22 February 2010

Compete or be nice?

I'm participating in a program this year sponsored by the MU Graduate School called Graduate Colleague Circles. I'm serving as a mentor/facilitator of monthly meetings with three other senior grad student mentors and 15 first year graduate students from science departments on campus. The goal of the program is to give new students a little extra help to facilitate retention after the first year of a doctoral program in particular departments.

I really like the idea of the program. I really like to talk about science, life, teaching, learning, etc with other peers, particularly those from other departments. I'm not going to discuss the relative success or implementation of this particular program right now, but it is the premise of the set-up and a meeting we had earlier tonight that sparked my interest in the issue of competition among scientists.

First, I must admit to personal interest in this issue, as I've recently had some eye-opening experiences with a few of my peers regarding their interpretation of my behavior and comments in class and the lab. Suffice it to say that I have a strong personality that I apparently do not sufficiently temper enough to put some of my colleagues at ease while working with them in a professional setting. However, I'm starting to think about getting a job after I graduate (May 2011? So soon?!?), and that means dispassionately evaluating where I am in my education and career development, where I would like to end up, and who I am as a scientist. Inevitably, that means comparing myself to my peers to see how I will stand out in a stack of applications.

How do I compare? Well, that's for me and my insecurities to battle out later. What I can say, though, is that my exposure to the mean side of competitiveness and criticism has been miniscule compared to what other students may experience. Case in point: a senior grad student from a biomedical-type department detailed his recent experience giving a seminar to his department. He said he was grilled fairly hard-core for 10-15 minutes afterwards in the question-and-answer session by a half dozen professors, all of whom expressed seeming displeasure or intense criticism of his research. Afterwards, though, they all came up to him, smiled, and said he did a good job.

Yes, I used italics, because this observation is so important to me. As scientists we are taught to be critical, and sometimes that criticism is not happily accepted. That does not mean, however, that the criticism is provided with malice, and sometimes we need a critical view. Another student revealed tonight a philosophy that I had not encountered: if labmates are too nice to each other, they must not be in a competitive or successful lab, because there is not enough criticism. This was revolutionary to me, that there were people who thought like this! While I believe one should be nice while providing their viewpoint, I sort of believe that constructive criticism should always hurt a little bit.

Here's what I really think. I can be pretty durn snarky at times, and while I don't intend to be rude to other folks, I think sometimes my head gets pretty far up science's ass and it's difficult to moderate the more harsh aspects of my personality. In other words, if I'm really thinking about a scientific question, enough of my brain power is committed to the problem at hand to make playing nice even more difficult. To me, that's good. I like that I'm committing that much brain power to an issue. It's efficient, and it doesn't mean I'm trying to sound smarter than you. I promise.

But it's only efficient if the receiver of said criticism can handle it, and can separate emotion from science. Easier said than done, and I speak from experience: that one's taken me years, and I still fall off the bandwagon sometimes.

Science, learning, and playing

I've got a pretty big crush on a blog new to my reading list, ProfHacker. I read other blogs about methods and programs to help with teaching, learning, academia, and science, but I like ProfHacker because it is written by folks from humanities and other areas not engrained in science learning. What is the difference? These academics are interested primarily in teaching students to read, interpret, and analyze literature and other texts, rather than attempting to instill large amounts of "important" scientific content into young minds.

One of the most intriguing (to me) items mentioned on ProfHacker lately include the value of multiple choice, website-administered quizzes required for each lesson's reading. The rationale? Students feel the push to read and think about material prior to discussing it in class, and the linked article also mentions framing appropriate directions for student inquiry with properly worded questions.

Even more interesting to me, and the impetus behind this entry, is the idea of incorporating games into academic lessons. To me, the idea of getting students to play is a great way of parameterizing an informal learning environment. Especially when teaching undergraduates grooming themselves for professional/medical programs after graduation, students are often afraid to take intellectual risks and instead prefer to have content handed to them to be memorized. Games provide a low-risk (i.e., no grading involved?) environment in which to explore the content at hand. That's not to say games can't be graded, but just the idea of calling it a game seems to make it more appealing to students.

These issues are especially interesting to me, as the class I'm TAing this semester (plant systematics lab) is traditionally heavy on memorization and light on creative thinking. There are some great ideas previously developed by other TAs of the course, but I'm really hoping to re-evaluate the format as the semester progresses so we can implement other approaches next year.

09 February 2010

Bill's sweater

There is a rumor amongst knitters that a relationship with a boy is doomed to fail if the knitter makes him a sweater.

Bill and I have been going through an especially stressful time lately, and when I'm stressed and don't know what else to do with myself, I knit. I figured, we're already married, and a sweater can't hurt, right?

Emboldened by some offhanded comments by Bill (i.e., "This yarn would make a nice men's sweater"), I set to work. This is a vintage pattern for a men's Irish fisherman's sweater. It was a pretty fun knit, made from Lion Brand's Fisherman's Wool, my current fav affordable, naturally colored wool. It turned out pretty nice, and it fits him well. Lots of texture, and a cute little cable running up each side of the button band. My first saddle shoulder construction, as well as the first pieced sweater I've done in a long time (knit the button band separately? really? well, OK...).

Apart from the usual knitting thoughts, I learned several things from this sweater. Bill is both apathetic and quite opinionated about various issues related to garment design. He really preferred a three button cardigan, but he didn't care what it looked like. He was also pretty worthless when it came to picking out buttons.

But now he has a nice wool sweater. The yarn is pretty inexpensive, and rather than being a work of art, I see this sweater as a production piece. At the risk of sounding too ego-centric, I think I knit this sweater more for me than for him. I don't mean that I'll wear it more than him (although I might steal it occasionally, especially if it smells like him). I mean that I knit when words seem to fail me, and when I don't know any other way to convey my concern, love, and support. I knit when I hear about babies being born, I knit for birthdays, I knit for friends who are ill. I hate greeting cards, and sometimes my words don't sound right or are misinterpreted. But a sweater? Pair of socks? Any other knit? You can bet that I thought about good wishes for that person with every stitch.

I've already picked out Bill's next sweater. I'll use LB Fisherman's Wool again, but the darker, chocolate brown color. The sweater will be the awesome Cobblestone Pullover from Interweave Knits a few years back. I figure, we made it through one sweater, so the risk is worth it.

04 February 2010

You should know this.

As most of my friends and acquaintances these days are academics, it doesn't surprise me when, in conversation, someone admits unfamiliarity with one of the more common aspects of popular culture (i.e., Lady Gaga, Stephen Colbert, etc).

What does surprise me is when, in conversation with the same type of people, they indicate astonishment or disdain when revealing unfamiliarity, uncertainty, or misconception about a scientific concept. OK, it's funny when we have brain farts, and say something about bird chloroplasts, gorilla tails, or yeast being mammals...but science, especially biology, has an enormous content basis that is overwhelming at best and intractable at worst.

I've had an interest in meta-thinking for many years, and have often wondered what the future of education will be. We're expected to know much more information related to science, history, math, etc in primary and secondary education, so how is the extra information conveyed? Are we learning at a faster pace, or are some areas of content being expunged?

I'm much more comfortable with the idea of removing content. As someone who has an awful memory, and who does not care much about memorization, I balk at the idea that more "stuff" needs to be shoved into my brain. It's much more important to me that I have the ability to think, to consider, and to evaluate. I'm not impressed by someone who can recite digits of pi, or who can name all of the authors, publication year, and experimental methods of all academic papers relevant to their field.

I am impressed by people who can ask insightful questions, and who can communicate about topics they really don't know much about. Those two skills kind of go hand-in-hand...and the real crux of the issue is knowing how to seek out information.

The source of my contemplation lately is a number of recent experiences in which a peer insinuates or even literally remarks, "You should know this." Well, maybe, but probably not. I really should know how to read. I really should know how to get out of bed, put on clothes, and get to work in the morning. I should know how to eat food and drink water to keep my body going.

My current work encompasses many elements: phylogenetics, molecular biology, cytogenetics, plant biology, taxonomy, bioinformatics, etc; all united under evolutionary theory. Am I an expert in any of these topics? I really don't think so. Should I be an expert in these fields? Well, I guess it might be nice, but that means I could be an expert.

The method in which we learn and think always comes at a cost. The cost tends to be breadth of a subject, or depth of a subject. Right now, I prefer to know a little bit about lots of different things. It compliments my mental strengths, which are synthesis of information and "big picture" thinking, as my boss would say. And I'm comfortable with that.

I apologize for not conveying any vital piece of information you should know. Wait...there is one. Kitties are cute.

02 February 2010

Un dolor de cabeza

I've had some rather bothersome health issues the last semester or so. While some of these issues are not so bloggable, my struggles with migraines are very personal, and even manage to elicit some of my own intellectual curiosity. Here are some random notes.

  1. My triggers for migraines are stress/tension (neck and shoulders), dehydration, hunger, and mostly, hormones. I do not have auras, but I do get nauseous, with light and sound sensitivity. Sometimes I wish I could just get a dumb, stupid tension headache, because at least then I'm functional. I can't drive when I have a bad migraine. I can't think. I'm pretty much worthless except as a sofa cover.
  2. I have one especially shitty headache trigger: I get rebound headaches from taking pain medication too often. These headaches can occur from taking OTC medication just three times a week. I'm pretty sure that's irony. Or is it tragic?
  3. I get headaches often enough that I really hate to tell people that's what's wrong with me if I'm not feeling well. I feel crappy often enough that I adopt a "suck it up" policy where I work through the pain as best I can, but it usually means I'm not my normal, chipper self. This policy doesn't seem to help, though, as I still have acquaintances remark, on occasion, that I "sure am sick a lot."
  4. In order to alleviate the guilt and resentment I feel because of comments like those above, I'm trying to adapt my mindset to make myself an advocate for my own well-being. I try and heed advice provided by friends who are experiencing even more problematic, permanent conditions. My current favorite framework for thinking about health issues is from this website, particularly the Spoon Theory. The basic premise is that sometimes folks do a decent job hiding the fact that they hurt a lot. However, the ability to shield friends, family, and co-workers from turmoil involving chronic pain or an illness involves constant consideration of decisions that may affect current and future well-being. These decisions may not always make a lot of sense to other people. In my case, I don't drink alcohol much at all, and I don't go out socializing as much as I have in the past. I'm starting to understand when I might be incapacitated, so I try to plan around those events by working extra at other times. But try explaining that to other people: "Sorry, I can't go out tonight. I have to do some computer work because in a few days I'll be praying for a quick death."
  5. My patience and tolerance for other people's behavior has grown enormously lately as a result of my own struggles. I am becoming all too aware of my shortcomings, including my ability to miss deadlines, fail to fulfill obligations, and losing my temper. While I continue to try and improve myself in these areas, I also find myself wondering at the cause behind other people's behavior. So instead of automatically getting angry when someone is short tempered, I've started to shrug it off and move on. Besides, I don't have the energy to hold grudges much anymore.
This entry's been on my mind for awhile. I've composed it, bit by bit, in my mind while I lay on the sofa trying to ease the pressure in my head.

Coming up next: issues related to academia that also give me a headache! (mwa ha ha)