Proper publication or a basic blog?

As we end the Grad5104 course I’ve been thinking about the usefulness of this blog. In general, I like the blog, but so far the only people reading it are those that are reading it for class and some spambots. There has been a lot of discussion about using social media to spread knowledge and break down the barriers between higher ed and the general public. The idea is good, but the execution is easier said than done.

I can blog all I want about higher ed, or even my research and expertise, but that doesn’t make it useful or impactful to anyone. To my knowledge, there aren’t any easy (and free) methods to promote yourself and to gather a broader audience. At best I expect this blog to be seen by a few more students at Virginia Tech. I can put it on my business cards and have recruiters look at it, but again, that doesn’t spread a message to the general public.

So while the blogging idea is great it feels like it could easily be a waste of time. I can spend a half hour a day writing a blog post, or I could spend that time working up data for my research. That would get published and people could actually learn from and cite it. It’s not as accessible to the public, but at least it gets seen by someone. Journals have the “machinery” to distribute their materials and to attract attention. Blogs are a lot more limited, especially since they tend to be just one person who can’t afford nearly as much advertising and such. Open access is a fair compromise I suppose, but even then the general public is likely to see a journal article as far less readable than a blog post. Does that matter if they’d never see the blog post?

Furthermore, the article protects my research interests a lot more than a blog post does. I can’t really put individual blog posts on a CV, but a proper publication looks great! As someone who wants to make education accessible, the blog feels better to me, but I can’t continue science if I can’t get a job, or if I get kicked out of my lab for distributing data that isn’t published in a journal yet.

I hope I can continue to find things to blog about, but the truth is I’ll always feel a little guilty that I could be doing something more “useful” with my time. Even if I make the argument that it’s stress-reducing, a hike or a drink with friends would take the same amount of time and be far more stress-reducing.

Building the confidence to learn

Throughout my time in academia, I have met many friends that believe they “just can’t understand [insert subject here].”  They then have tremendous difficulty learning physical chemistry, calculus, thermodynamics, active/passive tense or whatever subject they claim to be unable to learn. This seems to build a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies. I’ve observed these friends zoning out during class, and being unable to describe even the simplest ideas in class. Then one day they actually pay attention in class and feel enlightened…before they zone out in the next class.

From my experience, these people spend so much time assuming they can’t learn certain subjects that they don’t really even try. They’ll attempt to muddle through assignments by guess and check type methods instead of reading up on Wikipedia or something to get a decent understanding of the problem at hand. They then chalk up bad grades to bad teachers or that darned inability to learn the subject. They spend hours trying to “guess” or search for correct answers instead of thinking and learning.

I’ve witnessed one person break this cycle, and break it multiple times because the subjects became relevant to their work. They were forced to learn the topic and as soon as they started to pay attention, most things made sense. Why did they struggle so much before? This friend realized it was because they often don’t take the time to really learn certain things, or that in classes they have zoned out because of boring powerpoint slides, etc.

What I’m trying to get at in a longwinded way is that when people actively try to learn things they do much better. People end up shortchanging themselves because they have the wrong mindset. I think part of higher education should be to build these people up in such a way that they chose to learn when they are struggling, rather than wallow in self-pity. This might be obtainable by making content more accessible, or more engaging. Maybe having smaller classes or connecting everything to relevant topics would help. I would just like to see more people trying harder rather than giving up when they see difficulties.

Do you have any ideas on how to get people to try harder? Or maybe try smarter?

Have you ever talked yourself out of doing well? Have you ever altered your mindset to improve your own learning?

Universities and Civic Duty

The other day I saw a post on the good old Facebook:

My first thought was: “That would be great, more people need to vote.” I liked the post and moved on with my day.

However, I started to think about it more. Universities rely largely on our political systems for financial support, as well as a delivery system for the knowledge learned in the ivory tower. Politics control what knowledge is used, and what information is ignored.  As a result, I think it is important that universities have some part in the political process.

As institutions of education, Universities should teach about all aspects of life. Many high schoolers and complain about “when are we ever going to use this stuff?!” Our voting system is a perfect chance to teach something that every single (US) student should know. To add to that, our voting system is just confusing enough that people do need to be taught. By making students register, they take away a barrier to learning and identify any registration issues before they become important.

Future of the University: Global Communication

What should change in higher education? A lot, but I’ll focus on communication for now. I think all parts of the educational system, universities as well as primary schools, need to emphasize communication between all groups of people. This is how we build stronger communities, how we disseminate knowledge, and how we grow as the global society that we are. Communication can prevent wars, and enable fantastical discoveries, but I don’t think we have nearly enough emphasis on this skill.

The global perspectives program here is an example of universities trying to enhance communication, but I don’t believe it is enough. There are too many types of communication to be encompassed by such a small program. We need to enhance communication between cultures as well as cohorts. Engineers and historians need to communicate just as much as Americans need to communicate with Germans. Freshman in high school should talk to seniors in undergrad as well as 5th year Ph.D. students and Deans.

We need journalists to communicate effectively with scientists and vice versa. We need historians to speak to teachers.
We need businessmen to talk to students.
We need mechanical engineers to understand chemists.

This communication is how we build better ideas, better consumer products, and ultimately a better world. It’s how people find their passions and their creativity. It’s how people learn about the world around them.

HOWEVER, I don’t think this kind of communication is currently supported by most universities. Engineers have a tendency to believe their work is harder and therefore better than say an English or a business major. Physicists and Mathematicians have even been known to argue superiority over other science disciplines as witnessed by Randall Munroe in XKCD:

This type of superiority complex makes it difficult to have an intelligent and reasonable conversation, as one side inherently ignores half the conversation because it is “beneath them”. This kind of thinking needs to be squashed as much as any other kind of bigotry because it doesn’t help anyone.  I think universities still emphasize superiority instead of trying to bring everyone up to the highest level of intelligence.

Universities need to find a way to facilitate more communication between students of every age, ethnicity, and discipline. Have a program to send grad students to high schools. If volunteering doesn’t work, make it a class assignment to explain a course learning objective to a middle school class or something. Have coffee budget for grad students and undergrads to sit down and talk shop. These events appear every now and then for individual departments or clubs, but university wide emphasis on this type of communication is a must.

Sensational Politics and the University

Today while bopping about the interwebs, I came across the following article about a Stanford student who was pressing charges for an altercation at a political event for Brett Kavanaugh.

News video/summary here:

Hopefully, that shows up correctly…

Anyhoo, what basically happened was that the campus Republicans were tabling somewhere on Stanford’s campus to support Kavanaugh. Other students were complaining/arguing/ vandalizing them. At one point Melinda Hernandez pushed/touched John Rice-Cameron, president of the campus’s chapter of the College Republicans. This then escalated to the police being called in, and Hernandez receiving a citation. Rice-Cameron wants to push charges. Some accounts say that Hernandez basically tried to push down Rice-Cameron’s phone because he was filming her without consent and would not stop. Some accounts say that the tabling group likes to entice these kinds of altercations. But none of that is super relevant or factual. Yet, they put a spin on the situation. The facts get twisted by our opinions of “well if they were asking for it…they can hardly press charges,” and “he was just using his right to free speech!” And so on.

No matter your politics, I think we can agree on two things. 1) College campuses should be a place for freedom of self, speech, thought, expression, etc. and 2) violence (no matter how small) should not have a place on a college campus. The problem is that we currently have a dichotomy of thought, and not much of a spectrum on many issues. To add to this, both sides want to prove they are right in any way possible, often by discrediting the other side instead of building up their own. It’s pretty easy to rile someone up about something they really dislike, and it’s also especially difficult to walk away when you feel obligated to defend an idea that is so deeply emotional. Using this as a weapon allows you to say “Look! They can’t even think straight! They resorted primitive violence! Clearly, I’m right, because I don’t need violence!” It’s a dirty trick but it’s a common trick. Look at the Kavanaugh hearing. There was no evidence in that incident. No investigation for truth and facts. It was a pure she said, he said. Both sides used emotion and storytelling. Nothing either one of them said could be verified, but that’s how we chose a Supreme Court Justice…

Now, where am I going with this? The Stanford incident happened at a university, a haven of free thought. Stanford has every responsibility to defend and even encourage the campus Republicans to share their ideas with the greater community. However, I think the university also has a responsibility to teach them how to do so in a constructive manner. When tensions are as high as they currently are, I think it’s important for universities to remind people how to speak with one another, as humans. Both sides see the other as an enemy, as competition, as morally repugnant. But we are all humans, and all need love, support, shelter, etc. The media clearly isn’t about to step in and diffuse the situation, because sensationalism sells. So at some point, I think Universities need to step up, inform the public, and remind the media that facts are important too.

Open Access: Polymers

Open access is a funny thing. To me it seems silly that we want to research things for the greater good of society and industry, yet for anyone to read our stuff they need to pay gobs of money. Paywalls can make our research practically unheard of and therefore useless. Sure, some newspapers and the like may pay for access, then “translate” our jargon into words that are more palatable for the average consumer. But often things get lost in translation. For this reason, it is critical that average people have access to the research that their taxes pay for. It gives them a chance to read directly from the source with minimal chance of misinformation or “dumbing-down”. The problem is that most people know of Nature or Science, but free and open access journals are largely unknown. This is probably a result of open access being relatively new, but it makes it difficult for people to know where to look if they want certain information. Google helps, but I don’t believe there’s an open-access only option to remove the frustration of consistently ramming into paywalls. Anyway…let’s go find an open access journal…

“Polymers (ISSN 2073-4360) is an international open access
journal of polymer science. It publishes research papers,
communications and review articles. Polymers provides
an interdisciplinary forum for publishing papers which
advance the fields of (i) polymerization methods, (ii) theory,
simulation, and modeling, (iii) understanding of new
physical phenomena, (iv) advances in characterization
techniques, and (v) harnessing of self-assembly and
biological strategies for producing complex multifunctional

When looking for an open access journal, I realized that all of the journals that come to mind for my field are not open-access. I could think of PLOS one and some others that were more relevant to my bioengineering days, but not much for polymers/macromolecules/plastics. But alas, a touch of google and here we are, Polymers. This is a relatively new journal, started in 2009, and headquartered in Basel, Switzerland. The Belgium Polymer Group is a publication partner and is composed of various industries and universities in the area surrounding Basel.

Polymers has an impact factor of 2.935, which trails well behind the 40.137 of Nature, but it beats PLOS One’s  2.766. Many would argue that the impact factor is roughly meaningless and implies more about the breadth of readership and less about the quality of the publication, but this is still something to compare with. This brings about the first thoughts on open access journals: they’re newer and generally less established. This doesn’t mean they are bad, but means during this growth stage, they may not be the best option for new researchers trying to get noticed.

Polymers promises “unlimited and free access for readers” as well as “reliable service” and a 37-day turn around time for publications. Not bad. Costs are flexible, depending on what authors can pay, so long as the quality of the publication is decent. As an added bonus, the articles appear to be exclusively online, so there is no added cost for color figures. Submission is free, so you don’t waste any money just to get rejected. I’d say this pricing structure exemplifies the open access idea because it is both accessible to readers that may not have subscriptions and also reasonable for authors to submit their work. This is truly what is needed for knowledge to be spread and disseminated.


Tech and Innovation in Higher Ed: Quizzes and Quizlet

I found the article ” What a Controversy Over an App Tells Us About How Students Learn Now” on the Chronicle of Higher Ed. This piece focuses on a university case where students were accused of cheating for using the app Quizlet to study for an exam. For those that aren’t familiar, Quizlet allows users to upload questions and answers in a flashcards style for people to study. The idea is that if you have a big exam, instead of writing down all the flashcards and inevitably dropping them a few times during transport, you can swipe through these ones online. There are often times when there are questions that you would have missed when making your own cards, and it can be really great to see what others think is important to study. I believe the site Koofers has a similar functionality and is more common here at VT. The argument made against both Quizlet and Koofers is that people can upload test questions that are currently being used by professors, so students on these sites are effectively seeing exams ahead of time.

Some professors/institutes have reacted by trying to ban the use of such resources by their classes. I know I have seen at least two syllabi here that have specifically denounced the use of Koofers at VT. What’s interesting here is that there is no way, short of restricted internet usage, for universities to enforce this. They are relying on students’ honesty to not use the resources online. But the students who would follow such guidelines are also the ones that are less likely to try to cheat anyway.

I have always taken issue with this stance. We live in a connected global society with all the resources of the world effectively at our fingertips. One quote from the article that reminds me far too much of middle school:

“Robin DeRosa, an interdisciplinary-studies professor at Plymouth State University, used to motivate her students to learn math by warning them that they wouldn’t always have a calculator available. But with smart phones in their pockets now, students rarely encounter such constraints.”

If I’m working in the lab, it may be faster to do the math in my head, but if I’m really in doubt, I will almost always have my phone nearby to reassure me. There will be few times when I can’t google some basic facts online. If I need to know how Infrared Spectroscopy works, I’m about a 5 min YouTube video away from understanding it better than most students who just learned about it for a week of class. To try to pretend students won’t have this access when faced with “real-world” problems is short-sighted.  Students should learn to access these resources, not ignore them.

“It’s about authentic demonstrations that are externally facing so students can be part of this data-rich environment,” [Natasha Jankowski, director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment] said, “and about how we’re helping each other collectively to move us from a ‘gotcha’ assessment to creating a developmental learning experience. It’s a different teaching-learning mentality.”

An argument can be made that I have an unfair advantage over someone who doesn’t know about Quizlet or Koofers, but that could be solved by introducing students to the item as a learning tool. If everyone has access and knowledge of the same tools, there’s no unfair advantage. However, I would argue in today’s society, we all have roughly equal access (at least at a given institution), and the real learning skill is to find and evaluate information based on those resources.  No one is going to ban Yahoo Answers (is this even still a thing?) but most people aren’t going to trust it over other sources like Wikipedia, a textbook, or journal article. If you go to Yahoo over the others, that’s your choice, and probably your failure to learn from. Just because I’m scoffing at it, doesn’t mean the person who uses it has an advantage over me, I accept that I’m using a different toolset and would not ask theirs to be limited.

“There are times when students do need to know factual information, fundamental knowledge from a given field, etc.,” she said in an email. “But how do we assess their understanding of that knowledge? If the answer is a multiple choice and/or fill-in-the-blank exam, how much does it matter that students can recall that knowledge offhand?”

Great minds think alike…unfortunately

In class this past week, someone mentioned Walter Lewin, a renowned MIT astrophysicists known for giving tremendous lectures. The description reminded of Richard Feynman, another physicist known for tremendous teaching chops. Both of these professors are well renowned and honored for successfully communicating science to broad audiences and making tremendous discoveries. Feynman was famous for the Manhattan Project (atomic bomb) and his Nobel Prize. Lewin discovered rotating neutron stars with balloons. Both men were clearly brilliant in their own right and provided tremendous insight into the scientific world in ways most lecturers could not.

Here’s the problem though: both have also had some serious claims of sexual harassment and sexist behavior. In “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” there is a chapter dedicated to Feynman recounting how he literally TRAINED himself to disrespect women so he could sleep with them. The best summary of this that I’ve seen is here, on the blog Restructure!. Which to quote a quote:

Well, someone only has to give me the principle, and I get the idea. All during the next day I built up my psychology differently: I adopted the attitude that those bar girls are all bitches, that they aren’t worth anything, and all they’re in there for is to get you to buy them a drink, and they’re not going to give you a goddamn thing; I’m not going to be a gentleman to such worthless bitches, and so on. I learned it till it was automatic.

That’s Feynman’s own words, in what’s basically an autobiography. Not the best look.

Similarly, Lewin was accused of sexual harassment through his online courses, and MIT took away his emeritus status and took down his lectures. I can’t find much info on what he actually did, but that hardly matters. He was a brilliant man that preyed on women.

In a similar vein, James Watson of DNA-fame has also displayed horribly racist and demeaning things. The man is brilliant for helping discover DNA and for helping found the human genome project and such, but even his disrespect for Rosalind Franklin and her research which he stole shows a poor attitude.

My question is: should we revere these men? Should we use their lectures and their notes to teach? 

On the one hand, they’ve still made valuable discoveries and have revealed tremendous methods of teaching. They still have the potential to teach many generations and inspire awe in countless future scientists. On the other, they’ve held some pretty shady views that muck up their legacies. Placing them on a pedestal also places their misdeeds on that same pedestal. This seems like a dangerous game; we don’t want to encourage more bigotry in science and education. But again, they were amazing at providing explanations in ways that people could understand complex ideas. It would be a tragedy to lose that. Do we use their teaching examples and point out their imperfections to say “you can be better”? I don’t know. I hate to waste a brilliant idea, but I’d also hate to encourage any form of bigotry and discrimination.


What are your thoughts? Did you know about these case? Do you know about others? If anyone has examples of the opposite, of brilliant minds that defended minorities or stood up against harassment, please share them.

Higher Ed and the Ability to Succeed

Today, while waiting to meet with my PI,  I was reading this article about students needing to feel like they can succeed in assignments if they are going to actually be engaged in classes and learning. In short, if students don’t feel like their effort gets them anywhere or doesn’t provide the desired outcomes then they’ll quickly lose interest in the course. They might drop the course or stop trying to do well.

This article was perfectly timed because my meeting included me asking to drop a course that was consuming far too much of my time.  I read through the article thinking “yup…yup…that’s me!” as I related much of the content to what was happening in my class.

The class is something I’m very interested in, computational modeling, but I have very little experience with the material. I took this class as an intro, to learn some of the basics, which the professor teaches rather well. However, his assignments assume far more knowledge and skill than he is willing to teach. I found myself spending countless hours trying to convert his abstract and compacted notation into usable computer code to do his assignments. It only took 3 homework assignments in 3 weeks to push me over the edge. I had lost so much sleep, all three of those weekends, and was behind on research goals, all from one class. Even the two assignments I did finish, I was not confident in the answers I handed in.

The article was funny because the author discussed how it can be easy to know what it takes to be a professional athlete, but that doesn’t make it any easier to actually become a pro.  This is what I was feeling with these assignments. I knew what I needed to do. The professor was good at teaching that. But the actual execution, the how, was far out of my grasp. It’s easy to say an IronMan just requires swimming, biking, and running. I can do all three of those easily, it’s the full bit of HOW you do them. I can’t swim 2.4mi and then bike 112mi, and THEN run a marathon. My professor was essentially just saying “go do an Ironman, it just involves some simple swimming, biking, and running, it should be easy.”  I think I’ll pass…

So after a rough weekend, I gave up, just as the article predicted.  I decided the effort wasn’t worth my time. I can learn the same content on my own, sans grading. I can take my own pace and still get sleep.

This concept seems critical to higher education delivering on its purpose to grow and disseminate knowledge. A lot of courses, especially those in fields like pre-med or pre-law like to weed students out because of the high incoming demand for those degrees. The concept of attainable successes can help weed out students I suppose, by guaranteeing that assignments are so difficult that almost no one can completely succeed. That’ll quickly squash any motivation for those subjects! But I think that’s the opposite of what should be done. Professors and other educators should keep in mind what students can reasonably learn in a given amount of time, and make sure to reinforce it and provide opportunities for successes, both large and small.  This builds confidence, and probably continued curiousity in a subject. Those two things are critical to discovery in my book.

Ethics: The case of the extra kidneys

Ethics to me has always seemed like a no-brainer. If it feels wrong, it probably is. If you find yourself sketchily hiding actions from your colleagues, those actions might be unethical. If in doubt, lean on the side of caution. I understand there are moral/ethical grey areas…do we allow genetic modification to cure disease at the likely cost of designer babies? Is it really worth it to sacrifice hundreds of innocent rats/bunnies/monkeys at a time so that hundreds of thousands of human lives can potentially be saved/improved? There are arguments for both sides in cases like this. However, some cases just seem so clear cut that they baffle me. Warning: I might have gotten riled up at this one.

The case of Dr. Judith M. Thomas. In brief, she was researching kidney transplants and methods of lowering organ rejection with various drugs. Since most lab monkeys don’t have kidney problems, both of their kidneys had to be removed and replaced with a single transplant kidney. This is because you can live “perfectly” normally with only one kidney, so if the transplanted kidney didn’t work, you might not be able to tell if there was still an original kidney present. For anyone that doesn’t know, the human body is tremendously skilled at identifying “not-self” items. This means that no matter how well you match patient blood types, genetics, etc, there’s a really good chance the immune system of the patient will try to kill the new organ. The drugs basically kill off all the immune cells and allow the body to learn to love the new organ as it heals. Ideally, Dr. Thomas would remove the monkey kidneys, give them a transplant and some drugs, and let them get acquainted with their new kidney. If the drugs worked, the monkey would be happy as ever with no rejection. If they failed, the monkey’s body would kill the kidney, and the monkey would have a bad day as his dying kidney failed. Then we would know never to use those drugs again.

Spoiler alert, that’s not what happened.
A Rhesus Monkey: the species that was used for this research.

“Respondent falsely reported in 15 publications that NHP renal allograft recipients had received bilateral nephrectomies of their native kidneys, while in fact many of the animals retained an intrinsic kidney”

Instead of removing the kidneys, she swapped out at a one to one ratio. To be clear, that means she left in a normal functional kidney. Now we have no way of knowing if the drugs are really working because there won’t be any sign of kidney failure. The monkey’s body could be eviscerating the new organ, but the monkey won’t show the signs of kidney failure that the researchers would be looking for. There might be other symptoms or at least some signs of distress from the monkeys, but they might be seen as otherwise mild side effects since a kidney is still functioning. So at this point, the study is useless.  You can’t assess if the new kidney is functioning well because it’s totally unnecessary. It can fail without major issue. Congrats Dr. Thomas, you’ve abused a bunch of monkeys for zero benefits to anyone.

Oh but wait! There’s more! In case that wasn’t bad enough, Judith didn’t even give the right dosages of the drug she was testing! You can’t evaluate a drug if you’re not correctly reporting what happens at each dosage. If negative side effects start popping up at say 50mg/day, but you report that limit as 65mg/day, doctors might feel safe prescribing 60 mg. That has the potential to cause some serious issues. The reverse is just as bad. If you say a drug is more effective than it is, doctors will under prescribe it, so patients don’t actually get a benefit. Then their organs fail and they die. So now there’s probably dead monkeys, dead patients, and a malpractice lawsuit all thanks to Dr. Thomas.

But wait! There’s more! She did this 15 times! 15 publications, which usually means separate studies/groups of monkeys, including this falsified data and procedure. 15 publications that were likely cited and used as stepping stones for further research. 15 publications that undermine the public’s trust in science.  She got good grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which could have gone to real research and saved real lives!

Then there’s the cherry on top. She got a tiny slap on the wrist. She can’t work with or get money from the US government for 10 years. That’s it. After 10 years she can go back to what she was doing, and if the grant reviewers don’t recognize her name, she might get funding for the same stuff.

There are two defenses I see for her. The monkeys might have suffered more if the drugs failed, and it’s so hard to get funding. The latter is just so weak I’m not going to bother with it. The former is misguided at best. If the drug works, it doesn’t matter, the monkey shouldn’t really be suffering so it’s not a huge deal. However, if the drug fails, and the kidney dies, I can’t imagine that’s pleasant for the monkey. At least with only one kidney, the effects would be quickly apparent and hopefully addressable. With two kidneys, it’s likely the native organ will mask the problems caused by the dying kidney until it is too late to do much. Furthermore, if the trials gave positive results that moved the drugs to human trials, you don’t have a clue what kinds of doses are really appropriate. The human patients are entering a clinical trial feeling much more secure than they should. It’s unfair to them too.

The more I think about all this, the more upset I get. Ethical violations like this undermine higher education as a whole. They remove credibility and provide doubts in the scientific process. They weaken the public’s ability to take our words at face value. This just frustrates the heck out of me.


/end rant