Author Archives: mari

Some of us rather deal with bacteria than people

There is no love lost between science and politics in my experience. The general population overall seems to have a level of distrust for both. The nature of politics showing as people pleasing, backstabbing, and a bit dirty to younger generations, has possibly deterred individuals interest in politics. Some of us rather deal with bacteria than people.


Luke Jerram with glass E. coli (

How ever this can lead to serious problems in decision making in politics and isolation of science from society. Luckily there are scientific advisers at many levels of governing. An enlightening article in Nature by Peter Gluckman, the scientific adviser of New Zealand’s prime minister, paints a positive picture of this position. His comment on the advisers role in policy making underlines that we can’t just barge in to politics:

The role of the science adviser is often less about providing direct technical expertise than it is about nudging attitudes and practices to enhance both the demand for and the supply of evidence for public policy.

The preparation of policies is not about bringing up great science and implementing policies only driven by raw science. The society has other parameters, that need to be taken into account like economy, traditions, and social structure. Scientists need to be aware of these parameters as much as policy makers need to understand science.


HIV in glass by Luke Jerram (

Cutting edge science can be extremely difficult to grasp. Nature News has put out a helpful list of tips for evaluating scientific claims for non-scientists. It has twenty core principles of evaluating scientific data explained. There is also a 20 point tip list for scientists to understand the making of policies in the Guardian written in response to the Nature’s list. Putting these lists to use in policymakers and scientists interactions could make a positive impact on the whole process and bring the two groups together. Not to mention increase the trust of public for both politics and science.



Do I need to know this for life?

In “Understanding by Design” by Wiggins and McTighe there was a nice quote from Jerome Bruner:

For any subject taught in primary school, we might ask [is it] worth an adult’s knowing, and whether having known it as a child makes a person better adult.

I have asked and have peers ask about relevance of topics in multiple classes during my whole education. And I don’t mean if it is important for the exam. Even in primary school students were questioning the need of religious studies, history, and physical education. And we did hear variations of “because I told you so” and uninformative “you will need this when you are an adult”. To a child adulthood seems so very far away. Defining the goals of each class and activity should have been obvious and I don’t know why teachers still fed us those generic answers.

The backwards planning of syllabus really painted a clear picture of how syllabus an classes should be designed to serve a defined purpose. We also need to communicate the importance of each task and class to students, no matter their age or level of expertise. And I don’t mean telling them they will need it to get along with everyone in the world. That could be too broad for students to relate to.

For example the history of my home country, Finland, is a weak spot in my knowledge. I asked why this was important and got a simple “you will need to know about your history, and be able to tell about it to others”. As a 12-year-old that had no connection to my life. It did not feel like my history in the first place with all the politicians and policies. And I could not comprehend, that anyone else would be interested in those things about my country.

Which motivational problems could be solved simply answering the “why?” questions students have in a way that will inspire them? I don’t think it will solve everything or even majority of the problems. But it might be needed to get all the other good changes to really make an impact.

Student organizations in Finland – the system of guilds

As part of positive psychology on campuses Frank Shushok Jr. and Eileen Hulme bring up positive organizations for students to belong to. According to their paper “What’s right with you: Helping students find and use their personal strengths” in About Campus, they describe these organizations as communities where students can use their strengths and feel empowered.

In higher education in USA this can be clubs connected to hobbies, sororities and fraternities, service groups for the community, or special interest clubs like the Dairy Club. Some of these communities require application or being chosen to be part of it. What if you are not accepted as part of the group? What if the application and initiation processes are too daunting for some people to even try?

In Finland this is solved by having “guilds” based on your major. And you are automatically accepted to the guild as you get your acceptance letter to the university to study the major. These are student run communities designed to serve the students. For example during my undergraduate days the biochemistry “guild” arranged parties for undergraduates, master’s students, PhD students and post graduates together. We got to know basically everyone in the department and could get peer support for every single class we had from the older students. Sports events were very casual. You did not even need to know the rules to come and play football, floorball, volleyball, or anything else.

This kind of environment offered a safe space for discussions on the topic of our major –biochemistry- as well as general thoughts about higher education and even politics surrounding it. The community would lend a helping hand also outside of academic life readily. It is not uncommon to have the guild help with moving for example.

What would be a better way to build an active community than the all-inclusive relaxed guild? One drawback of this system however is the exclusion of other majors. Some parties were arranged with other guilds and friends from other guilds are always welcome to join in on the activities, but it was rare for people with no personal ties to the guild to join in with sports or other activities.

I would be interested to know, if these kinds of systems work or could work in the US. Or is the exclusive nature of clubs an advantage in the higher education generally, and in building up your CV?


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.