Avoiding unrecognized racist implications arising from teaching genetics

Update to relevant article in the New York Times. December 2019

It is common to think of teaching as socially and politically beneficial, or at least benign, but Donovan et al. (2019. ” Toward a more humane genetics education” Science Education 103: 529-560)(1) raises the interesting possibility, supported by various forms of analysis and a thorough review of the literature, that conventional approaches to teaching genetics can exacerbate students’ racialist ideas. A focus on genetic diseases associated with various population groups, say for example Tay-Sachs disease within Eastern European Jewish populations of sickle cell anemia within African populations, can result in more racialist and racist perspectives among students.

What is meant by racialist? Basically it is an essentialist perspective that a person is an exemplar of the essence of a group, and that all members of a particular group “carry” that essence, an essence that defines them as different and distinct from members of other groups. Such an essence may reflect a culture, or in our more genetical age, their genome, that is the versions of the genes that they possess. In a sense, their essence is more real than their individuality, an idea that contradicts the core reality of biological systems, as outlined in works by Mayr (2,3) – a mistake he termed typological thinking.

Donovan et al. go on to present evidence that exposure of students to lessons that stress the genomic similarities between humans can help. That “any two humans share 99.9% of their DNA, which means that 0.1% of human DNA varies between individuals. Studies find that, on average, 4.3% of genetic variability in humans (4.3% of the 0.1% of the variable portion of human DNA) occurs between the continental populations commonly associated with US census racial groups (i.e., Africa, Asia, Pacific Islands, and The Americas, Europe). In contrast, 95.7% of human genetic variation (95.7% of the 0.1% of variable portion of human DNA) occurs between individuals within those same groups” (italics added). And that “there is more variability in skull shape, facial structure, and blood types within racially defined populations … than there is between them.” Lessons that emphasized the genomic similarities between people and the dissimilarities within groups, appeared effective in reducing racialist ideation – they can help dispel racist beliefs while presenting the most scientifically accurate information available.

This is of particular importance given the dangers of genetic essentialism, that is the idea that we are our genomes and that our genomes determine who (and what) we are. A pernicious ideology that even the co-discover of DNA’s structure, James Watson, has fallen prey to. One pernicious aspect of such conclusions is illustrated in the critique of a recent genomic analysis of educational attainment and cognitive performance by John Warner (4).

An interesting aspect of this work is to raise the question of where, within a curriculum, should genetics go? What are the most important aspects of the complex molecular-level interaction networks that connect genotype with phenotype that need to be included in order to flesh out the overly simplified Mendelian view (pure dominant and recessive alleles, monogenic traits, and unlinked genes) often presented? A point of particular relevance given the growing complexity of what genes are and how they act (5,6). Perhaps the serious consideration of genetic systems would be better left for later in a curriculum. At the very least, it points out the molecular and genomic contexts that should be included so as to minimize the inadvertent support for racialist predilections and predispositions. 

modified from F1000 post

References

  1. Donovan, B. M., R. Semmens, P. Keck, E. Brimhall, K. Busch, M. Weindling, A. Duncan, M. Stuhlsatz, Z. B. Bracey and M. Bloom (2019). “Toward a more humane genetics education: Learning about the social and quantitative complexities of human genetic variation research could reduce racial bias in adolescent and adult populations.” Science Education 103(3): 529-560.
  2. Mayr (1985) The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press ISBN: 9780674364462
  3. Mayr (1994) Typological versus population thinking. In: Conceptual issues in evolutionary biology. MIT Press, Bradford Books, 157-160. Sober E (ed)
  4. Why we shouldn’t embrace the genetics of education. Warner J. Inside Higher Ed blog, July 26 2018 Available online (accessed Aug 22 2019)
  5. Genes – way weirder than you thought. Bioliteracy blog, Jul 09 2018
  6. The evolving definition of the term “gene”. Portin & Wilkins. 2017 Genetics. 205:1353-1364

Remembering the past and recognizing the limits of science …

A recent article in the Guardian reports on a debate at University College London (1) on whether to rename buildings because the people honored harbored odious ideological and political positions. Similar debates and decisions, in some cases involving unacceptable and abusive behaviors rather than ideological positions, have occurred at a number of institutions (see Calhoun at Yale, Sackler in NYC, James Watson at Cold Spring Harbor, Tim Hunt at the MRC, and sexual predators within the National Academy of Sciences). These debates raise important and sometimes troubling issues.

When a building is named after a scientist, it is generally in order to honor that person’s scientific contributions. The scientist’s ideological opinions are rarely considered explicitly, although they may influence the decision at the time.  In general, scientific contributions are timeless in that they represent important steps in the evolution of a discipline, often by establishing a key observation, idea, or conceptual framework upon which subsequent progress is based – they are historically important.  In this sense, whether a scientific contribution was correct (as we currently understand the natural world) is less critical than what that contribution led to. The contribution marks a milestone or a turning point in a discipline, understanding that the efforts of many underlie disciplinary progress and that those contributors made it possible for others to “see further.” (2)

Since science is not about recognizing or establishing a single unchanging capital-T-Truth, but rather about developing an increasingly accurate model for how the world works, it is constantly evolving and open to revision.  Working scientists are not particularly upset when new observations lead to revisions to or the abandonment of ideas or the addition of new terms to equations.(3)

Compare that to the situation in the ideological, political, or religious realms.  A new translation or interpretation of a sacred text can provoke schism and remarkably violent responses between respective groups of believers. The closer the groups are to one another, the more horrific the levels of violence that emerge often are.  In contrast, over the long term, scientific schools of thought resolve, often merging with one another to form unified disciplines. From my own perspective, and not withstanding the temptation to generate new sub-disciplines (in part in response to funding factors), all of the life sciences have collapsed into a unified evolutionary/molecular framework.  All scientific disciplines tend to become, over time, consistent with, although not necessarily deducible from, one another, particularly when the discipline respects and retains connections to the real (observable) world.(4)  How different from the political and ideological.

The historical progression of scientific ideas is dramatically different from that of political, religious, or social mores.  No matter what some might claim, the modern quantum mechanical view of the atom bears little meaningful similarity to the ideas of the cohort that included Leucippus and Democritus.  There is progress in science.  In contrast, various belief systems rarely abandon their basic premises.  A politically right- or left-wing ideologue might well find kindred spirits in the ancient world.  There were genocidal racists, theists, and nationalists in the past and there are genocidal racists, theists, and nationalists now.  There were (limited) democracies then, as there are (limited) democracies now; monarchical, oligarchical, and dictatorial political systems then and now; theistic religions then and now. Absolutist ideals of innate human rights, then as now, are routinely sacrificed for a range of mostly self-serving or politically expedient reasons.  Advocates of rule by the people repeatedly install repressive dictatorships. The authors of the United States Constitution declare the sacredness of human rights and then legitimized slavery. “The Bible … posits universal brotherhood, then tells Israel to kill all the Amorites.” (Phil Christman). The eugenic movement is a good example; for the promise of a genetically perfect future, existing people are treated inhumanely – just another version of apocalyptic (ends justify the means) thinking. 

Ignoring the simpler case of not honoring criminals (sexual and otherwise), most calls for removing names from buildings are based on the odious ideological positions espoused by the honored – typically some version of racist, nationalistic, or sexist ideologies.  The complication comes from the fact that people are complex, shaped by the context within which they grow up, their personal histories and the dominant ideological milieu they experienced, as well as their reactions to it.  But these ideological positions are not scientific, although a person’s scientific worldview and their ideological positions may be intertwined. The honoree may claim that science “says” something unambiguous and unarguable, often in an attempt to force others to acquiesce to their perspective.  A modern example would be arguments about whether climate is changing due to anthropogenic factors, a scientific topic, and what to do about it, an economic, political, and perhaps ideological question.(5)

So what to do?  To me, the answer seems reasonably obvious – assuming that the person’s contribution was significant enough, we should leave the name in place and use the controversy to consider why they held their objectionable beliefs and more explicitly why they were wrong to claim scientific justification for their ideological (racist / nationalist / sexist / socially prejudiced) positions.(6)  Consider explicitly why an archeologist (Flinders Petrie), a naturalist (Francis Galton), a statistician (Karl Pearson), and an advocate for women’s reproductive rights (Marie Stopes) might all support the non-scientific ideology of eugenics and forced sterilization.  We can use such situations as a framework within which to delineate the boundaries between the scientific and the ideological. 

Understanding this distinction is critical and is one of the primary justifications for why people not necessarily interested in science or science-based careers are often required to take science courses.  Yet all too often these courses fail to address the constraints of science, the difference between political and ideological opinions, and the implications of scientific models.  I would argue that unless students (and citizens) come to understand what constitutes a scientific idea or conclusion and what reflects a political or ideological position couched in scientific or pseudo-scientific terms, they are not learning what they need to know about science or its place in society.  That science is used as a proxy for Truth writ large is deeply misguided. It is much more important to understand how science works than it is to remember the number of phyla or the names of amino acids, the ability to calculate the pH of a solution, or to understand processes going on at the center of a galaxy or the details of a black hole’s behavior.  While sometimes harmless, misunderstanding science and how it is used socially can result in traumatic social implications, such as drawing harmful conclusions about individuals from statistical generalizations of populations, avoidable deaths from measles, and the forced “eugenic” sterilization of people deemed defective.  We should seek out and embrace opportunities to teach about these issues, even if it means we name buildings after imperfect people.  

footnotes:

  1. The location of some of my post-doc work.
  2. In the words of Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
  3.  Unless, of course, the ideas and equations being revised or abandoned are one’s own. 
  4.  Perhaps the most striking exception occurs in physics on the subjects of quantum mechanics and relativity, but as I am not a physicist, I am not sure about that. 
  5.  Perhaps people are “meant” to go extinct. 
  6.  The situation is rather different outside of science, because the reality of progress is more problematic and past battles continue to be refought.  Given the history of Reconstruction and the Confederate “Lost Cause” movement [see PBS’s Reconstruction] following the American Civil War, monuments to defenders of slavery, no matter how admirable they may have been in terms of personal bravery and such, reek of implied violence, subjugation, and repression, particularly when the person honored went on to found an institution dedicated to racial hatred and violent intimidation [link]. There would seem little doubt that a monument in honor of a Nazi needs to be eliminated and replaced by one to their victims or to those who defeated them.

Science “awareness” versus “literacy” and why it matters, politically.

Montaigne concludes, like Socrates, that ignorance aware of itself is the only true knowledge”  – from “forbidden knowledge” by Roger Shattuck

A month or so ago we were treated to a flurry of media excitement surrounding the release of the latest Pew Research survey on Americans’ scientific knowledge.  The results of such surveys have been interpreted to mean many things. As an example, the title of Maggie Koerth-Baker’s short essay for the 538 web site was a surprising “Americans are Smart about Science”, a conclusion not universally accepted (see also).  Koerth-Baker was taken by the observation that the survey’s results support a conclusion that Americans’ display “pretty decent scientific literacy”.  Other studies (see Drummond & Fischhoff 2017) report that one’s ability to recognize scientifically established statements does not necessarily correlate with the acceptance of science policies – on average climate change “deniers” scored as well on the survey as “acceptors”.  In this light, it is worth noting that science-based policy pronouncements generally involve projections of what the future will bring, rather than what exactly is happening now.  Perhaps more surprisingly, greater “science literacy” correlates with more polarized beliefs that, given the tentative nature of scientific understanding –which is not about truth per se but practical knowledge–suggests that the surveys’ measure something other than scientific literacy.  While I have written on the subject before  it seems worth revisiting – particularly since since then I have read Rosling’s FactFullness and thought more about the apocalyptic bases of many secular and religious movements, described in detail by the historian Norman Cohn and the philosopher John Gray and gained a few, I hope, potentially useful insights on the matter.  

First, to understand what the survey reports we should take a look at the questions asked and decide what the ability to chose correctly implies about scientific literacy, as generally claimed, or something simpler – perhaps familiarity.  It is worth recognizing that all such instruments, particularly  those that are multiple choice in format, are proxies for a more detailed, time consuming, and costly Socratic interrogation designed to probe the depth of a persons’ knowledge and understanding.  In the Pew (and most other such surveys) choosing the correct response implies familiarity with various topics impacted by scientific observations. They do not necessarily reveal whether or not the respondent understands where the ideas come from, why they are the preferred response, or exactly where and when they are relevant (2). So is “getting the questions correct” demonstrates a familiarity with the language of science and some basic observations and principles but not the limits of respondents’ understanding.  

Take for example the question on antibiotic resistance (→).  The correct answer “it can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria” does not reveal whether the respondent understands the evolutionary (selective) basis for this effect, that is random mutagenesis (or horizontal gene transfer) and antibiotic-resistance based survival.  It is imaginable that a fundamentalist religious creationist could select the correct answer based on  plausible, non-evolutionary mechanisms (3).  In a different light, the question on oil, natural gas and coal (↓) could be seen as ambiguous – aren’t these all derived from long dead organisms, so couldn’t they reasonably be termed biofuels?  

While there are issues with almost any such multiple choice survey instrument, surely we would agree that choosing the “correct” answers to these 11 questions reflects some awareness of current scientific ideas and terminologies.  Certainly knowing (I think) that a base can neutralize and acid leaves unresolved how exactly the two interact, that is what chemical reaction is going on, not to mention what is going on in the stomach and upper gastrointestinal tract of a human being.  In this case, selecting the correct answer is not likely to conflict with one’s view of anthropogenic effects on climate, sex versus gender, or whether one has an up to date understanding of the mechanisms of immunity and brain development, or the social dynamics behind vaccination – specifically the responsibilities that members of a social group have to one another.   

But perhaps a more relevant point is our understanding of how science deals with the subject of predictions, because at the end of the day it is these predictions that may directly impact people in personal, political, and economically impactful ways. 

We can, I think, usefully divide scientific predictions into two general classes.  There are predictions about a system that can be immediately confirmed or dismissed through direct experiment and observation and those that cannot. The immediate (accessible) type of prediction is the standard model of scientific hypothesis testing, an approach that reveals errors or omissions in one’s understanding of a system or process.  Generally these are the empirical drivers of theoretical understanding (although perhaps not in some areas of physics).  The second type of prediction is inherently more problematic, as it deals with the currently unobservable future (or the distant past).  We use our current understanding of the system, and various assumptions, to build a predictive model of the system’s future behavior (or past events), and then wait to see if they are confirmed. In the case of models about the past, we often have to wait for a fortuitous discovery, for example the discovery of a fossil that might support or disprove our model.   

It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future
– Yogi Berra (apparently)

Anthropogenic effects on climate are an example of the second type of prediction. No matter our level of confidence, we cannot be completely sure our model is accurate until the future arrives. Nevertheless, there is a marked human tendency to take predictions, typically about the end of the world or the future of the stock market, very seriously and to make urgent decisions based upon them. In many cases, these predictions impact only ourselves, they are personal.  In the case of climate change, however, they are likely to have disruptive effects that impact many. Part of the concern about study predictions is that responses to these predictions will have immediate impacts, they produce social and economic winners and losers whether or not the predictions are confirmed by events. As Hans Rosling points out in his book Factfullness, there is an urge to take urgent, drastic, and pro-active actions in the face of perceived (predicted) threats.  These recurrent and urgent calls to action (not unlike repeated, and unfulfilled predictions of the apocalypse) can lead to fatigue with the eventual dismissal of important warnings; warnings that should influence albeit perhaps not dictate ecological-economic and political policy decisions.  

Footnotes and literature cited:
1. As a Pew Biomedical Scholar, I feel some peripheral responsibility for the impact of these reports

2. As pointed out in a forthcoming review, the quality of the distractors, that is the incorrect choices, can dramatically impact the conclusions derived from such instruments. 

3.  I won’t say intelligent design creationist, as that makes no sense. Organisms are clearly not intelligently designed, as anyone familiar with their workings can attest

Drummond, C. & B. Fischhoff (2017). “Individuals with greater science literacy and education have more polarized beliefs on controversial science topics.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114: 9587-9592.


After the March for Science, What Now?

Recently, I contributed to a project that turned healthy human tissues into an earlier stage of pancreatic cancer—a disease that carries a dismal 5-year survival rate of 5 percent.

 

When I described our project to a friend, she asked, “why in the world would you want to grow cancer in a lab?” I explained that by the time a patient learns that he has pancreatic cancer, the tumor has spread throughout the body. At that point, the patient typically has less than a year to live and his tumor cells have racked up a number of mutations, making clinical trials and molecular studies of pancreatic cancer evolution downright difficult. For this reason, our laboratory model of pancreatic cancer was available to scientists who wanted to use it to find the biological buttons that turn healthy cells into deadly cancer. By sharing our discovery, we wanted to enable others in developing drugs to treat cancer and screening tests to diagnose patients early. The complexity of this process demonstrates that science is a team effort that involves lots of time, money, and the brainpower of highly-trained individuals working together toward a single goal.

 

Many of the challenges we face today—from lifestyle diseases, to the growing strains of antibiotic-resistant superbugs in hospitals, to the looming energy crisis—require scientific facts and solutions. And although there’s never a guarantee of success, scientists persist in hopes that our collective discoveries will reverberate into the future. However, as a corollary, hindering scientific progress means a loss of possibilities.

 

Unfortunately, the deceleration of scientific progress seems likely possibility. In March, the White House released a document called “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” which describes deep cuts to some of the country’s most important funding agencies for science.

 

As it stands, the National Institutes of Health is set to lose nearly a fifth of its budget; the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, $900 million; and the Environmental Protection Agency, a 31.5 percent budget cut worth $2.6 billion. Imagine the discoveries that could have saved our lives or created jobs, which will instead languish solely as unsupported hypotheses in the minds of underfunded scientists.

 

Scientists cannot remain idle on the sidelines; we must be active in making the importance of scientific research known. Last weekend’s March on Science drew tens of thousands of people around more than 600 rallies across the world, but the challenge now lies in harnessing the present momentum and energy to make sustained efforts to maintain government funding for a wide range of scientific projects.

 

The next step is to get involved in shaping public opinion and policy. As it stands, Americans on both sides of the political spectrum have expressed ambivalence about the validity of science on matters ranging from climate change to childhood vaccinations. Academics can start tempering the public’s unease toward scientific authority and increase public support for the sciences by stepping off the ivory tower. Many researchers are already engaging with the masses by posting on social media, penning opinion articles, and appearing on platforms aimed at public consumption (Youtube channels, TED, etc). A researcher is her own best spokesperson in explaining the importance of her work and the scientific process; unfortunately, a scientist’s role as an educator in the classroom and community is often shoved out by the all-encompassing imperative to publish or perish. As a profession, we must become more willing to step out of our laboratories to engage with the public and educate the next generation of science-savvy citizens.

 

In addition, many scientists have expressed interest in running for office, including UC Berkeley’s Michael Eisen (who also a co-founder of PLOS). When asked by Science why he was considering a run for senate, Eisen responded:

 

“My motivation was simple. I’m worried that the basic and critical role of science in policymaking is under a bigger threat than at any point in my lifetime. We have a new administration and portions of Congress that don’t just reject science in a narrow sense, but they reject the fundamental idea that undergirds science: That we need to make observations about the world and make our decisions based on reality, not on what we want it to be. For years science has been under political threat, but this is the first time that the whole notion that science is important for our politics and our country has been under such an obvious threat.”

 

If scientists can enter into the house and senate in greater numbers, they will be able to inject scientific sense into the discussions held by members of legislature whose primary backgrounds are in business and law.

 

Science is a bipartisan issue that should not be bogged down by the whims of political machinations. We depend on research to address some of the most pressing problems of our time, and America’s greatness lies in part on its leadership utilizing science as an exploration of physical truths and a means of overcoming our present limitations and challenges.

 

 

Check out Yoo Jung’s book aimed at helping college students excel in science, What Every Science Student Should Know (University of Chicago Press)

From the archives: Why I don’t believe in science…and students shouldn’t either

As I have been preparing for my last post on SciEd, I’ve reflected on why I became a science educator to begin with.  And I realize it’s because I strongly believe that knowledge is an important tool to improve our lives and it should be shared with others.  This is strange however, because even though I have this belief, I don’t believe in science. So why am I so passionate about something I don’t believe in?

Science and Belief

Science is how we describe the natural world, and if you search the web for “what is science,” three words tend to come up more often than others: observation, experiment, and evidence. Observations and experiments may not be perfect, even at the limits of our technologies, and interpretations may be flawed, but it’s the evidence that supports, or doesn’t, an argument that is the most important.  And we choose to either accept it, or not.

I wanted to get an on-the-spot response from a scientist, so I asked one of my colleagues at work, Dr. Briana Pobiner, a paleoanthropologist, “You believe in evolution, right?”  I was surprised by how quickly she answered “I don’t believe in evolution – I accept the evidence for evolution.” The believing isn’t what makes evolution true or not, it’s that there is evidence that supports it.

Many people will distinguish a belief from knowledge, in that knowledge requires evidence, and truth does not. Illustration: Jonathon Rosen
Many people will distinguish a belief from knowledge, in that knowledge requires evidence, and belief does not. Illustration: Jonathon Rosen

There are plenty of other scientists out there that don’t like the use of the word “believe.”  Kevin Padian, of the University of California, Berkeley, wrote an open-access article about science and evolution, entitled “Correcting some common misrepresentations of evolution in textbooks and the media.” He states:

“Saying that scientists ‘believe’ their results suggests, falsely, that their acceptance is not based on evidence, but is based somehow on faith.”

The closeness of belief to faith, belief in something without proof, seems to be a reason a number of scientists disapprove of the word.  It does tend to introduce religion, which describes the supernatural, something that science cannot accomplish.

Padian continues:

“…it is about the quality of the evidence: scientists accept their results as the best explanation of the problem that we have at present, but we recognize that our findings are subject to reevaluation as new evidence comes to light.”

This same sentiment of evolving understandings can be heard in Holly Dunsworth’s audio essay “I Am Evolution” on NPR’s This I Believe (ironically, I might add).

I reached out to Holly and she told me that there were a number of “science-minded” individuals who did not agree with her essay.  They “think that ‘to believe’ is different than ‘to know’ because ‘knowledge’ to many is based on facts and ‘belief’ is not, so the verbs knowing and believing are therefore different.”  Where I agree with this perspective, Holly disagrees.  But she goes on to say that just having the belief or knowledge is fine, no matter what word is used.  (New: Please read Holly’s response to this posting here.)

 

Teaching process of science, not belief in science

Science, as we know, is not just some body of facts.  It is a detailed process of observation, experiment, interpretation, review, and even a little bit of luck and chance.  And unlike a linear list of instructions, it is an ongoing, iterative process that can jump to any other step in the process, as illustrated at Berkley’s “Understanding Science” webpage.  This is how science should be, and usually is, taught.

Unfortunately, it is impossible for every teacher in every school out there to reproduce every experiment for their students to have a first hand account of the evidence.  This means that in almost all classrooms there is a degree of memorizing facts to understand particular concepts.  So to an extent you might say that the teachers and students need to have some faith in the publisher that those facts are real, and the other scientists who reviewed the research we also legitimate.

Not every student can repeat every experiment ever done, but new advances are built upon this previous knowledge. Photo by Cameron Bennett
Not every student can repeat every experiment ever done, but new advances are built upon this previous knowledge. Photo by Cameron Bennett

But we do manage to continue advancing despite of this.  Leaps and bounds in technologies and scientific research are made by building upon previously vetted and accepted research.  Every generation keeps learning newer technologies and up to date research earlier in their education.  Sometimes these new leaps and bounds may produce new evidence that causes us to reevaluate our previous findings.  But this is still a part of science, an ongoing and dynamic process that continues to bring new questions and answers.

So, no, I do not believe in science.  Maybe you could say I believe science.  But for sure, I accept the evidence produced through science and that its findings may some day change.

But what about you — do you believe in science?

Guest post: Summer research programs offer a window to academic careers

To remove the cobwebs on this Sci-Ed blog, we welcome new poster Yoo Jung Kim, a recent Biology graduate of Dartmouth College and a post-baccalaureate research fellow at NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute. In addition to being a scientist and a science writer, Yoo Jung is also a cartoonist and author of the illustration below.

Scientific research is a laborious process, and many unsuspecting doctoral students may end up failing to complete their degrees. How can a student find out in advance if the realities of a science Ph.D. career is in line with their interests and future goals?

We believe getting students exposed to scientific research early on is a great help. And while many successful applicants manage to squeeze in significant research experience during the school year, their focus is often split by the academic and social demands of student life. Fortunately, a number of research institutions offer students–and in some cases, recent graduates–an opportunity to take the summer to conduct full-time research through programs called Research Experience for Students (REU), Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP), or a variation thereof. These programs pair students with a principal investigator who also serve as a mentor, allowing participants to experience the day-to-day realities of STEM research.

Sarah Hammer, a current senior at Dartmouth College, was selected to participate in the 2014 Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP) at the University of Michigan.

According to Sarah, “My goal was to engineer Escherichia coli for efficient cellulosic isobutanol production in co-culture with the fungus Trichoderma reesei. The project gave me the opportunity to learn techniques such as isolating and purifying DNA and RNA, genetic transformation and transduction, PCR, gel electrophoresis, and spectrophotometry. Overall, the feeling of being part of a scientific research group was rewarding and inspiring.”

Programs like SROP provide students free rooming and board, a modest stipend, and workshops to help participants apply to graduate schools. For instance, SROP arranged weekly seminars on topics such as personal and academic statements for graduate school applications, resumés and CVs, external funding, and networking. SROP also provided complimentary GRE preparation course, an opportunity for participants give oral presentations summarizing their research to the public, and a culminating poster symposium.

Sarah credits the University of Michigan SROP with helping her understand what a future in research would entail. “The program exposed me to a research environment typical of graduate school, confirming my desire to continue my education and pursue a Ph.D.”

While most summer research programs like SROP target current undergraduates, a few structured research programs provide research opportunities for recent graduates in addition to students from graduate and professional schools. For instance, Adam Lipson had been working as a clinical coordinator for two years and had already been accepted to Temple University School of Medicine when he began his stint on the Summer Internship Program (SIP), sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Adam wanted to “get a feel for the NIH and to see how and to see where some of the world’s foremost medical research was conducted.”

As an undergraduate at Boston University, Adam had been fascinated by the complexity of brain sciences and the possibilities of clinical research, and he had always hoped to combine these dual interests into fulfilling career. Adam thought that he would take advantage of the new Masters in Clinical Translational Research program offered by Temple University. However, following his summer stint at the NIH and upon completing his first semester of medical school, Adam found that he wanted a more substantive research experience and applied internally into Temple’s M.D.-Ph.D. program, which would allow him to conduct research and earn a Ph.D. from Temple’s Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program in the middle of his medical training.

According to Adam, “I had always toyed with the idea of pursuing an M.D.-Ph.D–I knew that research was more than just a hobby, though I never really intended on becoming, solely, a bench researcher. This end, I suppose, was inspired–in part–by my time at the NIH–I saw how my mentor incorporated her research into her clinical practice, and attending advising programs and seminars hosted by NINDS highlighting the pursuits of physician-scientists helped to push me in my current direction.”

University of Michigan’s SROP and NIH’s SIP allowed Sarah and Adam to confirm the importance of STEM within the context of their future careers, and SROP and SIP are just two of the many organized summer research programs throughout the country. For many, these programs serve as a gateway to a lifetime of scientific discoveries, exposing students and recent graduates to the realities of STEM research–from the frustrations of failed experiments to the satisfaction contributing newly-uncovered knowledge to the scientific community and everything inbetween.

Related programs:

University of Michigan Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP): http://www.rackham.umich.edu/prospective-students/srop

National Institutes of Health Summer Internship Program (SIP): https://www.training.nih.gov/programs/sip


Featured image: A laboratory researcher dreams of becoming a PhD scientist. Illustration by Yoo Jung Kim

Book Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Commander Chris Hadfield captured the world’s imagination last year, when, from 13 March to 13 May 2013, he was the first Canadian Commander of the International Space Station. While aboard the ISS, Commander Hadfield did a series of “experiments,” both for scientists, but, perhaps most importantly, for youth. This included genuinely interesting questions like “How do you cry in space? (video above)” and “How do you cut your nails?” and the always important “How do you go to the bathroom?” His amicable nature and genuinely infectious enthusiasm brought science to the masses, and helped inspire thousands of youth.

Recently, Chris Hadfield released his book – “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.” My sister waited in line for 3 hours at our local Costco to get me a signed copy for my birthday, and I finally got around to reading it for this review. The book follows the life of Chris Hadfield as he becomes the commander of Expedition 35, detailing his attitude and the path he took to become the first Canadian Commander of the ISS. The book is split into three broad sections leading up to Expedition 35 titled “Pre-Launch,” “Liftoff” and “Coming Down to Earth,” with several chapters within each section.

The book was fascinating to me – Hadfield is a hybrid pilot-engineer-scientist-lab rat. His expertise is in engineering and as a test pilot, but throughout the book he references how his work is interdisciplinary, and he has to have a broad understanding of several domains in order to be effective. In addition to his role as an astronaut and Commander, he is also a fully fledged lab rat, and people on the ground will ask him questions about how he’s feeling, take samples while he’s in space and after he returns, as well as measure how quickly he recovers to life back on Earth in order to further our understanding about how life in space impacts the human body. Since, at some point, we hope to explore the stars, any data we can get on how astronauts respond to life in space is valuable.

One of my favourite parts of the book was how it didn’t just focus on the mundane, it relished them. He spends pages describing the drills he went through, and how important have a strong grasp of the fundamentals was for his success. I found this refreshing – too often in science we glorify the achievements but ignore all the hard work that got them there. A breakthrough in the lab might take months or even years of work before things go right, and having some acknowledge that, not only do things not work (often), them not working is not the end of the world. This was a refreshing take on the scientific method, and really highlighted the value in “the grind” of slowly perfecting your skills.

Click the book cover for purchasing options!
Click the book cover for purchasing options!

He also has a certain brand of “folksy wisdom” that is inspiring in it’s own way. It’s not inspirational in the nauseating sense that these things are often written in, but more practical. He states the importance of reading the team dynamic before getting involved for example, or how important it is to really understand the nuts and bolts of what you’re doing, but at no point does that feel patronizing or “hey, look at me, I’m an astronaut!” For many budding scientists, the idea of trudging through another page of equations, or washing beakers, or just doing the mundane, less exciting parts of science makes you apathetic and bored. Hadfield takes this moments and stresses just how important it is to learn from them, as well as ensure that you know exactly why they are important. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in STEM careers, and especially those early in their careers.

To purchase, check out Chris Hadfield’s official website.


Featured image: Commander Hadfield performed at the 2013 Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa, ON | Picture courtesy David Johnson, click for more info

Sci-Ed: Guest Post Policy

One of our favourite things to do here at PLOS Blogs Sci-Ed is to get guest posts from other science communicators. They provide us with perspectives and views we otherwise wouldn’t be able to cover, and they have been very well received by our audience. Given this we have decided to open the process.

As we recently did over on Public Health Perspectives, in the interests of transparency, we have developed a series of guidelines for anyone interested in posting with us, as well as an outline of how we approach guest posts. If you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to contact us at the email below.

We have three basic guidelines for those interested:

  1. No self-promotion. While we appreciate that people will post about issues they are passionate about, we will not accept posts promoting your business, fundraising, or publicizing an event you’re organizing. However, if you have done an event or published recently and want to discuss or reflect on it, that is okay.
  2. All posts must have scientific backing. Commentaries and opinion pieces can be considered, however, they have to be backed up with evidence. Sensationalist language and fear-mongering are unacceptable. The exception is for posts about novel teaching methods that you have used and have been successful.
  3. Posts must be written for a generalist audience. We have a diverse reader base, and so we will be looking specifically for pieces that explain ideas and concepts clearly to non-specialists in the field.

What we suggest is that anyone interested in posting with us send us an email with a 1-2 paragraph outline of your piece. We will provide feedback, and let you know if there are any red flags that come up. Assuming everything is fine, we’ll then send it back to you to write up into a 600-1000 word blog post. We’ll provide input on the final document, and if we still think it’s a good fit, we’ll schedule it for publication. If not, the piece is yours, so you’re welcome to submit it anywhere else that accepts guest posts.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to let us know!

Cristina, John and Atif

plosscied[at]gmail.com

Thank You Charles – an evolutionary biologist’s journey.

In 2009 my wife Aqila wanted to go to England to see Blur play a concert in Hyde Park.  I was in, under one condition, we take a day for me to go to Darwin’s home in Kent and pay homage to a man who suffered so I could understand.

I love Blur, and seeing them in Hyde Park with 80,000 people was an epic experience. But Blur aside it was time to make my pilgrimage and pay my respects to one of the most influential men in my life.

My Darwin journey started at Westminster Abbey. This is Darwin’s final resting place. I expected to find an ornate monument, but was greeted by a modest stone that simple says “CHARLES ROBERT DARWIN BORN 12 FEBRUARY 1809. DIED 19 APRIL 1882.” It was a fitting grave for a man who preferred to be in his study rather than in the spotlight.

I just sort of stood for awhile, looking for some sort of emotional response, but nothing of significance came forth.  It was just a stone, there were crowds of people, crying children, and little atmosphere for reflection.

The next day we took a train, two buses, and walked 30 minutes down a narrow road with no sidewalks to Down House. We took the tour of the house with a small group and I began to feel a tinge of emotion. As we toured from room to room seeing the actual spot Darwin worked I started to get a surreal feeling. The reality of where I was, the significance of this spot to me personally, began to set in.  My whole life has been guided by work that was penned in this very spot.

I finally started to feel the twinges of emotion I was looking for when I stepped onto Darwin’s walking path. This is the famous sand path around the property that Darwin would walk each day, losing himself in thought as he slowly walked the length of his expansive country home. He often stated it was during these walks that he was able to put together the pieces of his theory. It calmed his ailing stomach and let his mind go free.

A section of the sand path Darwin would walk each day.
A section of the sand path Darwin would walk each day.

I began to walk the path. I felt an initial giddiness but as I moved further from the house and other people I began to feel it. Soon I had left the crowds behind and I was alone in the woods.  As I walked the path my mind began to wander, I thought of Darwin walking this path as I am now. I thought of natural selection, the origin of humans, and the greatness of his theory…..but then my mind wandered and the world around me slipped away….

…I was in my Catholic school training classes (CCD), in the sixth grade, a nun was scorning me for talking about evolution during class….

…8th grade forced to sit alone in CCD to reflect why I shouldn’t ask the nun how God created us when we evolved from primates…

…I saw myself stomping through local ponds in my hometown collecting anything living and placing them in a coffee can. Marveling at the variety of nature, to young to articulate the beautiful words of Darwin “…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved…”

The present world slipped away and I was watching the film of my life play before me. There I was entering college to pursue a career in science…

…sitting in the Smithsonian studying Komodo dragon behavior…

…teaching evolution to seniors in a class I designed as the head of science at a private school….

…and here I am in England….my life, my whole life guided by a theory that was born right here….I became completely overwhelmed…I thought of Darwin walking this path, suffering intense physical and mental pain as his mind penned the words of his life’s work.

I wanted so badly to tell Darwin thank you, that his work answered the question that no one could answer for me during my young life. I knew it could never be. Sadly I kicked a stone on the path on my final lap. Then it hit me. I remembered a snippet I read about Darwin.  He would put a small pile of stones down and would kick them aside as he walked so he didn’t have to be bothered mentally to remember what lap he was on….. and it came full circle……there I was kicking stones on the sand path at Down House….and for a moment….I was as close to Darwin as I could be.  I picked up the rock I kicked and held it, the only tangible connection I would ever have and kept it.

So as I sit here at my desk as Cosmos plays in the background.  My wife occasionally asks me what I am so intensely focused on…

I guess I was just trying to find a way to simply say…

….Thank you Charles, I am eternally grateful. Your suffering put mine to rest.

 

[This is an excerpt from a previous blog most modified for PLoS]

Say Hello to the Nation’s T-rex

“Anyone here doesn’t like T-rex?”

No hands were raised, but the packed auditorium welcomed Jack Horner with laughter and enthusiasm. The paleontologist climbed into the Smithsonian stage, and with flailing arms declared: “I’m going to talk about a very special T-rex”.

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A replica of a T-rex skull with human size comparison.

The special Tyrannosaurus traveled via Fedex truck.

It was packed inside wood crates.

This famous dinosaur has a stage name: Wankel T-rex. An arm fossil bone was first uncovered by Kathy Wankel (pronounced WON-kal) in 1988, and later rescued by Horner’s team of paleontologists and graduate students.

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Jack Horner. Photo by the author.

The Wankel T-rex was the largest and most complete specimen found at the time (and still stands as one of the most complete ever found, right after Sue). Last week, the dinosaur made it’s trip to Washington DC, to reside at the Natural History museum. It was received by director Kirk Johnson and the press with great fanfare. Photographers fought to get a close-up shot of the locked crates. One box, of a size that could house a widescreen TV, was labeled “WOW”. It contained a piece of the T-rex mandible, cheekbones, and banana-sized teeth.

A few days later, the community got a chance to to get involved. I joined in as the crowd filled the Smithsonian auditorium to hear from Horner, Johnson, and curator Matt Carrano. We were even introduced to Ms. Wankel, who recounted her discovery tale.

“Wait a minute, I found something out here”, said Ms. Wankel’s husband Tom. “I think I found something bigger out here”, said Ms. Wankel referring to an old and porous dinosaur arm bone.

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Kirk Johnson. Photo by the author.

“I wonder if it’s real.”

I’d risk saying that’s the most frequent question museum visitors ask. They have to hear from the museum staff, that yes – those bones belonged to a tyrant dinosaur over 60 million years ago.

Visitors to the Smithsonian will get an affirmative answer to that question, and hopefully marvel at that titanic creature. Hopefully that celebrity T-rex will attract many new people to the science museum.

After all, there’s not a person who dislikes T-rex.