Gamers have functioning online communities… Higher education should too!

The gamers’ natural habitat today is online. Games are played online, some games only exist there, and discussion groups are active. No wonder connected learning has taken an interest in gamers. My interest in gamers, online communities, and exposure to Starcraft as a spectator, led me to the report on Connected Learning in Starcraft II Community by Yong Ming Kow, Timothy Young, and Katie Salen Tekinbas published in April of 2014. This is an excellent read outlining the community advantages that I hope the higher education to adopt.

The cast of the Guild with Felicia Day in front.

The culture of making content is strong in the gaming communities. For example Felicia Day’s Web series “The Guild” was created based on her own experiences with World of Warcraft (massively multiplayer online role-playing game), and published on-line. Higher education also should foster this crafting and remixing of content. It is already done especially in engineering (The Ware Lab at Virginia Tech for example). The spirit of making could improve overall experience of online classes and make them an excellent option also for students who have difficulties in staying interested in only reading materials and theoretical topics.

Starcraft II screen capture (

Starcraft II screen capture (

Starcraft II community is an excellent example of a great on-line presence. I agree with Timothy Young that it caters to a wide variety of gamers from n00b to professional, and does not leave the spectators cold either. There are subgroups and activities for everyone interested. The inclusive nature of the community makes it an excellent example for online education. The accessibility of internet can break down some of the barriers we still have between teachers or advanced students, and the people just starting their trek on higher education path.

Shaun Clark (Apollo) and Sean Plott (Day[9]) (

Sean Plott (aka. Day[9]) is a notable member of the North American Starcraft II community, a former pro-gamer, current commentator, game designer, and entrepreneur. His dedication to the community is inspirational for any educator. Producing You Tube videos weekly to dissect the game play of the professionals and offering advice to improve your game play, shows his commitment to the game and the community. And this reminds me always that even online communities consist of people, not computers.

HuskyStarcraft (

HuskyStarcraft (



Other notable people in the community include Marcus Graham (djWHEAT) and Mike Lamond (Husky Starcraft). Their willingness to share their life stories in JP McDaniel’s Real Talk underlines the openness of the whole community. Higher education already has these passionate and dedicated people. I think we just need them to show it more visibly to all students. And what would be a better platform for this than online presence?

Higher education in all fields should already be moving towards the culture of making and creating. Getting the educators to build online communities for learning will make higher education more personal to students of 21st century. We don’t necessarily have a detailed focus point like Starcraft II -game to build upon. Instead we aim to get better at life in general.


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.




Higher education for todays life after PhD

When ever I talk to relatives or friends outside academia, I get the feeling that I am considered a complete nerd incapable of any “real world thinking”. Even some employers avoid hiring PhDs because they are viewed as too theoretically oriented and too expensive. In some field this might be true. And it should not be. The higher education system should serve the community.

There are not enough positions in academia for all graduate students anyway. And all graduate students don’t desire those positions. We need to prepare students for the whole world,  not only for academia. The info graph below describes the faith of biology PhDs. If 15 and 20% of post-doctoral researchers go to tenure track or non-tenure track faculty positions, it is actually under 23% of all students who receive PhDs. We cannot afford to only cater for the 22.6% percent who will become faculty.

Offering options and softer skills needed to survive in industry or as an entrepreneur for example would make any graduate program more attractive to students.  Virginia Tech’s certificates and transformative graduate education are a great help for career planning. But we could be doing more to help future PhDs to apply their degree outside academia.

Offering instruction in “soft skills” can help students build a suitable degree for non-academic workplaces. Simple accounting can help any academic to hold the lab’s funding in order, and leadership classes will help future workers deal with other people at their work place, where ever they end up at. Some of these are already offered and just need to be marketed better for students as well as their mentors. Contacts to industry will help engineering students and biology students alike. Internships care a great option for students with the time and their adviser’s blessing to take time off their research. But mentoring is useful for everyone.

Having a great mentor can make your career. But finding a great mentor can be very tricky. Virginia Tech does a great job supporting undergraduates as they come to the university. Even new faculty can get mentoring. PhD student’s mentor should ideally be their adviser. But that adviser is embedded in academia. Every PhD student should have a mentor outside academia to offer thoughts on possible career moves outside the university system. They could be part of the PhD student’s committee, or just an extra support.

In the future, I would like to see a larger number of PhDs to find jobs outside academia with confidence that they can make it in this environment.

Faculty LOLing and Trolling

Can anyone imagine a world without Facebook on our fingertips and course materials on-line? Social media has penetrated our world via Facebook, Twitter, internet dating, chatting, and professional networking sites. It has become our front porch, cafe, and living room to converse with people in a setting we modify to match our personality and mood. What are some of the great and not-so-great aspects of these web-based tools?



Twitter goes through 500 million 140 character micro blogs or “Tweets” every day. The mission of Twitter Inc. is “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers”. This sounds great and has been used in university classes to activate students. Professionals use it to follow interesting news in their fields, and everyone can use it to have an online presence and personal channel for connection to friends and acquaintances. I have found it useful to keep up on cutting edge science publications, that cause public conversation among scientists.

This can be used in unkind ways too. Without realizing both students and faculty can be very offensive in an extremely public and immediate environment. Teachers of a Los Alamos high school read tweets about themselves to remind students what they share on the internet can be read by anyone. This January In university of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, twitter comments on chancellor’s decision to  keep classes in session, when cold weather hit the campus, got very offensive. This was reported in Inside Higher Ed news section. It seems university students also need a remainder on how the internet works.

Professional networking sites® and many other sites have profiled themselves as professional Facebook. Indeed the mission statements of LinkedIn and Facebook are very similar.

The mission of LinkedIn is to connect the world’s professionals to enable them to be more productive and successful. To achieve our mission, we make services available through our websites, mobile applications, and developer platforms, to help you, your connections, and millions of other professionals meet, exchange ideas, learn, make deals, find opportunities or employees, work, and make decisions in a network of trusted relationships and groups.

Founded in 2004, Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.

Facebook offers more personal sharing environment and LinkedIn® concentrates on the professional advantages it can offer. This sort of networking could be more comfortable for the introverts in any field. Activity within the social media is still required for it to benefit you, but you can plan and form a strategy to best present yourself. And there is a lot to plan for; Summaries, CV items, and skills.

With today’s wide variety of social networks, this one can be forgotten easily when you are working. But as soon as you need to find a new job, you wish you were more active in the networking social media. If you don’t take this seriously and make it just another Facebook page, the benefits will be non-existent and the sloppy public profile can even hurt your professional image. When our students start using these networks, they really need to make a difference between the professional site and Facebook profile. Even if it is tempting to accept all invites to connect, one should be careful what kind of professional picture is presented by choice of contacts.


wordpress-logo-stacked-rgbBoth faculty and students can benefit from blogs. They can offer a creative outlet or be a professional front for anyone. The content posted can be visible to anyone or even just the class contributing to it. The benefits are usually connected to improvement in writing skills and sense of ownership for one’s work. The need to be careful in framing blogging as student activity cannot be emphasized too much. Requirement of certain number of blogs will give you exactly that. Number of posts to get it done. And words on screen that do not engage, written by someone not interested in writing them.

The best sort of blogging is engaging to the writer and audience. An example of that are the Harvard faculty blogs. What a great way to build an online presence of the whole university and bring it all together under the institution. It can lead to professional discussions as well as offer a source for future students looking for mentors. It can also harm one’s online reputation, if care is not used on what is shared.

In the end, the greatness and the pitfalls of any social media we use as faculty or students comes down to thinking what you post and do on-line. On twitter the best advice for students would probably be the Wheaton’s law: “Don’t be a dick”. It is simple and easily understood in many contexts. As future faculty, student, teacher, or a parent, one must consider the consequences. I find it helpful to think any writing I post as a presentation to a large group of people including your co-workers, relatives, and all minorities. You don’t want to needlessly offend anyone. And since your boss is listening, you don’t want to loose your job.

Telling people to use social media responsibly is like telling them to drink responsibly. Most will do it, but there can be temptation to go overboard. Having an internet troll tweeting offensively is like listening to an obnoxious drunk…

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