happy again. Right now I can’t remember what it feels like to be happy. It wasn’t until yesterday that I had a small moment of clarity when I realized that my brain was lying to me. Not only that my brain was lying to me, but that I had gone through this exact thing before! There have been many times in my life where I’ve felt this way, but happiness and motivation and normalcy always came back eventually. I need to remind myself that this too shall pass.

I’m attempting therapy again (thank you, Secular Therapist Project). At least this time I’m pretty sure they won’t suggest Buddhism and spirituality as the solution (no thank you, University of Washington mental health services). Unfortunately the health insurance they give us grad students is kind of crap, so it looks like I’ll be paying mostly out of pocket for it. But thankfully I have a good amount of savings and just got a raise (thank you, National Science Foundation) so it won’t be a huge issue, and I’m trying to start viewing my mental health as something worth investing in. This isn’t a pity call for money – if you feel the urge to donate, pick your favorite cancer research charity and that will make me happy.

I don’t really have a take home message or wrap up for this post. I simply realized that writing has always been therapeutic for me, and when I quit blogging I threw away that therapy along with a social support network (you guys!). I’ve been meaning to get this off my chest, so here it is.

Dear life: Please stop sucking soon.



Those boner-killing educated women

I’ve never been more glad that I’m getting my PhD. Apparently it’s a great way to keep away misogynistic idiots who think educated women decrease men’s happiness because they aren’t sexy. Because you know, fuck becoming educated and pursuing a career you’re passionate about – you should be acting sexy for some guy! Sorry lesbians and bisexuals, you don’t count. I know it sounds like nonsense, but he has a GRAPH!

Can’t argue with something made in Excel! How did he come up with this highly scientific, objective measurement of femininity and education?

A good test to see if a girl is over-educated is to add the word “sexy” before her job title. If the resulting phrase ignites arousing images in your head, then she’ll most likely have what it takes to satisfy you.

Sexy Waitress? Unf. Sexy Professor? Get the barf bag. I guess this explains why you never hear about Sexy Librarians or Sexy Nurses, and why nerdy girls universally repulse guys on the internet. …Wait.

Anything beyond a bachelors at a public university is a near guarantee she’ll possess a large basket of masculine traits that will prevent boners.

I’m getting nervous at this point. Why, I’m pursuing something beyond a bachelor’s! Though at least I’ve never attended a private, elitist, feminazi university. What terrible masculine traits have I been subjecting my boyfriend to?

1. They’re fat. (This guy probably thinks so)

2. They’re constantly glued to their phone. (Only men are allowed to do this)

5. They think being funny and witty is a quality that men love. (We all know women can’t be funny, right?!)

8. They wear flip-flops even when they’re not at the beach, pool, or in their house. (Comfort be damned, you should constantly be subjected to only the highest of heels!)

9. They have condoms in their drawers because they expect to have random sex with strange men. (I’m such a slut, using condoms)

10. They cannot dance. They also do not know how to sing or play basic musical instruments. (Doing the “shopping cart” counts as a dance move, right?)

12. They acquire pets instead of putting effort into landing a quality man. (I do have more photos of Pixel on my phone than my boyfriend…)

18. Their idea of travel is going to the beach or France. (Paris was awesome!)

24. They make lame excuses for not putting effort into their appearance. (Like “I look fine without makeup and don’t care enough to put forth the time or effort.” LAME!)

25. They obsess about the environment above what is reasonable, even though they pollute more than 90% of people in the world. (#1 pollutant is apparently the rays of masculinity I’m exuding)

33. They insist on eating pizza or otherwise fattening food after a night of binge drinking. (I guess only guys are allowed to fulfill their late night munchies with some nice biscuits and gravy or a Seattle Dog (hot dog with cream cheese and sautéed onions, mmmm))

35. They care more about maintaining their career than a good home. (Pay no attention to the mounds of dirty dishes and laundry)

36. They rarely wear high heels. (Because I don’t own any)

40. They like Ikea furniture. (But it’s like adult Legos! It’s a furniture amusement park! LINGONBERRY SAUCE!)

Pixel enjoying my Ikea furnishings

42. They go on and on about the stupidest shit. (Well, I am a blogger)

That’s only 15 out of 42, which is probably around the Average Masculinity Unit for 3rd year graduate students. By the time I’ve graduated, I’ll probably have picked up a few more terrible traits, like getting acne and watching too much tv.

But this is the money quote for me:

Unless you’re a latent homosexual, you won’t get many benefits from a relationship with a woman on the right side of the chart.

Wow, I never knew my current boyfriend and all of my exes were secretly latent homosexuals! Apparently it’s easy to confuse “latent homosexuality” with “not being an idiotic misogynistic jackass.”

(Via Man Boobz)

What should we call grad school?

I wanted to share one of my recent favorite things with you, especially since I know I have a surprising number of readers who are either in grad school or have been in it. I present to you the tumblr “What should we call grad school?” Here are some of my favorites:

“How I feel when I answer all the questions during my presentation”

“When I realize the talk is on computational biology”

“My audience when I tell them my data is trending on significance”

“When someone tells me they want to go into industry”

“Trying to pass my dead end project to someone else”

If you don’t get any of the jokes…well, then you’re probably not a grad student.

This is post 30 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Fixing Math Education – or – How I Learned to Stop Lecturing and Love the Common Core Standards

This is a guest post by Mark Webster, continuing his tradition of guest posting for me during Blogathon. He is a graduate of Purdue University from the School of Science in the field of Mathematics Education and is currently a High School Mathematics Teacher in Indiana.

Please note that the author is representing general trends and personal experiences of a trained educator combined with popular evidence-based practices.  By no means is this exhaustive.  Please do not be butthurt. If you have evidence-based practices that conflict with anything I have said, please feel free to leave a comment.

There has been a lot of discussion on the problems in education, in general, but never do you hear a bigger cry for change in any other subject than you do in Mathematics.  Perhaps it is time to analyze the problem and line up some solutions.*

Who are the problems in Math Education?

Teachers are certainly not the only problem, but when deciding to figure out the problem, it’s always best to start inward.  In this post, I will be looking at what teachers need to focus on.

In our schools, there is still a lot of passive learning going on.  What is passive learning, you may ask?  Let me answer your question with another question:

When you imagine a math class, what do you think of?

Probably something like this:


A teacher, facing the board, not interacting with his students.  Many of us, myself included, have had experiences like this.  No teacher-student interaction. No checks for understanding.  No eye contact.  Perhaps, even more pernicious, there may not even be an analysis of the learning and long term progress of students.

Direct lecture-style math classrooms create an environment of passive learning.  The teacher says a bunch of words at the front of the board; maybe, if he is a more dynamic teacher, waves his arms around a little bit; and then throws quizzes and tests at you. (Multiple, if you’re lucky—on the college level, there is rarely regular assessment…but that is neither here nor there.)

Even worse, the math classroom suffers from a lack of student metacognition and critical thinking—an ailment in a math classroom that baffles me to no end, particularly because that is, more often than not, the go-to excuse that teachers trot out when a student asks them “When are we going to use this?”

Rarely is the question asked, “Is our children learning?”, the answer to which is, more often than not, either “No.” or “Not well enough.”  Now it is time to move beyond that question to “How can we help them to learn?”

How will the Common Core Standards help?

One of the country-wide initiatives that will be taking hold in the coming years, the transition to which will be complete in 2015, is called the Common Core Standards.  While there are standards for Math and English, for obvious reasons (Hint: I’m a math teacher) I will be only talking about the Math standards.

1. Stricter Math standards for the USA.

If you look on the national report cards, you might notice grades for the states are changing. Of the 50 states, only six of them have not bought into the common core standards.  If you or your children are students in any state besides Washington, Alaska, Texas, North Dakota, Nebraska, or Virginia, you will have (hopefully) heard of the change.  A common set of standards across the country will mean that students are learning with the same level of rigor and relevance in Indiana as they are in New York or Mississippi.

2. Increased focus on Critical Thinking

In my professional development and my own personal research on the PARCC exams, I’ve come across the same thing over and over:  The standardized tests of the past will not go away, but they will be refocused.  Instead of fifty “Math Problems” on a test, the student may be given five or six “Math Tasks.”  These tasks may involve, on the elementary school end, explaining the purpose of a step within a problem that they have completed for you, finding errors in simplifying a problem down and explaining what the error is, or even taking a newspaper article and analyzing it to take a position, using evidence.  Instead of focusing on finding an answer, the test will be concerned with how they can apply math to that answer.  How wild!

3. Broader, more targeted learning objectives

Most state standards and assessments have, in the past, been far more focused on students simply demonstrating their knowledge of a process, i.e. “Plot these two points and determine whether the slope is positive or negative.”  Common Core standards are far more broad and far more targeted.  Much like the National Counsel of Teachers of Mathematics standards, the Common Core standards concern themselves with specific domains of learning and applying them to metacognitive tasks.

Now, instead of plotting those points on the exam; they may, instead, be given a question that asks them to analyze, display, and track profit margins for a company and take a position on whether or not they will be able to afford to stay open in five years.

The accountability is changing from teaching mathematical processes to teaching thought processes. I approve of this, but does this really address the problems that we have seen above? I don’t think so.

So…How Do We Do This?

There are many champions of new processes within the Math Education community.  Many of you have heard of Salman Khan and his famous Khan Academy, fewer of you have probably heard of Dan Meyer***—some Math teachers even haven’t (A fact which breaks my heart.), and I’m sure even less of you know about the conflict of pedagogical styles that lies between them.

Let’s break them down:

Dan Meyer’s pedagogical philosophy, a project that began as WCYDWT? or What Can You Do With This? and has slowly morphed into something he calls Any Questions? is designed as a student-centered, inquiry-based, generally collaborative effort to force students to lead the discussion and gain ownership of the material by creating the payoff in the medium used to teach the material; and, instead of spoon feeding them concepts, force them to push through a mathematical task and create the demand for the material.

Salman Khan’s pedagogical philosophy, a project that began as a series of youtube videos, has become a website, and some might say a school, of its own.  The Khan Academy allows students to develop on their own, facilitates continuous improvement for the students at their own pace and on their own terms, and allows for constant pedagogical moderation.

Math teachers and parents alike have raised concerns about the methodologies that these two men have created.  Dan Meyer critics fight him because they believe his philosophy creates a lack of rigor.  Salman Khan critics fight him because his videos do just as much lecturing as one might see in a classroom, and do nothing to enrich and create ownership of the material.

Even with the miles of space between their two philosophies, it is worth the time to compare them and see a similarity:

These philosophies depend on a consistent foundation of what has come before.  The genius of Dan Meyer’s method lies in the students being able to work through the tasks because they are absolutely prepared to tackle it.  The utility of Sal Khan’s method is that because students get to a topic on their own terms, they are prepared to see it and they can meet it head on.

Without constant analysis and moderation of our students’ learning, we cannot teach to our fullest potential.  If we leave students by the wayside because we don’t know where they are, we have put a student in a hole that they may not be able to escape from.

*I’m by no means the first nor am I the most qualified person to look at this.  We’ve been overhauling since before I started teaching, but one more eye on the problem can’t hurt. Even if I’m not saying anything new, informing new people can’t hurt. Right?

**×270.jpg  Disclaimer: This picture is not necessarily an indictment of this teacher.  It is a photo that I found on the internet with a teacher that had his back to the classroom.  The fact that it took me about five minutes to find one is encouraging to me.

***Full Disclosure: I worship the ground upon which this man walks. The classroom ideal he has created is my personal mission.

This is post 28 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

How important will genomics be for future healthcare?

Short answer: Not very.

Biologists are stuck in an unfortunate situation. Most major funding sources in the US come through the government, and it’s essential to stress the impact your research will have on humans. Basic research for the sake of understanding the unknown just isn’t enough to secure funding nowadays. Everything has to be spun to make it appealing to humans since taxpayers are the ones funding the research, and the research needs to seem “justified” in their eyes. Want to study primate microRNAs to study how primates evolved? You better mention how microRNAs are involved in cancer, even if you have no interest in studying that. Want to figure out how spider silk proteins evolved to fulfill different biological tasks? Better mention how spider silk is stronger than Kevlar even though it’s practically impossible to mass produce.

The same is true for human genomics. When the human genome project was first announced, scientists made endless promises about how sequencing the human would lead to immense advances in human health. They had to say that to get funding for this basic research project. Years have passed and we’ve learned a great deal about the human genome, but we still haven’t had the medical revolution we were promised.

Frankly, we probably never will. For most people, getting their genome sequenced is going to be a novelty. You’ll be able to learn about your ancestry, but that’s about it. Sure, you may learn you have a 10% increase in your chance of getting heart disease, but is something that small going to change your diet and exercise routine? Only a tiny fraction of people will have diseases with very high penetrance (likelihood of showing the trait if you have the gene) that can be identified by genomics. And of those diseases, few are going to have preventative treatment or cures.

And right now that knowledge is only available to the very rich, who are more likely to have better preventative health care anyway. Yes, prices of genome sequencing are dropping rapidly, but we’re eons away from every person on the planet being able the afford their genome. Even if they could afford it, it’s not really worth it. The health of people around the world would most improve by increasing exercise and by having clean water and healthy food available. I mean, diarrhea is one of the leading causes of death in developing nations…are they really going to benefit from knowing their exact risk for diabetes? There are more basic problems that we need to fix first.

The field of human genomics is still incredibly important to study in order to learn more about our species and about disease…but it’s not going to be the panacea scientists had to promise in order to receive funding.

(I should add this isn’t just a personal opinion of mine, but one that is frequently voiced by a number of professors and other scientists during various panels I’ve attended)

This is post 23 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

How would you reform education in the US?

Sometimes I wish that when it comes to the institution of education in the US, we could just wipe the slate clean. I know that’s impossible, and that you have to work with the existing infrastructure and culture to make gradual progress. But if I could start from scratch and design a new educational system, these are some of the things I’d do:

  1. Raise teacher pay. I’m sure everyone here has had both wonderful and shitty teachers. One of the ways to reduce the number of terrible teachers isn’t to evaluate their performance of those of their students…but to actually pay them what they’re worth. Teachers are training our entire population how to think, yet they often have to work extra jobs just to pay the bills. I know too many people who were passionate about teaching and would have been wonderful teachers, but they went into other fields because they didn’t want to get paid diddly squat. We need to make the job more inviting to the best and the brightest by making it competitively priced.
  2. Less standardized testing. Standardized testing is basically bullshit. It doesn’t accurately measure intelligence or your likelihood of succeeding in college or your career. The only thing you can glean from looking at someone’s scores is their socio-economic status. Kids from rich areas with supportive families do much better than kids living in the ghetto with families who can’t even feed them. Hence why evaluating teachers based on their students is ridiculous. It discourages teachers from working in schools that need good teachers the most, and penalizes teachers who happen to get assigned lower level classes instead of the brightest honors students.
  3. Fail more people. Our country has become so obsessed with crap like “No Child Left Behind” and statistics that it’s forgotten the main point of education: To learn. Instead schools are constantly lowering their standards in order to graduate more students, lest they lose government funding. A high school diploma used to mean something. Now a college diploma doesn’t even assure you’ll get a job. Hell, people with biology PhDs have  a terribly bleak job market. We need to make these things mean something again. If you can’t read past an 8th grade level and can’t do basic algebra, then you should have to repeat the 8th grade.
  4. Promote vocational training. If you want to drop out of high school at age 16 because you know you’re going to be a chef or mechanic, then more power to you. We need to remove the stigma from people who have interests and passion and skill that’s not best used on memorizing Shakespeare (while obviously keeping the Shakespeare for those who want it). Lower the social pressure that says you need to go to college in order to be successful…since it’s simply not true.
  5. Teach how to think, not just memorizing facts. We have people who are college graduates without the slightest grasp of logic or the scientific method. People who can regurgitate the dates that wars occurred but not the politics behind why they occurred. People who can blindly follow instructions but who freeze up when encouraged to be creative or come up with their own plan. Science classes should be more about the process, and art classes should be embraced to foster creativity.
I’m sure I could come up with a million more improvements, but those are the ones that pop into my head first. How would you reform education?

This is post 21 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

The fear of getting scooped & the lack of communication within science

The fear of getting scooped really points to a larger issue within academia. Science is based upon the ability to test hypotheses and falsify data, which is why the open sharing of knowledge is so important. But fears about getting scooped lead to less open communication about methods and results. You don’t want to blab your results to any random person, or reveal too much preliminary data during a talk at a conference. You run the risk of someone running off with that idea and getting it done before you.

And because everyone holds their cards close to their chest, you often don’t know who’s working on similar research. Frequently the motivation to publish is the fear of getting scooped by a research group you didn’t expect. When new scientific papers are published, I always read through the titles in the Table of Content with some trepidation, hoping no one hits too close to my project. That would mean having to shift or completely revamp the focus of your research, which is one of the causes of people staying in grad school longer than expected.

It’s getting to the point where sometimes even published results aren’t immediately accessable to other scientists. Newly published genomes are often embargoed for a year so the lab that produced the data has more time to mine it. There’s a lot of debate over whether this is acceptable. On one hand, the lab in question often spent a lot of time, money, and effort sequencing that genome, and it seems unfair for someone else to swoop in and pick off the low hanging fruit questions. On the other hand, having that genome available is incredibly important so other scientists can judge its quality in order to more accurately interpret the results of a published paper, or to use it in their own research. What good is it to come up with all this knowledge about the universe if no one else is allowed to know about it?

I don’t have a solution for this problem with academic culture, but it’s something that gets brought up a lot. How do you feel about embargoes on genomes and other scientific information? For those of you who do research, have you had problems getting scooped?

This is post 4 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

On blogging about my research

The most frequent topic request I get for my blog is to talk more about my research. Usually the extent I talk about what I do is limited to vague tweets like “Yay, my code actually worked!” and “Why am I in grad school?” But people expect that a blogger who loves talking about science would be gushing about their own research. There’s two reasons I tend to avoid it:

1. Blogging is a a hobby and type of escapism for me. After working all day, I want to do something that doesn’t make me think of work for an hour. But more importantly:

2. Blogging about unpublished research is risky. I don’t want to give away too many details about what I do, because I run the risk that I’ll get “scooped” – that someone else will take the idea and finish it before me. This is even more likely with computational work, especially when using shared or public data. It’s not like I went out an found 1000 samples from rare frogs that no one else has access to – I’m just sitting in front of a computer. Some of the data I use will become publicly accessable by the end of the year, so I’m really pushing to get a paper out quickly. Don’t want to ruin my plan by having a big mouth!

But because you guys ask so persistently, I will blog a little bit about my research today. I’m going to focus mostly on the concepts I’m interested in and previous studies, but hopefully it’ll shed some light on my scientific interests.

This is post 3 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

You’re invited: Genomics of Non-model Organisms

I’m on the student/postdoc-lead organizing committee for the following symposium. If the topic sounds appealing and you’re near Seattle, come check it out! As a warning, the talks won’t be tailored for a totally layman audience, but if you have some biology background or just passionate interest, it should be really great!

2012 Genome Training Grant Symposium:
“The Genomics of Non-Model Organisms”
Monday, June 11, 2012

1:00PM to 5:15PM
South Foege Auditorium (S060) on the University of Washington’s Seattle Campus
No registration or fee

Schedule and speakers:

  • 1:00-2:00PM: panel discussion with our speakers
  • 2:00-3:00PM: Cheryl Hayashi (University of California, Riverside)
    Molecular characterization and evolution of spider silk proteins
  • 3:00-3:15PM: break w/ coffee and snacks
  • 3:15-4:15PM: Katie Peichel (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center)
    Genetics of adaptation, reproductive isolation, and speciation in stickleback fishes
  • 4:15-5:15PM: Jay Storz (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
    Natural variation and genomic architecture of high altitude physiological adaptation in birds and mammals

If you know anyone who may be interested, please invite them! We want a great crowd for our speakers.

Want to learn more about the future of genomics?

My department is hosting a panel on “The Future of Genome Sciences” that is free and open to the public. Here are the details:

Panel Discussion: The Future of Genome Sciences
Monday, May 7th
7:00 pm, Kane Hall EDIT: 120
University of Washington
Seattle, WA
free, no registration required

The speakers will be:

Dr. Bruce Alberts who President Obama has appointed as one of his first Science Envoys.  Dr. Alberts is editor of Sciencemagazine, author of The Cell, and former President of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Natalie Angier who is a science writer for The New York Times and the Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University.  In 1991 she received the Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting.

Dr. James Evans who is the Bryson Distinguished Professor of Genetics and Medicine at University of North Carolina and directs the Clinical Cancer Genetics Services at UNC.

Dr. Keith Yamamoto who is Vice Chancellor for Research, Executive Vice Dean of the School of Medicine, and Professor of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco.

The moderator is Dr. Maynard Olson, who is a Professor in the Departments of Genome Sciences and Medicine at the University of Washington and is one of the founders of the Human Genome Project.

If you’re near Seattle, I hope I’ll see you there!

Dear E. O. Wilson: Please retire or stick to ants

Tonight I went to a talk at Seattle Town Hall by E. O. Wilson, one of the most famous evolutionary biologists still alive today. I admit I went for two different reasons. One, Wilson is super famous and also very old, and I wanted a chance to see him speak because another chance might not come. But two, I saw that the topic was how group selection shaped human evolution, and I wanted to see what controversial arguments he would make.

Controversial because Wilson has recently been stirring the pot by trumpeting group selection and saying kin selection has been debunked. I don’t want to rehash the whole event, but Carl Zimmer has a good summary in the New York Times. The basic thing you need to know is that most biologists consider group selection to only occur in very rare and specific circumstances, and that selection usually takes place at the level of the individual or the gene.

But you wouldn’t know that from the talk. Wilson asserted that his controversial Nature paper definitively overturned kin selection theory and that “no one” responded to his critique of kin selection. This set off a red flag in my head, because I definitely remembered reading criticism of the paper at least in the blogosphere. I grabbed my phone and instantly dug up this critique by Jerry Coyne and this one by Richard Dawkins.

But maybe he meant a published critique. So I googled “response to Nowak 2010” and instantly found a list of papers also published in Nature criticizing his paper:

Abbot, P., Abe, J., Alcock, J., Alizon, S., Alpedrinha, J., Andersson, M., Andre, J., van Baalen, M., Balloux, F., Balshine, S., Barton, N., Beukeboom, L., Biernaskie, J., Bilde, T., Borgia, G., Breed, M., Brown, S., Bshary, R., Buckling, A., Burley, N., Burton-Chellew, M., Cant, M., Chapuisat, M., Charnov, E., Clutton-Brock, T., Cockburn, A., Cole, B., Colegrave, N., Cosmides, L., Couzin, I., Coyne, J., Creel, S., Crespi, B., Curry, R., Dall, S., Day, T., Dickinson, J., Dugatkin, L., Mouden, C., Emlen, S., Evans, J., Ferriere, R., Field, J., Foitzik, S., Foster, K., Foster, W., Fox, C., Gadau, J., Gandon, S., Gardner, A., Gardner, M., Getty, T., Goodisman, M., Grafen, A., Grosberg, R., Grozinger, C., Gouyon, P., Gwynne, D., Harvey, P., Hatchwell, B., Heinze, J., Helantera, H., Helms, K., Hill, K., Jiricny, N., Johnstone, R., Kacelnik, A., Kiers, E., Kokko, H., Komdeur, J., Korb, J., Kronauer, D., Kümmerli, R., Lehmann, L., Linksvayer, T., Lion, S., Lyon, B., Marshall, J., McElreath, R., Michalakis, Y., Michod, R., Mock, D., Monnin, T., Montgomerie, R., Moore, A., Mueller, U., Noë, R., Okasha, S., Pamilo, P., Parker, G., Pedersen, J., Pen, I., Pfennig, D., Queller, D., Rankin, D., Reece, S., Reeve, H., Reuter, M., Roberts, G., Robson, S., Roze, D., Rousset, F., Rueppell, O., Sachs, J., Santorelli, L., Schmid-Hempel, P., Schwarz, M., Scott-Phillips, T., Shellmann-Sherman, J., Sherman, P., Shuker, D., Smith, J., Spagna, J., Strassmann, B., Suarez, A., Sundström, L., Taborsky, M., Taylor, P., Thompson, G., Tooby, J., Tsutsui, N., Tsuji, K., Turillazzi, S., Úbeda, F., Vargo, E., Voelkl, B., Wenseleers, T., West, S., West-Eberhard, M., Westneat, D., Wiernasz, D., Wild, G., Wrangham, R., Young, A., Zeh, D., Zeh, J., & Zink, A. (2011). Inclusive fitness theory and eusocialityNature, 471 (7339) DOI: 10.1038/nature09831

Boomsma, J., Beekman, M., Cornwallis, C., Griffin, A., Holman, L., Hughes, W., Keller, L., Oldroyd, B., & Ratnieks, F. (2011). Only full-sibling families evolved eusociality Nature, 471 (7339) DOI: 10.1038/nature09832

Strassmann, J., Page, R., Robinson, G., & Seeley, T. (2011). Kin selection and eusociality Nature, 471 (7339) DOI:10.1038/nature09833

Ferriere, R., & Michod, R. (2011). Inclusive fitness in evolution Nature, 471 (7339) DOI: 10.1038/nature09834

Herre, E., & Wcislo, W. (2011). In defence of inclusive fitness theory Nature, 471 (7339) DOI:10.1038/nature09835

Yeah, and he said “no one” responded. And it’s not just that Wilson is out of the loop – he came off as being purposefully disingenuous. Not only did he publish a response to the responses (Nowak, M., Tarnita, C., & Wilson, E. (2011). Nowak et al. reply Nature, 471 (7339) DOI: 10.1038/nature09836), but during the Q&A he changed his story and said that people did respond but they were 1. Wrong and 2. In the minority. Even though 1. He never explained why their critiques were incorrect and 2. The vast majority of biologists disagree with his views of group selection and the authors of the critiques weren’t random nobodies; they were very important and accomplished researchers.

I want to give Wilson the benefit of the doubt. Maybe when he said “no one responded” he meant “no one responded in a way that we think invalidates our hypothesis.” But even then, the rest of his talk was incredibly sloppy. He asserted that human eusociality evolved via group selection, but didn’t offer a shred of evidence the whole time. No proposed mechanism, no genetic evidence, nothing. He just waved the Wand of Group Selection and asserted it happened. He asserted that humans first ate cooked meat by scavenging carcasses from wildfires. That’s one hypothesis among many, but he presented it as a known truth and gave no evidence or citation for it. He asserted that eusociality only evolved recently but again gave absolutely no evidence as to why he thought so. I mean, maybe he’s right, but eusociality isn’t exactly something that fossilizes well, so it could have possibly existed in past species. At least put some sort of qualifier or explanation of your reasoning out there.

When someone in the Q&A asked him to explain why people disagree with group selection so much, he didn’t explain the objections or why he thinks kin selection was wrong. He instead stated that his paper was reviewed by a mathematician from Harvard and that it got into the prestigious journal Nature. Therefore it is right, or something. Here’s an alternative hypothesis: Your paper got published in Nature because you’re insanely famous and it was incredibly controversial, which Nature eats up. Nature is more about prestige and sexy topics than good science nowadays. Its retraction rate has increased ten fold in the last ten years when the number of papers published in all journals has only increased by 44%.

Look, I’m not a priori against group selection. Maybe Wilson is right and group selection is applicable in more situations that we currently think. But I’m not going to accept it until he presents compelling evidence, which he utterly failed to do. You can’t just say “Harvard” and “Nature” and leave it at that.

The most irritating thing about the night was that this was a talk given to an educated general public. These people are smart enough to appreciate science and know Wilson is a famous scientist, so they’re going to believe whatever he says. On the way out people were raving about how interesting the talk was. But he presented none of the controversy, no evidence, no reasoning, no citations, no qualifiers…nothing. I understand that a talk to the general public isn’t going to get into extreme detail, but asserting your incredibly controversial ideas as scientific fact is incredibly dangerous. This talk reminded me more of stuff I’ve seen from creationists and climate denialists than scientists.

Honestly, I left feeling bad for him. E. O. Wilson made huge advances to evolutionary biology, sociobiology, and conservation. “Huge advances” is an understatement. But tonight he went outside his expertise and left science behind, and it was kind of embarrassing. I would have loved for him to give an hour long talk about ants instead.