The Excitable Scientist

Mostly cheerful, sometimes snarky commentary on life science research and its broader impacts

Flashback October 24, 2013

Filed under: academia,grad school,inspirations,undergrad,volunteering — excitablescientist @ 11:44 pm

Today I had a chance to see a couple of old pals from a very special volunteer group, prompting several flashbacks to 2008, a pivotal year in my life highlighted by joining this group and meeting individuals who would become the most influential role models I’ve had to date – all while being graduate students in the midst of trying to figure out their own life and career paths.  I remember being in awe of how knowledgeable, articulate, cool they were, and wanting to follow in their footsteps; now I’m a grad student myself and making goodness knows what impression on the younger generations.  In any case, for me, being in the company of motivated, idealistic, passionate and inspiring colleagues is far and away the biggest perk of being a member of the university community.  Academia is a slightly strange world and suffers from no shortage of systemic flaws, but on good days and to those granted the privilege of being part of it, it really is the land of milk and honey.


Not A Joke August 14, 2011

Filed under: rankings,undergrad — excitablescientist @ 7:12 pm

I’ve written about the phenomenon of field-snobbery before, and today I wanted to address another of my pet peeves: looking down on small universities.  This post was sparked by a recent conversation with a group of friends, during which one person remarked that a particular university’s medical school “is a joke”, largely based upon one piece of anecdotal evidence.


I think this is a common sentiment: small universities (which in Canada, can simply mean being the only university in a sparsely populated province) have poor quality education, lacklustre research facilities, and inferior reseachers.  The relative obscurity of a university leads many to conclude that its training programs, and therefore graduates, are inferior to those at large universities.


Of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The stigma associated with attending/working at a small university drives the best and brightest students and researchers away, which then gets used as “proof” of the low quality of education.


I disagree with the practice of judging universities based on the nebulous quality of reputation, because this hugely biases the playing field towards large universities with correspondingly large public relations budgets.  Of course, there are various rankings that try to assign a numerical value to the relative prestige of different schools, supposedly in an objective way, but those values are meaningless without knowledge of the detailed criteria used to establish the rankings (which are never published).


I’m not at all convinced that lots of research funding equates to excellence in undergraduate education; I think it is great for undergrads to have access to top-notch labs if they wish to get involved in research, but this matters to a minority of students.  Anecdotally, I have observed no correlation between a scientist’s research success and their teaching ability.  At my school, many of the most successful scientists do not teach any classes, so the value of being at their institution is a moot point if you are an undergrad, unless you happen to join their particular lab.  Large schools do tend to have larger class sizes, however, and this is seen as a significant negative by the majority of students.


When considering grad education, I think it is far more important to consider the strength of the department you would join, than the reputation of the university as a whole.  I thought I wanted to apply to an MD/PhD program at an Old and Historic university, before I realized it had virtually zero labs in the field I am interested in.  Small schools may not have the breadth of research found in large universities, but they can have stellar researchers in a few fields; or even pioneers who are just starting to build research capacity a particular area.  Comparing scientists who produce a similar calibre of results, I am more impressed by those start from square one and manage to thrive in a barren environment, than those who have access to sophisticated facilities and an intricate network of colleagues/collaborators at their fingertips.


This recent conversation also brought back a high school memory: one of my classmates expressed surprise/disgust that one of her friends was applying to Canadian (!) schools.  She viewed Canada as a backup plan, an option you only pursue if you are not accepted by a decent university in the US.  Her opinion was based on the observation that top Canadian universities, on average, have lower admission averages, lower tuition fees, and smaller endowments, than highly ranked schools in the US; clearly, the quality of the education, and the students, in Canada must be substandard.  I doubt that most Canadian students would be comfortable with this conclusion, even though it follows from the logic used by many to conclude that small universities within Canada are inferior.


I am very happy with my own choice of undergrad university, which happens to be large and heavily focused on research, but I have yet to see compelling evidence that small schools should be dismissed solely based on their size and/or obscurity.


Missing Seminars August 11, 2011

Filed under: undergrad — excitablescientist @ 11:27 pm

One thing I don’t like about summer is that the regularly scheduled seminar series in my building are put on pause for the holidays.  I miss the intellectual stimulation that comes with listening to people present work completely outside of your field, and the deep satisfaction that comes when you realize you just processed an enormous amount of new information in a very short space of time.  It’s such a rush to be in the room thinking that the whole talk is completely over your head… and then realize your brain is making connections between the new material and other biological principles you’re more familiar with, at a faster rate than you ever gave yourself credit for.


When I joined my first biomedical research lab, as a wee third-year undergrad, I had an awesome supervisor who pushed me to attend as many talks as possible.  I did not agree with her on this point at the time; I thought I would be so much more productive if I spent all my time at the bench, with minimal interruptions.  Most of the talks were confusing and it seemed I was learning very little, while becoming very frustrated.


In fact, after my co-op terms were over, and I embarked upon my final year of classes, it quickly became apparent that attending seminars was the absolute most useful thing I could have done with my time.  I am so grateful that my supervisor encouraged me to do this, rather than pushing me to crank out as much data as possible, which would undoubtedly been more beneficial to her career.


Many of my fourth year classes were focused on using molecular techniques to answer biological questions (rather than the soul-crushing rote memorization that had previously been the standard).  I felt I had an enormous advantage over students who had never before been exposed to technical talks, in all their confusing and brain-pounding glory.  It was so much fun to get asked on exams to interpret data and propose an explanation; or to design experiments to test a hypothesis.  These aspects of fourth year Biochemistry intimidated many people, but they delighted me.  And I did well in these classes, probably not due to any innate scientific ability, but because one thoughtful person thought it would be good for my intellectual development to attend talks far above my level of understanding.


I am looking forward to the fall, when I will once again be exposed to a regular stream of confusion, humility, and above all inspiration by incredibly bright people telling stories about incredibly awesome science, the kinds of which I can only aspire to one day do myself.


Not a letdown July 30, 2011

Filed under: career,undergrad — excitablescientist @ 5:41 pm

For a long time, I’ve been thinking about how to write a “perfect” first blog entry; so far, this approach has not yielded fruit.  Instead, I thought I’d share an anecdote which illustrates the problem of valuing certain types of research above others, something I plan to expand on in future posts.


A few acquaintances and I were huddled over a recent discovery published in one of the science GlamourMags.  A compound from a natural source was found to be extraordinarily effective against a certain disease target, with minimal effects on nondiseased tissues.  The fact that this compound exists in nature reminded someone of a friend’s science fair project from high school – which involved testing the potential of a panel of natural compounds to treat a different disease.  This work was carried out in a well-respected university lab and won a prestigious award in a country-wide competition.  Since then, the student has opted not to pursue further training in biomedical research, but instead decided that it would be more rewarding to study the phenomena of health and disease on a global rather than microscopic scale, in a different faculty.  Upon hearing this, another person blurted out, “what a letdown”.


This struck a chord with me.  I did not understand why it was so disappointing that somebody interested in health science would choose to pursue a career in a related field, even if it means saying goodbye to fancy molecular techniques.  At our university, pursuing an undergraduate degree in certain faculties (like Science and Engineering) is disproportionately valued relative to others, which tackle similar problems from different angles, often using lower tech, more widely applicable approaches.  This really upsets me.


One stated reason for the relative prestige afforded to Science degrees is the high admission average required to get into this faculty.  The assumption there is that if somebody chooses a faculty with a lower minimum admission average, it was probably because they weren’t smart enough to be admitted to/succeed in Science.  This, I think, is pure garbage.  Minimum admission averages are entirely dependent on the ratio of applicants vs. seats in a program, and people should feel free to pursue courses of study that best reflect their own interests and aptitudes.  In some years, so many people apply to smaller programs (e.g. Forestry) that the admission average becomes higher than that for Science.  Does that automatically devalue a Science degree?  Of course not.


I have tremendous respect for the faculty chosen by the student in question.  It is small and has a strong sense of community, which seems to be fertile ground for nurturing interdisciplinary thinkers.  My friends in said faculty amaze me with their broad understanding of biochemistry, how it relates to nutrition, agriculture practices… all incredibly relevant in an increasingly resource-constrained world.  Their science courses are rigorous, but they learn so much more beyond the molecular world – they actually understand how it applies to real life!  I have on more than one occasion felt an overwhelming sense of inadequacy when confronted with the stark reality of the narrow scope of my own studies.  As additional evidence for the quality of students produced by this faculty, I pointed out that this year, our province’s recipient of an extremely prestigious international scholarship is one of its graduates.


In summary, this post has been a long-winded way of saying that I don’t think a career in biomedical research should be regarded as the only acceptable path for a talented high school science student.  It is never a letdown if someone decides to pursue a career that is fulfilling to them and that has potential to change the world for the better.  There is, in my view, no correlation between the level of sophistication (read: obscurity) of techniques used to study a particular field, and the field’s impact on the world.  There are countless discoveries about life and health to be made without invoking the use of microscopes or thermocyclers, and lower tech approaches will likely be part of the most cost-effective solutions to health problems that burden the world’s populations.