Monthly Archives: February 2014

Empowering photography

While reading about affirmations as a tool to empower minorities to perform better in higher education, I recalled a similar social project in Finland. It was called “The loveliest girl in the world“. This project run by Miina Savolainen used photography to change self image of girls in a children’s home.

The participants had rough backgrounds and life stories, with very little to affirm them as beautiful, special, or accepted. The photography project cast them as the main character, them selves, in a scene they created with the photographer. From the comments of the participating girls, I got the vibe that they saw themselves differently after seeing the photos. They felt special and more whole. Their self image was greatly improved.

This type of affirmation could work especially well in self image issues. Could this be used in dissolving identity threat?  Maybe students could interact in the form of portrait photography on campus with other students. They would work together to produce a portrait photographs of each other. The portraits would have to present the person on a deeper level than just a mug shot would. This would incorporate interactions between diverse students, and work as an affirmation when best sides of each individual are explored.

(As a side note: maybe “selfies” are a way of self affirmation? Maybe we should encourage it up to a point?)

Do you want to ride a unicorn?

A recent article in chronicle of higher education on the perils of scientists in academia caught my attention immediately. It reflected my feelings on academic career “nicely”. The main data graph is attached to the end of this post for anyone brave enough to look.

Press and academic publications have been piling up messages on dwindling grants, too many PhDs, and dissatisfaction in working conditions. The data indicates that over 40% of primary investigators surveyed are encouraging students to leave the ship, 80% expect to see more discouraged PhD students and Post-docs, and over 20% have encouraged students to leave US for their next career step.

To lull oneself into the false security of this happening to just starting level scientists is foolish. The piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education gave stark examples of even established scientists leaving the field, or the country, to survive. No wonder I feel like staying in academia seems implausible, I am not good enough, and landing a tenured position seems as likely as finding an unicorn under the lab bench.


Some days leaving science and finding work at a grocery store seems like the easy way out. But then I see my PI and she seems to find the unicorns and ride them with success. What made her able to do that? Was it just a completely different environment ten or so years ago? Sure. But maybe it is actually about the ability to see the unicorns in the first place, that allows her to ride them. The current financial situation, which will change, makes it just harder to see these magical creatures. And maybe the people leaving academia have found that they would rather ride a Pegasus with wings, or they see the unicorn elsewhere.

Possibly the goal of our higher education is first to consider the existence of unicorns and then finding ways to get to them, where ever they are. Or maybe the stress has just made me delusional… I have finally cracked an it manifests as hallucinations of unicorns.




Where do we put all the PhDs?

Article titled “The PhD Factory” in Nature 2011volume 472 is a part of the reading materials for this semester in Preparing the future professoriate course. The core of the article is in the high levels of PhD production and the future of those PhDs. Situations between countries like China and Germany were explored and they differed quite significantly based on the economy of those countries.

The worth of spending the time in higher education was brought up with a comment, that does not sit well with me.

…it is not clear that spending years securing this high level qualification is worth it for a job as, for example, high school teacher.

I say why not? Would I want extremely qualified, passionate teachers for my children? As shown by the graphs in the article, the salary is not much changed between PhD and non-PhD in Europe or US. So it might actually not be the money that we are after when getting a PhD. How could we put worth on knowledge and experience research training gives? Could the society get more out of the trained PhDs than just research? Their educations is at least partially paid from the tax money.


Statistics from Nature vol 427 article “The PhD Factory” by Cyranoski et al. 2011

The need for soft skills on the side of hard core research will play a big role in offering PhDs an opportunity to leave academia as well as have a productive career in academia. I found this lacking in my Finnish institution during my master’s studies. Virginia Tech has answered this need with the future professoriate and other certification opportunities.

Getting the PhDs outside of academia after graduation is extremely enticing idea, when we see current faculty fighting over grants fiercely and stressing over their ability to keep their labs afloat. The examples of Germany and Singapore seem like good models for economies similar to them. However the balance of drawing PhDs to the outside world can go overboard and cause problems to the academia, as seen in the example of India. Striking a balance in this issue should involve political decisions as the future of a whole country can be affected by it.

An issue brought up in the article is the differing view for the need of PhDs between academics and politicians

To Paula Stephan, an economist in Georgia State University in Atlanta who studies PhD trends, it is “scandalous” that US politicians continue to speak of PhD shortage.

Are there really too many PhDs or are they just trained towards too narrow career paths? The policies in place to award universities monetarily based on how many PhDs they produce, has in Finland led to problems. The amount of PhD students has increased while the next level jobs have decreased. Is the number of PhD degrees in a country some sort of status symbol in politics? This is why more academics need to get into politics. The divide between academics and the people who actually steers the society surrounding the universities needs to be addressed to have healthy development of academia.


Getting too comfortable

“You say ‘Bed time, bed time, bed time’. That’s not what the child hears. What the child hears is: ‘Lie down in the dark, for hours, don’t move. I’m locking the door now’.”

Dylan Moran in “Like Totally”

When I come home from university for the holidays, my father always asks “Was the train full?” and I answer “I wouldn’t know, I only sat in one cart and slept half of the time”. People ask “How are you doing?” and I need to remind myself that this is not actually a question. I am supposed to say great-thank-you-how-about-your-self. Even if I am really feeling quite concerned, nauseous, weird, and panicked. Nobody wants to hear that. They want the assurance that everything is going fine and they can continue as they were.

And this is something science and higher education cannot afford. We cannot say that, yes everything is fine with the state of HIV today, just to make ourselves feel comfortable or not to create confrontations. We cannot say the education is doing just fine and we are okay to continue as we were.

When did bed time turn into something to look forward to? When do we stop thinking of how I am actually doing now, and just say yes the train was full? When did being comfortable become more important, than being happy or inspired or dead tired after achieving something. Nothing great came from comfortable apart from peaceful death. Let’s take pride in what we do, however messy it might be and how uncomfortable we might be during or after. Let’s be that kid in class who asks just one more difficult question two minutes before class ends, let’s be that child who refuses to leave the mud puddle, because there are so many interesting treasures to be felt and tasted in it.

And don’t ask me how I am, if you don’t really want to know.

Resilience and loss of confidence

One of the myths in education outlined by Langer in “Mindful learning” is that gratification needs to be delayed. I took it to refer to the small prizes like good grades, general praise or award. Based on these aspects delaying gratification could indeed be a harmful myth. In case of grading and praise, the continuous assessment is much preferred instead of just one final grade to determine everything. Even a small praise could boost students to achieve more during the semester. However the praise and grading should be fair and realistic.

As shown by Brummelman et al. 2014 in Psychological Science, an inflated praise can be harmful for children with low self-esteem. This could also play into situations in high school, where students who do well feel they did not deserve the good grade (also mentioned by Langer). Especially in a class where the gap between high and low performers on tests is large, the teacher might feel the need to encourage low performers to look up to a high performer’s excellent work. This leads to social problems within the class: low performers might start resenting the high performers, and high performers might feel extremely uncomfortable for being drawn to the spotlight. I would like to think this is rare in higher education

Higher education has a different set of gratification producing events, like making the Dean’s list or belonging to a club. In fields of study that require research and publishing papers, the gratification comes from a job well done and accepted by the larger scientific community.  In the field of science, one has to be able to withstand failure. This is a situation where delayed gratification in form of successful experiments can be beneficial in the long run. You will learn to trouble shoot and analyze data that makes no perfect sense at first. You learn resilience in the face of failures. Ideally you will learn that not everything is your fault and the nature of science requires missteps.

But how long does one have to wait for any success? I waited 6 long years. This has made me resilient. But in the process I lost a large part of professional confidence even before entering graduate school. I doubt every single result I get. Any award is viewed as a pity prize. There must be some mistake, or other contestants just did not try. Is this a residual feeling after years of inflated praise? Could this be one of the causes of imposter syndrome in graduate students? Or is this a result of extremely delayed gratification? As usual, a middle ground must be found to prevent this sort of mindset from blossoming. To me standardized testing does nothing to help me think I am worthy of the grade. Anyone can fill circles. Heck, I sometimes guess the correct circle. The only exam I believe I truly earned an A in was an applied exam consisting of real data and on the spot analysis of it. Would we be better off with more applied exams in all fields and class sizes? What else can we do to support students in a healthy way?


Story line of science?

I attended a talk by Jean Beatty at Virginia Tech last Friday afternoon. He specializes in philosophy and history of biology. The talk was about narratives and how they can be used. He showed multiple examples of chains of events. He highlighted how narrative can be used to let a reader think about other possible events that might have happened if the narrated path had not been taken.

For me this was an interesting way of looking at science and for example writing an article. For a better quality publication, a narrative could be used. For example in case of a relatively recent publication (Watkins et. al. 2013) the authors take the reader through a narrative. First they studied the connection between bacterial gene expression and mouse interferon response to its presence and absence during bacterial infection. They found interferon gamma, a molecule inducing inflammation, levels are increased when the gene of interest is present. Next they wanted to know which cells of the host secreted the interferon and found that neutrophils, immune cells capable of engulfing bacteria, were the source. As the finale they found what this means for the host.


This Type of set-up allows the reader to appreciate the thought path taken and also shows that other options were studied and found not possible for this story line. For example the T lymphocytes as main source of the interferon was ruled out. This narrative building could be a good tool for me personally to write up my thesis and plan my experiments.


References used:

Watkins, R. L., O. W. Zurek, K. B. Pallister, and J. M. Voyich. 2013. The SaeR/S two-component system induces interferon-gamma production in neutrophils during invasive Staphylococcus aureus infection. Microbes Infect 15: 749-754.