October 2019
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We should seek help sometimes

Today, I figured out that I couldn’t finish the revision before our meeting at 3:15pm, so I sent him an email to ask for rescheduling the time. However, I checked the email box all the time and could not get any reply by 2:20pm. In fact, I’m afraid to see him at this moment because I still don’t know how to think about the models and variables, I’m afraid that before I work it out, meeting with him will make me even more frustrated. “Whether he will criticize me for my slow progress? Whether I should go?” I sat on the chair and focused on my breath for 5 minutes and finally decided to go.

However, to my surprise, meeting with him today makes me feel much better now. We discussed some of the implicit assumptions of my model specifications and how to add economic intuitions in the model. He said that my proposal is full of math but lack of intuitions. While I said: “I do have a few intuitions but don’t know how to related them with the model”. He provided me an example of the marginal effects of income on mortality in coal-mining county and tobacco county. Based on the model, do I think that they are different? I got stuck again for a few seconds, after some of his hints, I said that residents in coal-mining counties earn income from the coal industry, but at the same time they may suffer from negative externality from coal production, such as air pollution. So the marginal effect of income may be lower than that in tobacco counties. Then, he asked me: “how about obesity rate?” I said: “my intuition tells me the marginal effect is the same but I don’t know how to explain this”. He said: “it is OK to say “I don’t know”, that is why you need to think. I know you may think that I’m too hard on you. But in a job seminar, others will ask you this type of questions. You need to know how to answer. Only after understanding what the model assumes and why you add these variables into the model, you are able to interpret the results”.

After this meeting, I really appreciate his suggestions. As a graduate student, we often get stuck in some questions and feel bad about ourselves. This experience tells me that we should open our heart, talk to advisors and others, and seek help if needed.

 

Out of confort zone

The moment you are not afraid of the pain, you will be able to face all of life’s situation without fear. -Michael A. Singer

Last week, we had an assignment of talking to a stranger. it was so difficult for me to initiate a conversation with a stranger. I had to schedule an appointment with a staff in the career center to fulfill this assignment. However, honestly, I thought this was not talking to a stranger, and I really wanted to overcome this barrier. I went to a happy hour this week, which was the second time in my life because the first one in five years ago left me a terrible memory. When I was a master student at the University of Florida, I went to a department happy hour with my friend. I struggled to follow their conversations surrounded by loud background music, and even worse, the persons in front of me started to speak in Spanish with each other. I sat there for only one hour and could not bear the loneliness anymore and left. That terrible experience made me afraid to go to such events for a very long time.

Recently, I read the book The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself, and it says, “real growth takes place when you finally decide to deal with the pain, relax and release instead of avoiding it.” With this in mind, I challenge myself to go to the happy hour ignoring strong resistance in mind all the way to the bar. The experience turned out to be fantastic! Although I was not familiar with any of the students there, I talked with the persons next to me happily and did enjoy the happy hour.

After five years, I realized that my English listening and speaking skills had been quite improved. The more significant change was that I intended to stop judging how well I speak and feeling upset when I cannot follow. This time I merely smiled or asked them questions if I didn’t understand and participated in the talking as much as I could. After that event. I felt happy because this was actually talking to a stranger.

According to Michael Singer, we tend to avoid challenges because they trigger a pain deep in the heart, such as the feeling of loneliness. The only way to be free of the pain is “to be present right at the place of the tightness and pain, and then relax and go even deeper.” I took a baby step on the journey to a profound transformation.

One problem in China’s higher education

In the last class, I was excited to know that many classmates were so interested in China’s higher education. They were wondering why most Chinese students work so hard and curious about our lives outside the classroom. I think our universities will become more similar to the universities in the U.S. as time goes by because an increasing number of young faculty members have received degrees abroad. Their learning experience may affect their teaching philosophy as well as the way to interact with students.

As a future educator, I think one thing we should change is exam-oriented education. A good example is China’s National College Entrance Examination, also called “Gaokao”. Although most students suffer from Gaokao, it perhaps to be the most “fair” game for children in poor families to compete with other peers. Otherwise, these disadvantaged students do not have sufficient support and resources to develop their soft skills. Besides, lack of trust and corruption raise concern that evaluations based on multiple factors are biased towards people with higher socioeconomic status.

I should be grateful to Gaokao as it enabled me to go to a good university in Beijing from a less-developed area and meet the professor who inspired me to study abroad. However, spending three years to prepare this examination and another two years for TOEFL and GRE was not fun. Exam-oriented education kills curiosity and encourages social comparison based on ranking. Most teenagers do not have time to pursue their true interest outside the class or get involved in community activities like American students do.

In the future, I hope China’s education has less standard tests and more hands-on activities. I hope our classes can be learner-centered instead of instructor-dominated. I wish we can find a better selection method than Gaokao and our kids have equal opportunity to pursue their dreams.

What I have learned in Communicating Science Workshop

Last week, we had a workshop on Communicating Science, and I really enjoy it.

At the very beginning, I thought I was not good at communication because of my introvert personality, fear of eye ahead and non-native English speaking. Besides, I did not like networking with people except for close friends because that made me feel stressed. Dr. Kroehler told us that we should not focus on ourselves too much in a conversation. Instead, we need to listen deeply and try to understand others with curiosity. I realized my self-consciousness during conversations and then decided to shift the attention away from constant self-judgments. Although I cannot change myself at once, this awareness reduces my stress to interact with people.

Dr. Kroehler also helped us to connect our research to our personal background. She asked us to think about what personal experience led us to be a researcher and add more personal elements into the study talk.   Before this, I thought that in order to show the unbiasedness of my study, my speech should be very objective without own feelings.

That workshop gave us a safe place to experiment with multiple expressive possibilities through playing games. Now I know why little kids learn much faster than adults. Because they view learning as playing games, while adults always tag life events with successes or failures. I’m thrilled to learn and play like a “kid” and get to know many classmates through interesting games.

Learning should be fun

The article I read is “9 eLearning Trends For 2018” by Suresh Kumar. The author has worked in the eLearning industry for 14 years and tells us his prediction of the learning trends. In the article, he mentioned the following hot learning trends: VR/AR, Intelligent Assistants, Gamification, and Game-Based Learning, Adaptive or Personalized Learning, Microlearning, Content Curation, Interactive Video-Based Learning.

As a big fan of self-learning, I’m very interested in some techniques. For example, Game-Based Learning is my favorite. Educators gamifying their courses and help students learn skills by having fun. At Virginia Tech, I was very lucky to have a game-based learning experience in Communicating Science classes. In each class, we play games to improve our communication skills. For example, we practiced telling our research using a song and tried to use as many body languages as possible. I felt so happy and excited after classes. That course changed my personality in some way. I became more out-going and willing to talk with others. Besides, I fall in love with public speaking. That must be the power of playing games.

I have explored many interesting eLearning apps outside of the higher education system. For instance, there is an app called SuperBetter, which helps people achieve personal growth and tackle real-life challenges. Its idea was introduced by an inspiring TED talk by Jane McGonigal. Since English is my second language, I’m using an app called ELSA based on artificial intelligence technology to talk with a language speech assistant and enjoy our conversations. If you are interested in big data and machine learning,  you may consider the online courses on Datacamp, which is a good example of Microlearning. Their courses consist of short videos (2~5 mins) and interactive hands-on practices. Although learning programming can be very difficult, Datacamp’s classes are interesting and easy to follow.

I believe learning should be fun, we just need to figure out the most interesting way to do it.

The open access fee is so expensive!

Recently, I submitted a paper to an open access journal, called BMC Public Health. In the final step of submission, I have to agree with the following statement.

The open access fee of $2,031 made me afraid to click any button on that page, and I had to log out and thought about where to get the funding for this. Before I continue to tell the story. Let me introduce this journal briefly. BMC Public Health is a journal produced by BioMed Central (BMC), which is located in the United Kingdom. BMC is the first and largest for-profit scientific open access publisher in the world. On the journal’s website (https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/), it states

Aims and scope
BMC Public Health is an open access, peer-reviewed journal that considers articles on the epidemiology of disease and the understanding of all aspects of public health. The journal has a special focus on the social determinants of health, the environmental, behavioral, and occupational correlates of health and disease, and the impact of health policies, practices and interventions on the community.

Open access
All articles published by BMC Public Health are made freely and permanently accessible online immediately upon publication, without subscription charges or registration barriers. Further information about open access can be found here.
As authors of articles published in BMC Public Health you are the copyright holders of your article and have granted to any third party, in advance and in perpetuity, the right to use, reproduce or disseminate your article, according to the BioMed Central license agreement.
For those of you who are US government employees or are prevented from being copyright holders for similar reasons, BioMed Central can accommodate non-standard copyright lines. Please contact us if further information is needed.

 

In my opinion, open access is a good thing for scientific research. First, it spreads new findings to a broader audience and increases the impact of research. Second, as everyone can see one’s work, open access may stimulate collaborations between researchers and prevent intentional research misconducts. However, the open access fee charged by a journal is often above $1,000. Who can afford it? Here are a few examples: researchers in developed countries, scholars working in decent universities, and research teams with plenty of grant. For those researchers who are not so lucky, open access movement can be another barrier to publish their work if they cannot pay the open access fee. Should poor researchers be discouraged in this way? No.

As a current student at Virginia Tech, I asked several people for help to find potential funding to cover this fee, including my advisors and librarians. Three months later, I finally had the courage to click the “I agree” button and submitted my manuscript. I belong to the lucky group now but may not have the good fortune to submit to an open access journal in the future.

The last year as a graduate student

One month ago, dramatic changes happened in my view of life because I suddenly realized graduation is coming. In the last semester as a Ph.D. student, I started to appreciate a lot of things that I had taken for granted for a long time. For example, when I presented in our lab meeting, I thought that it might be the last show of my research in that lab. When I went to the gym for group exercises, I thought that there were only three months left to enjoy the exciting learning experience with American coaches. They are far more passionate about sports than physical education instructors in my home country. In Blacksburg, I have my favorite friend, instructor, advisor, doctor, restaurant and even chair in the library. After graduation, I’m going to leave this living environment and put all those lovely people and things into my memory.

Because of these thoughts, I became fully present at each moment. For example, just think about what you would do if it was the last time to meet with a friend. Would you like to know more about that person or to look at your cellphone constantly? If you feel that writing the dissertation is tedious, how would you feel if it was your last month to do research in your life, and to pursue your dream in academia? These thought experiments sound unbelievable, but they remind me this is the last chance to enjoy being a student in the U.S. I stop complaining after seeing the beauty at the last moment.

Ethics

When I read the case summaries on the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) website (https://ori.hhs.gov/), I was shocked that so many researchers were engaged in research misconduct. Some of them made mistakes accidentally, and others’ misconducts were intentional. Regardless of their intentions, all of these people got harsh punishments. For example, Maria Cristina Miron Elqutub from University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center labeled her own blood samples as samples from 98 participants in a cancer genetics study (https://ori.hhs.gov/index.php/content/case-summary-elqutub-maria-cristina-miron). This falsified data were used in two published articles and two grant reports submitted to the National Institutes of Health. Because of this misconduct, Ms. Elqutub’s future research has to be supervised for three years. Any Public Health Service supported project that involves Ms. Elqutub has to submit a certificate to ORI and prove their data collection is valid.

Why are ethics in research so important? In my opinion, research usually has a higher impact on society. One misconduct may cost millions of dollars and even people’s life. For example, the results from her own blood sample cannot be generalized to other people. Findings from that study are not helpful to fight cancer but may kill some patients indirectly. Because of the huge responsibilities, researchers should take every effort to guarantee research Integrity.

Effective prevention of research misconduct is more critical than harsh punishments. A good way to avoid mistakes in research is to have multiple people to check the procedures and results before submitting reports. Education of ethics is also essential. In our department, we have a required seminar course called Professional Ethics and Expectations for incoming graduate students. Also, we should further promote open access and replicability of studies. For example, many journals in Applied Econometrics require authors to submit data and programming codes with their manuscripts.

What Motivates Me to Learn English?

Recently, an administer in Duke University stepped down because she advised Chinese students not to speak Chinese on campus. Otherwise, they may get punishments. As an international student, I would like to share my own experience in learning English.

I started to learn English at 12 years old in middle school. At that time, I could not understand why we should learn a second language, so I studied English for the purpose of exams. My English grade was often lower compared with other courses, and I didn’t like it at all.

In the third year of college, I changed my attitude and took an effort to improve English skill after deciding to study abroad. I thought it was a tool to use in order to live and study in the United States. Even though I had been here for five years, self-consciousness bothered me sometimes when I talked to native speakers. I was worried about making mistakes and felt embarrassed about my accent. The feeling of inadequacy urged me to work hard on practicing English skills under pressure.

Until one day, I met my best friend at Virginia Tech, who is an American. There is a profound connection between us even though we grew up in very different cultures. I think that English is the bridge and also the barrier for us to know each other better. I cherish every minute with my friend since I’m graduating soon. I felt very sorry when she did not understand a sentence I said, but she always tried to understand me patiently. She also told me the appropriate way to say something. Because of her, I developed a passion for English and spent one hour per day to improve my pronunciation, speaking/listening and vocabulary. I’m willing to improve my English with a whole heart not for exams or pressure but for love.

The advice made by that administer with a good intention did not work because it failed to motivate international students in a positive way. My learning experience told me that love is the best motivation for people to make a positive change.

Mission Statements

Today, I went to a church service. The pastor asked the audiences: “do you know what is the purpose of your life?” I thought it is a difficult question as a person needs to have a deep understanding of one’s core values and summarizes them into a few sentences. Writing a mission statement is not an easy thing for a person, and I would expect that developing a mission statement for a university could be much more challenging. For example, how can the statement reflect multiple goals pursued by different groups in a university? Who has the responsibility or privilege to draft and edit the statement?

I searched several universities’ mission statements and selected the ones answering the above two questions.

The first mission statement comes from Harvard College (https://college.harvard.edu/about/mission-and-vision):

The mission of Harvard College is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society. We do this through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education.

Beginning in the classroom with exposure to new ideas, new ways of understanding, and new ways of knowing, students embark on a journey of intellectual transformation.  Through a diverse living environment, where students live with people who are studying different topics, who come from different walks of life and have evolving identities, intellectual transformation is deepened and conditions for social transformation are created.  From this we hope that students will begin to fashion their lives by gaining a sense of what they want to do with their gifts and talents, assessing their values and interests, and learning how they can best serve the world.

In the poem “Mutability”, Percy Shelley said: “Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow; Nought may endure but mutability.” The university’s willingness to embrace transformation and diversity answers the first question. As an international student, I think students gain openness by exposing to diversity in education as well as their daily life. Without sufficient diversity, the social pressure tends to make people afraid to pursue a new life path different from the majority, because their behavior or ideas are viewed as “problematic.” This tendency will kill creativity as it limits the options in human’s imagination.

The second one was made by an entrepreneur and abolitionist called Johns Hopkins, who believed in improving public health and education. The mission statement of Johns Hopkins University is (https://www.jhu.edu/about/history/)

To educate its students and cultivate their capacity for lifelong learning, to foster independent and original research, and to bring the benefits of discovery to the world. — Johns Hopkins University

Source: https://www.jhu.edu/about/history/

It summarizes three stages of a scholar very concisely. In my understanding, learning is obtaining skills and knowledge that already exist; researching means addressing the problems which have not been solved; and the purpose of research is to make the world a better place. However, I do have a concern about the last point. Benefits of research are hard to evaluate in a short time. For example, many inventions endured public ignorance for decades before people recognize their values. Given the limitations of our vision, how to deal with emerging research projects that do not have obvious social benefits? Should the value of a study be determined by the desire of the society? I’m not sure. How do you think about that?