Monthly Archives: April 2014

Experts dehumanized – even on brain level!

Parker Palmer (2007) calls for humanity in higher education. He sees today’s professional education stripped of feelings and concentrated on skills and techniques. He is right in this on many levels. Further proof is offered by a research done on medical students, comparing their  balanced emotional empathy scale scores (BBES) through medical school using a survey. This survey was used as a measure of vicarious empathy, or sympathy, of the students.

Measurement of BEES in medical students at different states of career. (Newton et al. 2008)

Figure 1. Measurement of BEES in medical students at different states of career. Higher score refers to higher level of sympathy. M1= freshmen, M2= sophomore, M3= junior, M4= senior. Core= internal medicine, family medicine, pediatrics, gynecology, psychiatry. Non-Core= surgery, pathology, radiology etc. Number of students surveyed was 419.  (Newton et al. 2008)

Figure 1 above shows the results of Newton’s study. For both sexes in all disciplines of medicine the emotional empathy scores decreased as the students advanced in medical school curriculum. The decline was lower in women compared to men with lowest decrease in empathy scores (13%) for women in core disciplines like internal medicine or pediatrics. Largest drop in empathy scores (38%) was seen in men at non-core disciplines like surgery or pathology (Newton et al. 2008). This decrease of empathy could be connected to Dr. Parker Palmer’s perceived lack of humanity in professionals.

More interestingly these empathy responses are different in all physicians on brain chemistry level compared to non-physicians. This was shown in a study where physicians and control group watched videos of needles and q-tips being stuck on hands. Their brain activity was measured with functional MRI, and their perception of pain intensity and unpleasantness in the videos was recorded via questionnaire (Cheng et al. 2007).

Figure 2. below shows how physicians did not have the same reaction to pain. The brain areas activating were different and the intensity of activity in those areas was lower compared to control group. In addition the physicians perceived the pain to be less intense and less unpleasant than control group (Cheng et al. 2007).

A) Control brain and physician's brain activate different areas when viewing needles being put in other peoples hands. B) Pain intensity and unpleasantness are scored lower by physicians compared to controls. C) The intensity of neural signals in different parts of brain are stronger in controls compared to physicians. Q-tip touching instead of needle was used as a control measure to make sure the measurement method was valid. No significant changes were seen between controls and physicians in terms of pain perception for q-tip touching. (Cheng et al. 2007)

A) Control brain and physician’s brain activate different areas when viewing needles being put in other peoples hands. B) Pain intensity and unpleasantness are scored lower by physicians compared to controls. C) The intensity of neural signals in different parts of brain are stronger in controls compared to physicians. Q-tip touching instead of needle was used as a control measure to make sure the measurement method was valid. No significant changes were seen between controls and physicians in terms of pain perception for q-tip touching. (Cheng et al. 2007)

If these kinds of lowered empathy responses are seen in physicians starting already in medical school, the education must at least partially be the cause of it. It could be a way to protect one’s psyche from overloading when seeing suffering every day in hospital environment. It could also be just plain numbing effect. The students get simply used to seeing the pain, and pain loses it’s intensity in their minds. I would be interested to see if the pain perception of physicians is same as the control groups, when they themselves are poked with needles…

To fix this lack of empathy, we need to change the way the students learn, or at least constantly remind them that pain is real and devastating to people experiencing it. This humanization of professionals could take different forms in their studies varying from thoughtful problem based learning assignments to mentoring sessions. The way we teach has an impact on how students brain chemistry works, and we should be aware of this huge responsibility.


  • Cheng, Y., Lin, C.-P., Liu, H.-L., Hsu, Y.-Y., Lim, K.-E., Hung, D., & Decety, J. (2007). Expertise Modulates the Perception of Pain in Others. Current Biology, 17(19), 1708-1713. doi:
  • Newton, B. W., Barber, L., Clardy, J., Cleveland, E., & O’Sullivan, P. (2008). Is There Hardening of the Heart During Medical School? Academic Medicine, 83(3), 244-249 210.1097/ACM.1090b1013e3181637837.
  • Palmer, P. J. (2007) A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited, Change, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. (, when accessed. Now no longer there.)


Learning with students

Paulo Freire, a  Brazilian education activist, has written that learning should be something teachers do with students. This breaks down the power imbalance class rooms: teachers hold the power and students passively absorb information in the teachers terms. His ideas of student centered inquiry into topics related to their world, mirrors problem based learning and student centered learning practices of today’s fore runners of education.

To me it seems that learning with students could be easily understood wrong. I highly doubt it means one has to fake ignorance in their chosen field to teach students by “learning” with them. That is why problem based learning needs to be the center of teaching. In this method also the teacher can learn new things while guiding students, despite having planned the starting problem. Students can take the problem and run with it to previously unknown directions. We just need to guide them enough to prevent them from running off a cliff.

Having multiple answers to the same problem at the end makes the wrap-up so much more interesting. In real life multiple solutions are needed and our teaching and learning experiences should reflect this. A nice example of this is the development of the two polio vaccines by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. They both attacked the same problem – polio virus infections – by designing vaccines with different components. Both solutions to the polio epidemic were successful and useful. In this light, every plausible solution to problem based learning tasks deserves our full attention.

The two polio vaccines. Salk used polio viruses inactivated by formalin treatment to make a successful vaccine used from 1955 until 1968. Sabin's oral vaccine with mutated attenuated viruses replaced it for a long time. After confirmation, that the mutated viruses in oral vaccine could cause polio in some recipients, Salk's vaccine was brought back.

The two polio vaccines. Salk used polio viruses inactivated by formalin treatment to make a successful vaccine used from 1955 until 1968. Sabin’s oral vaccine with mutated attenuated viruses replaced it for a long time. After confirmation, that the mutated viruses in oral vaccine could cause polio in some recipients, Salk’s vaccine was brought back.

Learning with students requires being in the present and being vulnerable in front of them and beside them. I greatly enjoy having a professor who openly tells that he does not know everything. It gives me a bit of agency and reassures, that I also don’t need to know absolutely everything. The enthusiasm and interest the professors and lecturers show towards student’s work, inspires the students. Who knows, maybe we can inspire the future Salks and Sabins by being with the students in the moment of learning instead of in front of them as a blocking authority.


Stumbling over greatness – fiction affecting world view

Growing up every adult warned me about alcohol and drugs. “They will ruin your life. You will loose yourself in the lure of narcotics. They will be the center of your life and nothing else fits in there.” Well they forgot to warn about books. Sure there are boring books like some classics, but then there are brilliantly addicting works of art too.

The books that most influenced me between ages 12 and 17 were apparently like drugs. I stayed up to finish reading until 4 am. Which had an effect on my school work starting at 8 am. I resorted to rote learning to pass exams easily, and more importantly, to devote more time for reading fiction. I limited my social interactions as books were more interesting. I did not eat properly as it would have interfered with reading. Just like drug users, I tried to stop from time to time. Unlike with drugs, there are no 12-step-programs. And book clubs are just like drug dens instead of support groups.

 First real immersion into literature came in the form of a massive tome: Sinuhe The Egyptian by Mika Waltari. It started as a way to prove myself. I deemed myself mature enough at age of 12 to go through a long book about a fictional person living in the times of pharaohs. At the time I was really into Egyptology in all of its forms and it seemed like a great idea and a very Adult Thing to do. Talk about a portal drug. I read this book a second time when I was 17. I realized some of the themes and topics brought up in the book were completely inappropriate for a 12-year-old. Descriptions of brothels, murders, questionable morale of the main character, and deep depression are not traditionally considered to make up great reading material for children. Luckily I must have done some selective reading on this one, as I remembered it as a great adventure book…

Artwork for Terry Pratchett's Reaper man by Josh Kirby

Artwork for Terry Pratchett’s Reaper man by Josh Kirby

At the local library in search of the next installment of a fantasy trilogy, I miss spelled the authors name to the librarian. This started a fall through a deep and entertaining rabbit hole. I ended up getting a book by Terry Pratchett. It was called Mort. The tale of a young hapless boy being apprentice to the Reaper touches on themes like work ethics, employment problems, and value of a life and its purpose. Not to mention it makes one giggle hysterically on occasions. I was never the same afterwards. The satirical depiction of Terry Patchett’s imaginary Discworld and people inhabiting it offered a platform to ponder on modern day politics and social issues without boring practicalities clouding the process. And offered a sound source of humor. Later interest in social issues can be traced to Terry Pratchett’s books. They offered a fun-house mirror to reflect the current world on

By far the most addicting body of literature has been Robin Hobb’s Far See’er series. It almost caused me to fail a history exam, made me sleep through lectures, and return low quality homework in high school. And the habit just keeps going. I have read the main books over twice. It is the guilty pleasure of one more page, one more chapter, and one more sleepless night. The book series follows a royal bastard through his life of servitude to the crown and royal family. The tale of loyalty, loss, and struggle gets the reader invested via the flawed, real feeling, characters. And Robin Hobb is not afraid of punishing the characters and being cruel to them. This book series has affected my views of real loneliness, duty, mentoring, and friendship.

As fantasy books have this strong effect on readers, why do schools still force the so called classics on everyone? Some of them are actually good. Measured by literature enthusiasts standards. But worst case scenario: classics make literature something boring for kids, who are not captivated by them. This has heavy effects on their development as readers. Why not give the kids wide variety of books to choose from? The purpose of literature classes should not be getting familiar with few select classics, but to spark interest in literature as a whole.

Are PhDs prepared to run their own labs?

One reason why I chose Virginia Tech to do my PhD is the transformative graduate education program. It provides extra preparation to ones future career after graduation. It is not perfect yet, but what really is?

In the fields of biological sciences faculty has to run a laboratory efficiently. But the standard PhD education does not necessarily address how a primary investigator (PI) does it. Are we expected to absorb information on day-to-day lab managing skills from the stuffy air of our offices? And students are really busy with research, to the point of sacrificing sleep and human contact. Some labs have technicians running parts of the lab. Most primary investigators don’t involve students in the management side of things unless the student brings in their own grant.

There are consulting companies, like hfp, giving courses on how to manage a lab. Commonly these sorts of courses are offered for fresh primary investigators. But how can a graduate student really understand what they are getting into as they embark on a career path leading to a tenured primary investigator. I think these courses should be available to graduate students for them to make informed decisions about their future.

Leonid Schneider's comic in

Leonid Schneider’s comic in

A resource to alleviate the lack of these kinds of courses is produced by Howard Hughes Medical Institute in their resources for early career scientists. The “Making the Right Moves” manual offers advice for all levels and layers of starting as a primary investigator starting from applying the position, to hiring staff, and managing the projects you might have. I found this document to have a lot of useful information about a post graduation career for PhDs. I don’t want to be blindsided when I have to fire staff, balance a budget, and hire new people suddenly.

To help graduate students make career decisions I think courses and discussions involving everyday lab management issues. The life of a primary investigator is different from a laboratory work intensive graduate students life. And we really don’t want to buy a “pig in a bag” for a career.


  • Laursen, Lucas (2014) Learning to Lead a Lab, Science Careers.
  • Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty, (2006) by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Accessed 4/22/2014 at

Limited access to journals in Greece

In a last years Nature News article, the financial situation of Greece was brought up in connection to science by Varvara Trachana. The government is dealing with six years worth of recession and pulling the nations belt tighter on everything. This includes science. The salaries and funds for reagents are frozen, leading to young scientists leaving the country. One devastating consequence of decreased funds in science, is the lack of access to subscription journals. Since the government does not pay for the subscriptions, university scientists are left without the information they need.

I found this highly problematic. For example when preparing all the necessary paperwork for animal experiments, one has to research all possible alternatives to use of animals and make sure the experiment has not already been done. What if you cannot have access to the journals the relevant literature is published in? This situation underlines the need for open access journals. Having all research publications open access as soon as they are published could improve the science done around the world.

“Many Greek researchers, unable to afford personal subscriptions to their favourite journals, are already considering reviving a practice that was common a decade or so ago — contacting friends and colleagues in foreign research centres and asking them to fax or e-mail articles.”                                            -Varvara Trachana, (2013)

The quoted statement above is a bit troubling to me. It seems like requesting the subscription journal articles to be sent by ones colleagues could be the only option for Greek scientists. Could one get into trouble like Aaron Swartz did over making the subscribed content available to others for free? Are there any rules about this?


  • Trachana, V. (2013). Austerity-led brain drain is killing Greek science. Nature 4967445:271 (
  • Khier Casino (2014) New Details Surface About Events Leading Up To Prosecution Of Aaron Swartz, in Design and Trend (accessed 4/17/14 at

Huston, we have a problem…

Problem based learning was first used to prepare medical students for their profession. It uses group work, and student directed leaning to tackle real life challenges. The benefits have been reported to include better recall of information, ability adapt information, and higher motivation (Hung et al. 2008).

A prime example of a great problem solving in real life is the Apollo 13 oxygen tank failure. The resulting rise in carbon dioxide levels threatened the astronauts life.  The researchers had to figure out the fix using materials available to the spaceship crew. The fix using duct-tape, moon rock bags, covers of manuals, and tubing worked in the end (Atkinson, 2010). Failure was not acceptable. Failure would have resulted in death of the astronauts.

“You can’t give her that!’ she screamed. ‘It’s not safe!’
‘She’s a child!’ shouted Crumley.
‘What if she cuts herself?’
Terry Pratchett, Hogfather (1996)

Fear of failure in problem based learning can be high. The students will be stressed about grading and group dynamics. And faculty will fret about too little content covered. There are things to be said about having the room to fail as a student. The environment of a class room should be a place where students can safely try their wings on problem solving. The failures and mistakes should not carry huge penalties. As long as students learned from the mistakes made, the goal of a class has been reached.

That is how I learned to trouble shoot my scientific experiments. The undergraduate laboratory course experiments with notoriously nonfunctional equipment, required me to think what caused my experiments to go wrong. Was it the 50-year-old detection system? Or the reagents used? Or was it my own mistake? Having to support my trouble shooting with the scientific principles behind every step of the experiment, made me a better scientist.

There needs to be a level of trust by faculty that students will solve the problems given to them. Students also need to trust the faculty not to give them problems that are beyond their maturity level as learners. Mistakes provide valuable learning opportunities, if there is trust on both sides. And nothing prepared me better for real life work than encountering those errors during my education.



“Decreased quality of undergraduates” – how does this even happen?

Weimer writes in her book “Learner Centered Teaching”, that the quality of undergraduates entering higher education has declined. How is this possible? Aren’t we supposed to have better access to knowledge via internet and media? Children as young as 3 years old can work a tablet computer. I highly doubt people are naturally getting more stupid.

I found an older opinion piece by Donald. E. Simanek describing the decline in student quality in the 1990’s. It is the opinion of a faculty member who retired in 1999 from a 16-year-long physics professorship at a university in Pennsylvania. The main causes of lowered student quality as summed by faculty in the text seemed to include three prominent areas of high school education:

1. Too many non-academic activities like sports

Penetration of sports in all levels of education is fairly unique to US. Communities take an interest in sports and the participants are considered special. According to Simanek sports are so special, that athletes get some perks on the academic front. Like days off to play the sport if the game is at a distant location, and special consideration for grades in some cases. This might not be the case in all high schools. But it does send a message of sports importance over academics.

2. Low quality of teachers

The teachers even on high school level are not required to have a masters degree on the subject they teach. This seemed really interesting to me. How are they going to answer student questions in a trustworthy way and with sensitivity to the underlying complications? For example meaning of statistical significance, or underlying forces behind evolution could be difficult to explain by someone who has not delved into the topics deeply. Simanek points out that the pay level is not perceived to be high enough. And the teachers education programs are not deemed rigorous. The teachers are not to blame directly, since the academic institutions are the ones preparing them for their career.

3. Grade inflation

In Simanek’s text grade inflation was tied to the teaching faculty needing great student reviews to gain tenure. To me it seems the problem could be consideration of education as a product students buy to get what they want. And some of them want a great degree with hardly any work. This is understandable. Most people will take the opportunity to work less if the payoff is still good. And if one wants tenure they might feel the need to give the great payoff and be rewarded a good student review in higher education. The whole business of “accountability” and standardized testing in K-12 education possibly follows the same pattern. Teaching for the test is rewarded, so that is what the teachers will do. Especially when bad scores lead to severe consequences for the whole school.

My thoughts on the issues

A disclaimer: I am not an expert on the issues and I did not go to US K-12 school. I just find the issues interesting as they affect me – a part of future faculty and possibly a teacher.

While taking the sports away from high school at this point does not seem viable, maybe the importance of academics could be brought to the fore front. Parents, teachers, and administrators should support the school’s academic endeavors just like they do sports. Excellence in either area can lead to scholarships in universities and can bring joy to every day life. I don’t see the reason why sports are put on the pedestal alone.

The quality of teachers education is also problematic as it has to do with perceptions. If the programs required rigorous academic work and perhaps even research on topic one is to teach at high school level, would the teachers be better? Or just different? What if no-one wants to be a teacher if entering the profession requires sometimes difficult and time consuming education? This concern was brought up by Simanek. If teaching in high school is not perceived as worthwhile and respected career, it is difficult to change what kinds of people who want to become teachers.

Grade inflation makes choosing the best students for any university difficult. Maybe this is why American universities require motivational letters, recommendations, and extracurricular activities from the applicants. They do give a more whole picture of any applicant. But could the high school grades be reinstated as a measure of candidates suitability for university admission? Since teachers are doing their best to make the students pass the tests, could the tests be different? Getting rid of multiple choice and using applied problem sets might help a bit. The changes in SAT could be a start of this rethinking of testing. It would be more work for the people grading them. They could no longer rely on machines to spit out the results.

Admissions machinery of universities in US has to support a system that gives everyone a common education in the form of core courses and majors are finalized later. The educational system of Finland does not expect everyone to get a bachelors degree. The trade school track is popular and respected. The Finnish universities admit students into specific majors, so admission requirements and entrance exams can be geared towards measuring suitability to study the field. While it is possible to change majors, one has to qualify to the new major via entrance exams.

I happen to like the idea of core courses and introduction of multiple academic fields. Would it be considered too confining to require a separate entrance exam to a desired major? It would increase the work load for faculty and possibly add to students stress. Would the payoff be worth it? Controlling the starting level of students entering the more challenging courses in any major could improve the overall results. Or is this already implemented by simply requiring remedial classes for everyone as is done now at most universities. How about the universities that need more students to attend to get the tuition income? As Simanek complained, the admissions and marketing side of education business in smaller schools gets different demands from the students. They might not want to take remedial classes and might just go somewhere else to get what they want.

Is the K-12 education to blame for the perceived downward spiral of undergraduate learning skills? It would seem so from the view point of some faculty members. But in reality it could be just a symptom of a more messy set of problems. Political issues, public perception, and changes in society have certainly played a role in the decline. And students should not be just punished for this development. I’d rather we find ways to fix the situation.

Sabotage of scholarly integrity

Science relies on integrity and trust between scientists, between scientists and public, as well as universities and their employees. The public needs to trust us to not waste their tax-money and to produce information that serves them. Universities need to trust that the employees don’t misrepresent the institution. The university employees trust the universities treat them fairly in employment and their bosses treat them fairly.

A case from the office of research integrity brought up a situation where primary investigator suspected falsification of data by a technician. A duplication of a result of an experiment was presented as a separate set of results. A method for detecting radiolabeled proteins by exposure to films was used. The duplication was detected as the method used results in varying imperfections in each film due to air bubbles, dust, or other artifacts on film. The two films were identical. That does not happen in this technique.

The technician was confronted by the primary investigator twice and denied the duplication at both times. The results were viewed by other scientists per request of the primary investigator and confirmed as copies. The case seems straight forward at first, but when you start thinking of the severity of consequences the parties face if action is taken, the “what if”s start to appear. What if the technician truly believes the results are from two separate experiments and does not knowingly lie about it.

The primary investigator takes on a huge amount of responsibility if the case goes forward. Their responsibility as a mentor to the technician would be to prevent the possible misconduct, by making them aware of the types of scientific misconduct and the consequences. As a result of misconduct the primary investigators integrity could be brought to question. The consequences for the technician could include sanctions like loosing their job. Also their integrity would be questioned and they might not be able to work in a laboratory again.

There are proper channels to go through for this kind of suspicion of misconduct. University research integrity office (ORI) is the first place to contact. Since there is physical evidence, it should be handled carefully as instructed by ORI. Since the technician is not a student, the case does not go through honor court system, but directly to  research integrity officer. The following graphic simplifies how Virginia Tech research integrity office processes misconduct allegations:

Misconduct handling. Modified from

Misconduct handling. Parties are requested to review reports from inquiry and investigation committees. Appeal of decision is made to university president and dismissal of charges is followed by restoration of reputation. Modified from

But what if this type of misconduct procedure does not apply? This was the case at University of Michigan in 2010. A postdoctoral researcher sabotaged a graduate students laboratory work by killing her cell cultures. The case was reported in Nature news in 2010 by Brendan Maher. Sabotage does not apparently fit the federal definition of misconduct (plagiarism of work, cooking up data, or falsifying data), and therefore won’t be addressed by any of the federal funding agencies.

From the article:

The graduate student had to go to the police to report the case as a crime. After the campus police had first interrogated her and performed lie detection test, they started investigation. The day after installing cameras to record the cell culture space, the postdoc was caught. Court ordered him to pay for lost reagents and court fees ($9400), serve probation and 40 hours of community service. His visa however prevented him from staying in the country after losing his job. Further hearings along with greater damage payments did not go through. Punishment did not reach its full scale. And the graduate student lost her trust in scientific community as mutually respective for a while. (Maher, 2010)

The investigated person leaving the country to either escape or to avoid immigration problems, is an additional issue. It is related to research as many researchers are in US on some kind of a visa with strict rules to allow them to stay in the country. This is just an extra layer of trouble on top of the core issue of ethical misconduct.

To me it is unbelievable, that sabotage is not considered research misconduct. It violates ethical codes of universities, hinders research on purpose, and in the end shakes everyone’s trust in scientific community in the long run. Could the federal definition be changed to include sabotage? And how would one formally document those cases, if acquiring physical evidence could potentially damage individuals rights (eg. filming without subject’s knowledge)? Do we have to involve the police in a clearly research related ethical issue? Or does that route actually provide harsher punishments for the perpetrators?


  • Maher, Brendan. 2010. Sabotage!, Nature 467, 516-518 | doi:10.1038/467516a (
  • Office of Research Integrity website, RCR casebook, (accessed 4/7/2014 at
  • Research Integrity Office website of Virginia Tech, (accessed 4/7/2014 at