Tag Archives: science

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.

 

 

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.

References:

  • 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: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2007.09.020
  • 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. (http://www.carnegiefoundation.org/change/sub.asp?key=98&subkey=2455, when accessed. Now no longer there.)

 

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.

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Luke Jerram with glass E. coli (http://www.visualnews.com/2011/06/11/harmful-virus-made-of-beautiful-glass/)

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.

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HIV in glass by Luke Jerram (http://www.lukejerram.com/glass/gallery)

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.