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?

References:

  • Trachana, V. (2013). Austerity-led brain drain is killing Greek science. Nature 4967445:271 (http://www.nature.com/news/austerity-led-brain-drain-is-killing-greek-science-1.12813)
  • Khier Casino (2014) New Details Surface About Events Leading Up To Prosecution Of Aaron Swartz, in Design and Trend (accessed 4/17/14 at http://www.designntrend.com/articles/12405/20140404/new-details-surface-events-leading-up-prosecution-aaron-swartz.htm)

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!’
IT’S A SWORD, said the Hogfather. THEY’RE NOT MEANT TO BE SAFE.
‘She’s a child!’ shouted Crumley.
IT’S EDUCATIONAL.
‘What if she cuts herself?’
THAT WILL BE AN IMPORTANT LESSON.”
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.

 

References:

“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 http://www.research.vt.edu/research-integrity-office/faqs/index.php

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 http://www.research.vt.edu/research-integrity-office/faqs/index.php

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.

http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100929/pdf/467516a.pdf

From the article: http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100929/pdf/467516a.pdf

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?

References:

  • Maher, Brendan. 2010. Sabotage!, Nature 467, 516-518 | doi:10.1038/467516a (http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100929/full/467516a.html)
  • Office of Research Integrity website, RCR casebook, (accessed 4/7/2014 at http://ori.hhs.gov/rcr-casebook-stories-about-researchers-worth-discussing)
  • Research Integrity Office website of Virginia Tech, (accessed 4/7/2014 at http://www.research.vt.edu/research-integrity-office/)

Do you believe in magic? – How not to do flipped classroom

Eric Mazurs peer instruction is very interesting and the article describing it’s use is inspiring. I found another article “Don’t lecture me: Rethinking how college students learn” describing his style of teaching by Emily Hanford. The article itself mirrored the others written on the topic and my attention was drawn to the comments section. One comment especially caught my attention.

A student opened up about his experiences on a physics class taught using only peer instruction. His experience was extremely negative as the class lacked structure and the TA did not even point the students to a correct direction during supplemental class, even if it was clearly needed. The answers to this post were basically telling the student to suck it up, work harder, and questioned his motivations.

This could be a case of resistance to learner centered model, but the student’s response hinted, that he had tried to talk to the professor and the university to have some sort of a balance. This alone could be a sign of commitment to the class. He was trying to make it better. The teacher has responsibility here to listen to the student and alleviate their anxieties. In case of one student, an open conversation is a good way to start. If multiple students in the class struggle severely despite the effort they put in, the teacher has a bigger problem.

To me this comment about peer instruction showed how the approach can go terribly wrong. Student could not make sense of the bigger picture or even the assigned. Even if this was just one students experience, I would be worried. The lack of any posts or responses from any professor or university on this matter leaves their side defenseless, so I cannot for a full understanding of the situation.

If any of the new or re-emerging pedagogical techniques are used like magic, they will not work. Just making students learn from each other will not work. The teacher needs to be invested in the students and their learning. This is the case with Dr. Mazur. He assesses students before starting the peer instruction and listens in on the conversations. When communicating about these “new” pedagogical techniques, we need to underline the increased involvement of the teacher. If this stuff was magic, universities and teachers would be no longer needed.

Allergic to philosophy

What do I think when I hear the word philosophy? Old bearded men dressed in sheets. Long classes with reading materials from the 50’s. Vague ideas sprouted by teachers. Overly important high school students showing repeating what someone else said ages ago. Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines the word as follows:

1 “the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc. ”

2 “a particular set of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.

3 “a set of ideas about how to do something or how to live”

The first two definitions are vague to me. They even have etc. at the end. But the third definition is more encouraging. This is the definition I can connect to teaching. Figuring out what my ideas about teaching really are in a concise way will be challenging.

I don’t have enough teaching experience to actually have tried different approaches and styles. The advice offered by Gabriella Montell in her article in Chronicle of Higher Education (2003) is extremely helpful. The concrete questions really opened my mind to thinking about my teaching philosophy.

Dr. Karen Kelsky’s blog post on the common mistakes made in writing a teaching philosophy really hit home for me. The failure in linking research to teaching is something I can see myself running into. When I first read the assignment in the syllabus, this did not occur to me as a potential problem. To avoid this, I will have to think about my general work ethic, research interests, and the strategies I use in developing new ideas. They should all have a common thread and somehow connect in a statement.

The approach of Dr. Kelsky and Montell to humbleness in writing a teaching philosophy differ. Montell encourages to “adopt a tone of humility” while Kelsky warns about too humble statements. I get that writing this sort of document is a balancing act of correct tone, humility and grandiose ideas. But this makes me worried, that I might not hit that balance and come off as pompous know-it-all or a shy little mouse with no desire to advance in my career.

 

I do science – not social interactions

The media likes to show scientists sometimes as the stereotypical socially incompetent dweebs. In my case that stereotype is based on real life. To keep this even a little bit professional, I will mention no names (partially, because I hope anyone involved in these scenarios does not remember) and try to describe the scenarios with scientific detachment.

This “study” consists of one test subject (N=1) and any data is anecdotal. The study subject has limited social skills. This allows us to observe a socially underdeveloped phenotype in several interactions across time and in different cultures. During the data collection period between 2004 and 2011 there was a significant shift in the test subjects level of self perceived confidence. This results in shift of the data quality towards the end of the time period. The data points are recorded when test subject detects self-stupidity and/or unintended hilarity from surrounding individuals. The data are divided to three categories: 1) interactions with the opposite sex, 2) linguistic mishaps, and 3) workplace related interactions. These categories produced the most significant data points and provide a representative sample of the test subjects social interactions.

Stupidity2004to2011Category 1 data points are concentrated to the beginning of collection period. An example of mild case of embarrassment can occur due to lack of planning. The subject was engaged in a verbal interaction with a representative of the opposite sex. The need to leave the interaction increased and the classic phrase “Oh, look at the time! I have to go” was employed. Unfortunately the necessary prop, wrist watch, was not present.

Lack of foresight can also affect promising conversations. While deep hate towards accordion music is a topic close to test subjects heart, the enthusiastic description of it has to be reserved for select audiences. As a first conversation with the opposite sex the risk of the object to love harmonica is unknown. The risk reached 100% in a club, when conversing unknowingly with a harmonica enthusiast with 10 years of playing the damn instrument.

The situation could be alleviated by inserting a filter between brain and mouth. This could also alleviate the more subtle mishaps including over sharing. In an example situation the subject requested the use of a chap stick from a love interest. The inquiry “is it okay if it has already been used?” should not have been answered with “I have never cared that much about hygiene”.

 Category 2 data, linguistic mishaps, is sparse due to data collection being biased. Loss of minor events is inevitable when the subject is unaware of any mistakes made. Dealing with English grammar and finding correct words on the spot requires skill and attention span unfamiliar to the subject. Replacing a word with another of similar meaning would be fine, if the meaning and spirit of the communication is retained. Practical applications of this are tricky. Substituting vasectomy with castration even in casual conversation is frowned upon.

Category 3 data concentrates to time period between 2009 and 2011. The collection of data is on going and offers opportunities for future analysis. Work place architecture can give false sense of security from social interactions. It should be kept in mind that after the fast elevator’s doors open you need a good explanation as to why you were holding your arm up like a superman. The chance that someone is waiting for the elevator can approach 100% between 6am and 6pm.  Another obstacle for solitary existence in workplace includes shared office space. One has to navigate a minefield of social niceties and be careful of verbal output. When a new co-worker asks if your hobbies include riding, do not answer “What? Do you mean with a horse?”. The mental pictures projected to surrounding audience will be highly inappropriate.

In conclusion, the quality of self reported stupidity changes in time. Severity of cases varies considerably even within categories. More data is constantly collected and increased number of test subjects could provide a more representative picture of social in-adeptness. Highly controlled human studies are not possible at the level I would like to conduct them. Apparently use of human subjects in long term confinement from birth is frowned upon.

 

Open access to disease and other research – PLoS Pathogens

The appearance of open access journals is something I personally applaud. Having current research available for everyone with internet connection and understanding of English language, seems fair as some of the research is supported by tax money. This was also pointed out in Richard Van Noorden’s article “The true cost of science publishing” in Nature (2013) (1). To my mind it highlights, that my research is accountable to the general public instead of just my peers. Paying for my research to be distributed widely instead of to only the ones with access to high impact scholarly papers seems like a responsible thing to do.

http://www.plos.org/

http://www.plos.org/

PLoS is perhaps the most widely known open-access journal family with a good reputation. It concentrates on biological and life sciences. It has a very appealing web interface and is indexed in all the major archives we use in biological research to find articles like PubMed, MEDLINE, Web of Science, and Scopus.

www.plos.org

www.plos.org

PLoS stands for US Public Library of Science. The online journals of PLoS family include PLoS ONE, PLoS Biology, PLoS Medicine, PLoS Computational Biology, PLoS Currents, PLoS Genetics, PLoS Pathogens, and PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases. I will concentrate on the PLoS Pathogens for now to illustrate the PLoS family of journals. PLoS is a non-profit organization. In 2001 it announced to start publishing electronic open-access journals, after an attempt to persuade other publishers to release their journals for the public for free after a delay (2-6 months post first publication of the issue) (2). The goal of PLoS is to provide the public access to research, not depending on financial resources. PLoS Pathogens has been published as a separate journal since 2005, as evident from the journal’s archives.

Scope of PLoS Pathogens include research on bacteria, fungi, parasites, prion, and virus related diseases which impact medical, and agricultural fields, and economies everywhere. The study of this microbial world gives insights into basic functions of cells and organisms, expanding basic science knowledge. Due to the impact of pathogens in everyday life, I find it appropriate that this publication is open-access. A separate issue arises to enhance the general public’s understanding of these scientific texts. Should we have a separate abstract to the public outlining the results? Or should scientific community present their information more aggressively in other mediums like blogs, tweets, and forums?

http://www.plospathogens.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.ppat.1003959

Notice the easy access tabs to metrics and comments, and subject areas tags. http://www.plospathogens.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.ppat.1003959

PLoS Pathogens, like all PLoS journals, adhere to Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY). This means that authors still own their research, but anyone can copy, modify, reuse and reprint the articles as long as the researchers are cited. You don’t have to ask for publishers or authors permission. This seems fair compared to the publisher obtaining the rights to the work. Taylor however in his article in Scripted- A Journal of Law, Technology and Society, calls for a balance between the copyright practices (3). He points out, that the copyright is mostly on the side of the author. His point of view also includes the academic publishing done in book form, which to me is a whole different animal compared to publishing in research journals.

PLoS Pathogens has the impact factor of 8.14. Compared to non-open-access journals with long history and high prestige like Nature Immunology’s 26.2, or Cell Host and Microbe’s 12.6, it seems a bit low. When comparing to other open access journals like BMC Immunology’s 2.61 it is rather good.  However impact factor is not the best statistic to evaluate a journal. To me the width of the scope a journal presents affects my appreciation of the journal. Ones that take in articles from varied fields of research tend to select articles that have the  WOW-factor. Journals specializing to a topic seem to take in articles, that don’t necessarily have the WOW-factor, but are important in bridging the research to that future WOW! moment.

Part of Jorge Cham's PhD comic about rivalry between Nature and Science magazines. http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1200

Part of Jorge Cham’s PhD comic about rivalry between Nature and Science magazines. http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1200

The following quote from Van Noorden (1) shows the opposition from subscription journal publishers.

“The costs of research publishing can be much lower than people think,” agrees Peter Binfield, co-founder of one of the newest open-access journals, PeerJ, and formerly a publisher at PLoS. But publishers of subscription journals insist that such views are misguided — born of a failure to appreciate the value they add to the papers they publish, and to the research community as a whole. They say that their commercial operations are in fact quite efficient, so that if a switch to open-access publishing led scientists to drive down fees by choosing cheaper journals, it would undermine important values such as editorial quality.

Maybe I don’t know enough about the publishing industry, but to me the extra value gained from editorial quality is not clear. The open-access journals, like PLoS Pathogens, use peer-review and have very nice e-publication formats. The publishing in them is less expensive too, and the research can be seen by more people than the subscription based publications. Does anyone know exactly what the editorial quality refers to? I would really like to know what extra value I would get compared to open-access.

 

1. Van Noorden, R. 2013. Open access: The true cost of science publishing. Nature 495:426-9. http://www.nature.com/news/open-access-the-true-cost-of-science-publishing-1.12676

2. Vicki Brower, 2001. Public library of science shifts gears. EMBO reports. Nov 15, 2001; 2(11): 972–973.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1084138/

3. K Taylor, “Copyright and research: an academic publisher’s perspective”, (2007) 4:2 SCRIPTed 233 < http://www.law.ed.ac.uk/ahrc/script-ed/vol4-2/taylor.asp >

Thinking in pictures

To most efficiently use information in designing experiments and learning concepts I need to draw it out. Paper is the best, but I can deal with PowerPoint if given enough time. Without the visuals I cannot comprehend large concepts and their connections to other topics and systems. By drawing out the experimental design I ensure no details are missed.

I keep my brain between pages and hope those pages never burn in a tragic accident. I find pen and paper to  be still faster than typing on computer and more controlled than a touch pad. Also there is the fear that I manage to pour water on my laptop (again) and will have to open up the whole machine against manufacturers recommendations (again…).

This visualization allows me to appreciate the artistic side of science and the true beauty of details in functions and structures of cells. By just looking at ready made pictures I easily lose the intricate detail, which I am forced to draw out in my own notes. After drawing the coastline of Turkey, I appreciate the geography and understand it on a deeper level than by looking at the maps. After detailing the process of protein synthesis in a cell on paper, painstakingly drawing the different nooks of ribosomes, I can find the multiple spots where mutations and deformities in this machinery can cause problems.

Simple depiction of a ribosome making protein. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Translation_%28biology%29)

Simple depiction of a ribosome making protein. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Translation_%28biology%29)

In some cases technology can help in finding the details and enhance the learning process. In the field of crystallography, proteins are pictured in extreme detail down to an atom. The level of accuracy when making predictions from these models is far greater than from any of my drawings. On the other hand the structures are not readily available in case of power outages, crashing computers, and when internet connection is not possible.

I would say there is a time and place for writing things on paper instead of relying on computers. Especially when brainstorming for new ideas, I have found paper superior to a screen. But the tools to start up this process we need to use the help of search engines, databases, visualization programs and calculations. We need to be the centaurs Clive Thompson describes in his book “Smarter than you think”. The digital technology available to us should be our extension in a way that helps us reach new heights. Problems arise when we lose focus and allow the technology to lead and make decisions for us.

http://gettinontappayas.blogspot.com/2009/05/i-could-name-my-kid-ladies-and.html

http://gettinontappayas.blogspot.com/2009/05/i-could-name-my-kid-ladies-and.html

 

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 http://www.isep.org.

Universities in Finland. Modified from http://www.isep.org.

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 (www.psoas.fi) and student life at University of Oulu

Student housing (www.psoas.fi) 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.