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Things we give up for science

The lure of higher education can be quite strong. The scientific endeavor takes time and a bit more commitment than some other options. It would be interesting to find out what people have given up to go to graduate school and keep up a scientific career. Home country, family and friends, hobbies, time for your self, and job stability could be some items to pop up frequently. And some of the losses are not considered a sacrifice at all when the reward is scientific discovery.

No-one accidentally learns string theory or stumble upon tenured position in academia. The losses have been weighed carefully against the payoffs and passions. This is why it makes me a bit miffed when some people claim scientists only run after the money. The bulk of new research is conducted by people who get paid very little money for it. People who don’t have cars, because they cannot afford such luxuries.

And when the scientific findings are swept under the rug in public conversation or in communications of special interest groups, I get a bit sad. We have given up some things or aspects of life to produce that information. And it is not just today’s scientists who have worked on the findings. It is the past generations who have made today’s findings possible. Some even sacrificed their health to make the world better. It is frankly insulting to disregard their sacrifices.




Mentors have been depicted in literature, TV, and movies in multiple ways. Descriptions of imperfect ones are my favorites as they are probably closest to the true situation. Science training has long relied on mentor based training where student joins the laboratory of their adviser and becomes an independent scientists under their tutelage.

Sometimes there is a disconnect between mentor and student, no matter how well the mentor means his advice. The student has knowledge already and is eager to try hands on applications. This reminds me of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” TV show’s mentoring relationship between Buffy and her “Watcher” Giles. Their approach to the task, in this case “slaying vampires” is very different and causes friction between the characters at times. This relationship is at it’s core however supportive.

This might not be the case in real life. The monster mentor stories are not common, but when you hear them, they are horrific. Blatant disregard to students needs, and even laws, twist the scientific community in the eyes of the students. The sometime sink-or-swim mentality of mentor can destroy promising careers, that could have blossomed with even the slightest support at the right time. 2432321/Bald-bird-rescued-meth-house-road-recovery-feathers-grow-back.html

Mentorship, just like teaching, should be learning with the student and acknowledging their prior information and skills. This is at least partially the case in “Breaking Bad” mentor Walter White and student Jesse Pinkman. Walter, a high school chemistry teacher, enlists the help of Jessie, to cook high quality methamphetamine for making money for his family. At least in the beginning Walter teaches Jessie about the chemistry behind cooking. He also respects Jesse’s knowledge of drug dealing in their operation. The mistakes Walter makes in his teaching of Jesse are based on his selfish needs and assumptions he makes about his student’s knowledge. This is why I like to watch the interactions between them. I get to reflect on how the situation should have been dealt with, and it brings my own weaknesses to my attention. While it would be questionable to tell my future students, some of my teaching and mentoring strategies are influenced by “Breaking Bad”, I would be lying if I denied it. And bad example is an extremely effective teacher.

Nature compiled a guide for mentors in 2007. It is no wonder that mentoring relationships, be it real or fictional, are not perfect. The list of characteristics is staggering with availability to students, creating scientific community in the lab, enthusiasm, and unselfish behavior. I am lucky to have this kind of mentor as a positive example. Maybe one day the list of qualities for a good mentor seems less daunting and more doable.




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.

Finnish higher education system

The Finnish higher education is divided to two branches. The actual universities offer Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD programs in all fields. Universities of applied sciences offer more practical studies and only Bachelor’s degrees in specified fields like nursing, engineering, arts like dance, and media production.

Flow chart of the Finnish school system. No tuition required at any step.

Flow chart of the Finnish school system. No tuition required at any step.

Students who opted out of high school and went to vocational school can apply to both as long as they meet the requirements. Usually they go to the applied sciences institution first and then apply to university. High school is a faster track to university, but students also go to the applied sciences institutes from there. I really appreciate the flexibility of the system. You are never shut out from higher education.

Students apply directly to the department, to a certain major. Your school grades are taken into account as well as the matriculation exam (high school students), and the main requirement is the entrance exam specific to the major. Each entrance exam can be based on one or more books and contains application of the learned material to answer problems. For applied sciences, entrance exam is based on high school courses, but some fields like nursing might require psychological testing as well as group interaction tests.

Universities in Finland. Modified from

Universities in Finland. Modified from

There are no core courses required in the university. Only compulsory non-major classes are language classes (English and Swedish). All the general knowledge classes are taken at high school level. Minors can be used to widen one’s education. For example marketing, biology, chemistry, and microbiology are popular minors for biochemistry major. In retrospect, maybe having some sort of common core could have been beneficial and allowed introduction to more varied minor choices. Students have the freedom to not show up in most classes as long as they acquire the information on their own, return any homework required, and pass the exams. This is expected to change as teaching methods are developed to more student centered.

All higher education in Finland is tuition free at the moment. Administrative fees (includes student health care and dental fee) are low, around 90 euros ($125) per year in my old university. For citizens of Finland there is an automatic stipend to cover living expenses and support for renting an apartment as we have no dorms. Most students avoid loans like they are the plaque. The meals on campus have student discount pricing and consist of quite healthy home cooked style fare (side salad, bread, warm main, milk or water). Students take care of buying their books when needed, but libraries commonly carry enough books for most students to use during the semester. I bought around 6 books during undergrad.

Student housing ( and student life at University of Oulu

Student housing ( and student life at University of Oulu

Recently we have started several master’s programs completely taught in English. For example at the University of Oulu master’s degrees offered in English are from Business and economic, Education, Engineering and architecture, Health sciences, and Natural sciences. These have attracted students from Europe, Africa, and Asia.

The higher education system is flexible in Finland and students financed well by the government. It is not a perfect system by any means and faces many of the same problems as other higher education systems in Europe and US. Keeping the higher education available for all qualified students is still a priority and is seen as a way to enhance equality. As Finland is a small country with limited natural resources, our economy depends on highly skilled people.

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?