Category Archives: Preparing the Future Professoriate

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Teaching the Beauty of Science

Understanding is a lot like sex. It’s got a practical purpose, but that’s not why people do it normally.
Frank Oppenheimer (as cited in Girod et al., 2002, p. 575)
The concepts of art, beauty, creativity, and passion merging with science are not novel. A large body of literature exists drawing the relationship between science and aesthetics, and many who have committed their careers and their lives to scientific pursuits have a clear understanding of this relationship. Why, then do so many science curricula draw on completely opposite concepts to try to instill scientific knowledge? We teach science by telling pupils to step back from the world and analyze it with cold logic and rigorous methods, and while these are certainly necessary techniques to acquire accurate data, they are by no means the driving force that propels scientific discovery. Great science and world-changing ideas come from those who are immersed in their work, they are passionate about it, and they find many aspects of nature, and even some experiments themselves, beautiful.
So instead of drilling facts and figures and definitions into young minds, how do we teach them that science is beautiful? How do we help them experience the delight of an elegant experiment and beautiful results? Girod et al. provide a few thoughtful suggestions on this in their 2002 publication, “Teaching for Aesthetic Understanding”, which I will explain my interpretation of below:
1. Crafting Content
       I find this point to be particularly impactful. It is the idea that science concepts are often taught as content to be learned rather than experiences to relish. Many concepts that we teach and take for granted today were once revolutionary. For example, identifying DNA. Imagine living in a world that did not understand how traits were conserved between beings, and then identifying the physical record that contained individuals’ traits. It’s a pretty revolutionary concept that is often blankly stated in textbooks and classrooms. The first step in creating aesthetic understanding is to reframe existing concepts as the captivating ideas they once were.
2. Crafting Dispositions
      This point emphasizes the usefulness of thought experiments for all levels of scientists, and suggests more questions should be asked in a “what if” format to encourage creativity and understanding. For example, “what if this rock could talk?” could be used to trigger a conversation of geological processes in a much more memorable way than simply asking someone to identify a set of geological processes.
3. Emphasis on the artistic Expansion of Perception
      This point suggests that teachers should emphasize the concept of “re-seeing” something that the student already knows. Very often, humans see things that they have seen before, and their brains generalize and simplify these images in our head. After walking past a park, someone might say they saw trees, and their minds eye will fill in a generic “tree”. This is a concept often used in intro art classes, wherein the artist must learn to draw what they see, and not what their brain knows they’re seeing. For example, when asked to draw a flower in front of them, many students will default to drawing a cartoon form of a flower they know to represent “flower”, rather than actually drawing the contours their eyes see. This same concept transfers to science – for example, many people know the heart is responsible for pumping blood to the rest of the body….but if we look closely at a real heart, we see there are 4 chambers, and a couple holes between them….what’s all that for? (a curious observer might ask). “Re-seeing” objects stimulates questions and curiosity, and is the initiation of learning.
These are just three starting points for attempting to teach aesthetic understanding, and while the ideas in this blog post aren’t developed enough to replace an entire science curriculum yet, having teachers use techniques in this vein would go a long way in stimulating genuine curiosity and engagement with science.

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Is this hard to read…or is it just me?

Science is complicated, but does it have to be saturated with acronyms and jargon as well? A recent Nature article highlights a handful of meta-studies that have recently analyzed the use of jargon, obscure acronyms, and very long sentence structure over the past century (or so) in science publications. And, surprise, surprise, all of these metrics have increased – in some cases, to extreme degrees. For example, the frequency of acronym use was shown to increase from 0.4 acronyms per 100 word in 1956 to 4 acronyms per 100 words in 2019, that’s 10x as many acronyms! Even more interesting was the observation that, of the 1.1 million acronyms identified in this eLife paper, 79% were used fewer than 10 times in all of the scientific literature. Which is to say, most acronyms observed were made up by the authors and referenced something so specific that it was hardly ever mentioned in a publication again. Of course, some acronyms indeed make reading easier, most people don’t need deoxyribonucleic acid to be written out in place of DNA, but the VAST majority of acronym use these days is much more obscure, and places unnecessary cognitive load on the reader.

As a third year graduate student, finally authoring and editing writing to be published, I’ve been reflecting on this issue myself. In fact, I recently helped edit a peer’s journal article, and found myself hesitating to suggest that maybe some of the concepts he mentioned needed clarification. Were these things that every cardiac electrophysiologist should understand? Did he not explain the phenomenon fully because it really was so obvious? Would I look dumb by asking him to explicitly explain how this phenomenon occurred in his manuscript?  I understood what he was implying, but I felt it was unfair to assume all readers would as well. Our research is unique because it is a very niche corner of biomedical science, but will ultimately be translated into therapies for heart disease. For this reason, our literature is read by a diverse audience of professionals, MD and PhD alike. I think it is our responsibility to write as clearly as possible and aim to maximize language accessibility. This will benefit not only the established readers from our own field, but also trainees, and those transitioning from another field.

 

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Open Access Journals

One of the most prominent Open Access journals in Cardiology is “openheart“, an offshoot of BMJ (the British Medical Journal) and sponsored by the British Cardiovascular Society. As one of the oldest general medical journals in existence, BMJ is a very well-reputed journal within my field. The goal of openheart is to be as transparent about the research and publishing process as possible. All articles are free to read, all are given “open” peer review (meaning the review is unblinded), and all authors are encouraged to share their data so as to make that open access as well. Ultimately, openheart wants to expedite research progress with the aim of eventually benefitting patient care. The journal publishes both basic science and clinical investigations, and, refreshingly, encourages publications on controversial topics as well as discussions with conflicting opinions. By maintaining an entirely online publishing process, openheart aims to expedite the dissemination of research while maintaining top quality with rigorous peer review as well as running its own statistical assessment of each manuscript.

While openheart does not give a description of how it sees itself relative to either traditional journals or the open access movement itself, it does clearly define its own views of what open access should entail. Personally, I believe free articles, unblinded peer review, and shared data are very respectable standards to have for the title of “open access”. These standards, alongside such highly reputable sponsors as BMJ and the British Cardiovascular Society make openheart a leader in the open access journal community.

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Ethics: The Office of Research Integrity

First off, I must admit I was not aware that the Office of Research integrity posted cases of misconduct on a virtual wall of shame. I mean, it makes sense to have these cases made publicly available, and I assume the publications they are associated with are retracted as well, but I’ve never stumbled across the comprehensive list of guilty parties. I was a little surprised at how short the list is, which is either great news for the country’s research integrity, or bad news for the reviewers who haven’t been able to identify falsified data yet (obviously I’m hoping it’s more of the former).

The case I spent the most time reading was that of Logan Fulford. His case was compelling to me as he was also a graduate student at the time, and I can empathize with being a stressful environment as a graduate student in basic science. However, as we delve further into the misconduct claims, my empathy wanes – not only because he clearly took the wrong approach to managing a stressful grad school experience, but also because his attempts at falsifying data weren’t even particularly clever or well thought. Duplicating western blot images is a very obvious way to manipulate one’s figures. Reviewers have already made software to identify replicated images in manuscripts – this is just a terrible, desperate approach. The same goes for manipulating exposure, background lighting, and scales of said blots. These are not new concepts, and the software will catch you!

That being said, this is also a great example of why author’s and readers should be wary of western blot- centered analysis. If your lab doesn’t have a better tool, at least back up your data with multiple assays. Western blots are an old fashion, unquantifiable, and non-spatially specific way of measuring relative quantities of protein that are easy to manipulate. If your phD is riding on a handful of western blots, you’ve got a problem.

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Mission Statements

College rivalries, a concept seemingly only present in the United States (perhaps negating our ‘United’ nature), most often stem from athletic events. However, some of these rivalries are so deeply engrained that students and alumni alike claim it is not just the opposing school’s sports teams that divide them, or even the individuals that comprise the student body, but the nature of the school itself. In the following post, I will conduct a brief analysis of the mission and vision statements of two such schools in order to determine the level to which the identities of these organizations differ. UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University have one of the most developed rivalries in the country – is this just perpetual groupthink, or do the schools’ mission statements lend greater insight to fundamental differences in morals and values between the two institutions?

 

Let’s take a look at UNC Chapel Hill first:

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the nation’s first public university, serves North Carolina, the United States, and the world through teaching, research, and public service. We embrace an unwavering commitment to excellence as one of the world’s great research universities.

Our mission is to serve as a center for research, scholarship, and creativity and to teach a diverse community of undergraduate, graduate, and professional students to become the next generation of leaders. Through the efforts of our exceptional faculty and staff, and with generous support from North Carolina’s citizens, we invest our knowledge and resources to enhance access to learning and to foster the success and prosperity of each rising generation. We also extend knowledge-based services and other resources of the University to the citizens of North Carolina and their institutions to enhance the quality of life for all people in the State.

With lux, libertas — light and liberty — as its founding principles, the University has charted a bold course of leading change to improve society and to help solve the world’s greatest problems.

The mission statement of UNC Chapel Hill highlights the university’s focus on research as well as its contribution to bettering the lives of people across the state of North Carolina. As a public institution, UNC accepts money from the state of North Carolina, and sensibly claims to focus on activities that will benefit the community. It also emphasizes teaching a diverse community of students – again, an obligation as a public school. Overall, I would say this is a well-intentioned, if generic, mission statement. The values of “light and liberty” don’t necessarily shed insight into the goals of the university, nor are any concrete goals listed for the school to aspire to. However, the reader clearly sees that this is a research institution, funded by the state of North Carolina, with the goal of serving North Carolina.

 

Let’s move on to Duke:

“James B. Duke’s founding Indenture of Duke University directed the members of the University to ‘provide real leadership in the educational world’ by choosing individuals of ‘outstanding character, ability, and vision’ to serve as its officers, trustees and faculty; by carefully selecting students of ‘character, determination and application;’ and by pursuing those areas of teaching and scholarship that would ‘most help to develop our resources, increase our wisdom, and promote human happiness.’

“To these ends, the mission of Duke University is to provide a superior liberal education to undergraduate students, attending not only to their intellectual growth but also to their development as adults committed to high ethical standards and full participation as leaders in their communities; to prepare future members of the learned professions for lives of skilled and ethical service by providing excellent graduate and professional education; to advance the frontiers of knowledge and contribute boldly to the international community of scholarship; to promote an intellectual environment built on a commitment to free and open inquiry; to help those who suffer, cure disease, and promote health, through sophisticated medical research and thoughtful patient care; to provide wide ranging educational opportunities, on and beyond our campuses, for traditional students, active professionals and life-long learners using the power of information technologies; and to promote a deep appreciation for the range of human difference and potential, a sense of the obligations and rewards of citizenship, and a commitment to learning, freedom and truth.

“By pursuing these objectives with vision and integrity, Duke University seeks to engage the mind, elevate the spirit, and stimulate the best effort of all who are associated with the University; to contribute in diverse ways to the local community, the state, the nation and the world; and to attain and maintain a place of real leadership in all that we do.”

The mission statement of Duke University certainly uses sharper wording to describe the members of its academic society. In particular, the use of “selectiveness” of its pupils drives home some degree of elitism, and the aim to provide “superior” education is certainly a more competitive description of its curriculum. The writers definitely want to make clear that, though they intend to contribute to an international body of knowledge, they will be the leaders in every scenario. The statement culminates in a laundry list of aims for the university, ranging from training medical professionals to treat their patients thoughtfully, to a general commitment to “truth”. These goals, though they certainly sound morally upright, do not help me to understand exactly what the school intends on doing in the next decade.

In sum, after reviewing statements from both schools, I find it very interesting that the style of writing does seem to match the stereotype of each school. UNC promotes higher education for all,  while Duke harps on its selectivity. UNC hopes to improve the lives of those across the entire state, while Duke hopes to create leaders to dominant every field possible. However, at the end of the day, neither statement leaves me with a clear idea of what action items the school plans on taking to achieve these goals. If we strip the statements of their writing style, I see only two generic statements about commitment to learning and ethics….I personally need these to have more substance for them to feel valuable. How can you show me that you value individuals and individual progress, not just achievements that will bring in donor dollars? What kinds of changes are you trying to make in the world? I’m going to need some more detail.

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