Archive for the ‘science in the media’ Category

Link Round-Up

I am really starting to like the idea of doing a weekly round-up of some of the more interesting things I come across. There are so many things I’d like to share, but don’t want to do an individual post for each thing (I do on Facebook/Twitter, but not all my wonderful readers are on them). Not sure if this will be a regular thing, but we’ll see.
Here is what caught my eye this week:
On Thursday, I went to a psychology lecture at the local library, and it was all about how our brains develop in relation to our experiences and environment. The speaker was asked a question about those “brain workouts” we see advertised on TV, and he highly suggested reading up on Adrian Owen’s work on the subject, which was published in Nature last year. (Short answer: no, they don’t work.)
 
How do you feel about a Somoa airline charging passengers by weight? Though this seems like a “logical” thing to do (this is what’s done for mission to space, for example), the idea clearly has some downfalls.

If you’ve been following what’s going on with government-funded scientists here in Canada, you’ll be interested to know that there will be a formal probe into the muzzling of government scientists. Let’s hope this pours some light on the subject!

Here’s a great post about how to put together a better conference talk by Emily Lakdawalla. It helped me have an epiphany this week: if I feel stupid during your talk (and I have a relatively decent background in the topic), it’s not because of my lack of knowledge, it’s because of your lack of explanation.
 

PBS’s NOVA did a great special about the recent meteor strike in Russia. Two researchers from my university are interviewed throughout the piece. Beware of some sensationalism though (like “Death rocks from space!!!”). Those outside the USA might not be able to view the above video, so here it is on YouTube.

Finally, a really cool DYI project for your kids!

What are your “must reads” of the week?
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Time For Activism

I’ve never been huge into being an activist. Sure, I’ve always had opinions on stuff, but I was never one to get too bothered by politics and the like. Not enough to do anything, anyway.
But something has changed in the last few years, and especially in the last few months. I don’t know if it has something to do with getting older, and I tend to care more about the world around me, or if everything is just getting worse out there. Whatever it is, I’ve changed my tune.
It started during my PhD when I began to talk to more and more women in the sciences, and started reading science blogs. I began to find a disturbing trend: this sexism thing people were talking about not only was rampant, but it was right in front of me. I’m not sure why I didn’t see it before – I would always shrug it off as “just a joke” or it didn’t even occur to me that it was sexist. I was one of those women who would chastise others for being “too sensitive” or think they must be making it up. But, reading other peoples stories, it opened my eyes, and I started to “get it”. Not only did I start noticing comments or behavior but, as I looked back on my life, I remembered other instances of sexism. It was far more common – and real – than I thought.
That’s what started it – I began to look at the world differently. I was able to see things from other vantage points. Even if something didn’t directly relate to me, I had empathy for the people it did affect. I stopped laughing at off-color jokes (before I would so I didn’t seem “rude” – really??), and I began to quietly call people out if they made inappropriate comments.
Now, when I find things I hold near and dear to my heart are attacked (such as help for teen-mothers being taken away, the complete lack of respect for basic science research by the Canadian government, or the fact that LGBT rights is even an issue in the US) I have this overwhelming desire to DO something. To speak up. To fight. 
Here’s my problem: I don’t know how to make time for it. I get overwhelmed with the number of injustices in the world that I want to help fix. Even if I just focus on one thing, I don’t know where to start. 
I know there are a lot of you out there who are passionate about your causes. How do you make the time? What kinds of things do you do? Where should I start? Is doing something small ever worth it?

Well, here’s a start: for those of you in Canada who are fed up with the Federal Government (recent budget cuts, Bill C-38, etc.), there will be an online protest on June 4th where websites all across Canada will be going dark. Get more information on the Black Out Speak Out website. My post on June 4th will be a banner from that site.

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Are We Going Backward?

Over the past few weeks, there have been a few things floating around the news, the blogosphere, and around the water cooler that really make me wonder if we’re going back in time:
– All the cuts to science in both Canada and the US (is it going on elsewhere too?)
– Cuts to the local education system
– The fact that women still make far less money than men
– The focus on violent behaviour in the NHL playoffs, how it’s just part of the game, and how that is actually bringing in larger audiences (while I’m losing complete respect for the game)
– Issues over reproductive rights in the USA

WTF is going on in our world right now? Is it just me, and all of a sudden I’m more aware of these issues, or do others feel the same?

Thankfully, there are new episodes of Glee, knitting, and good chocolate in this world to take my mind off things.

Western Worlds Update

Our new radio show has had three episodes, and tonight will be the fourth.

It’s been really fun, and we’re doing pretty well! We debuted as the second most popular show on the station, and had about 20,000 listeners in the first 24 hours of our first show. Our numbers have been steadily increasing since then.

Tune in tonight at 10pm Eastern on astronomy.fm – after the news and 365 Days of Astronomy. One of our co-hosts, Tyler August, interviews Dr. Paul Wiegert, who was part of the team who discovered the first Trojan asteroid of Earth (published in Nature). The show is also replayed at various times tomorrow.

If you listen to the show, let me know what you think!

Radio

Never in a million years would I have ever thought I’d be a producer and co-host of a radio show…but in 10 days that will be a reality!

A few weeks back, a post-doc I work with came to me with an idea for a radio show. He had been involved with one at York University (York Universe, on the astronomy.fm internet radio station), but now that he was here at Western, and since we have the largest planetary science group in Canada, he thought it would be fun to start our own show.

So, starting on February 27th, each Monday night at 10pm (Eastern) – directly following York Universe – we will run a 30-minute pre-taped interview show called Western Worlds. Each show will consist of a 20-minute interview with a scientist, engineer, researcher, or educator who is involved in the planetary science community. Following the interview, there will be a 10-minute round-table discussion with 3-4 of our volunteer co-hosts. We’ll also do specials from time to time, when there is something particularly interesting going on in the community (like when the Mars Science Laboratory lands in August, for example).

My favorite part is that I get to bring in the education and outreach perspective to the interviews and round table discussion, which is a much different perspective than everyone else involved in the program.

I hope you tune in!

Why Doing a PhD Might be a Waste of Time

I’ve mentioned this before, but one of my few regrets in life was forcing myself to finish my PhD even though I knew 6 months in to it that I hated what I was doing and did not want to continue in academia. I often reflect upon my time as a PhD student as a waste of time, and that I could easily be doing what I’m doing now with “just” a master’s degree.

I often get a terrible feeling in my stomach when I hear someone is entering into a PhD program…especially if they say they’re doing it because they don’t know what else to do with their life at the moment. I want to yell “DON’T DO IT!!!” at the top of my lungs, and go into the myriad of reasons why they should, at the very least, think twice about it.

The other day, DH was telling me about an article in The Economist about just that (Doctoral Degrees: The Disposable Academic (why doing a PhD is a waste of time)). This article does a wonderful job of explaining those reasons. DH and I agree that this side of the story is rarely written about, so I wanted to share some of the highlights:

– There is a HUGE oversupply of PhD students. Even if someone really, really, REALLY wants to be a tenured professor, there are so few of these jobs out there that the chances of finding one is ridiculously small.

– PhDs are trained for academia, not industry…so your skill set is shit if you “can’t” (or don’t want) an academic job.

– “PhD courses are so specialized that university careers offices struggle to assist graduates looking for jobs, and supervisors tend to have little interest in students who are leaving academia.”

“…the skills learned in the course of a PhD can be readily acquired through much shorter courses.”

“Writing lab reports, giving academic presentations and conducting six-month literature reviews can be surprisingly unhelpful in a world where technical knowledge has to be assimilated quickly and presented simply to a wide audience.”

“The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.” Universities love cheap labour. Graduate students and post-docs are cheap, will work long hours, and are disposable. “In Canada 80% of postdocs earn $38,600 or less per year before tax—the average salary of a construction worker.” (who, by the way, has not spent years and mucho $$ educating themselves for their job).

– “A PhD may offer no financial benefit over a master’s degree. It can even reduce earnings.” An interesting example explains how, 30 years ago, physicists were being hired in the financial sector because of their training in advanced calculus, but that is no longer competitive when MBA students can take one such course AND have the requisite business and financial training. Though, the article does note that a PhD in medicine, the sciences, and business can be beneficial over having a masters…by 3%.

As I stated above, a lot of students continue to the PhD because they don’t know what else to do, or are doing it because “they love it”. It’s even easier to press the ol’ snooze alarm on life when stipends are available (being paid to learn seems attractive, even though the going-rate is abysmal). ” But there are penalties, as well as benefits, to staying at university. Workers with “surplus schooling”—more education than a job requires—are likely to be less satisfied, less productive and more likely to say they are going to leave their jobs.”

Yes, the pursuit of knowledge is important for society, but “doing a PhD may still be a bad choice for an individual.” because “The interests of academics and universities on the one hand and PhD students on the other are not well aligned.”

Students enter graduate school with a naive and idealistic view that universities are dedicated to training the best and brightest, and actually care about the future of their graduate students.
Few realize that the system is fully designed to benefit others.

The article is definitely worth a read – it’s nice to hear a more realistic (albeit, fairly negative) viewpoint of the academic world, rather than the one we all hear when being wooed by professors who want more graduate students.

The Ultimate Goal

December’s Scientiae will be hosted by yours truly. I asked bloggers:

“What is your ultimate career goal? Do you want to win the Nobel Prize? Cure cancer? Build a better mouse trap? What is it that you want to be remembered for career-wise?”

This past summer, I attended (and help organize) a conference on science education at the post-secondary level. The banquet had Adam Bly, founder and CEO of SEED Media Group, as the guest speaker (if you ever get the chance to hear him speak, DO IT!). His entire talk was inspiring – it was almost like a religious experience for me. He makes his living being a big thinker and to get others to think big too. The part that hit me the most was when he challenged delegates to re-imagine their approach to science literacy:

“What if our goal was not the training of thousands of scientists, but rather the education of seven billion scientifically literate citizens?”

This summarizes my ultimate career goal to a “T”. When it comes right down to it, many outreach programs are all about recruitment. I get it – we want the “best and brightest” to study in our research area, to continue to grad school, and eventually become scientists or professors.

But, in my mind, this is not what’s important. Why should we focus on such a small number of people? For example, there are only about 300 professional astronomers in Canada of a population of 34.7 million. That’s 0.00086% of the population. That’s not what you’d call a large reach.

To me, science education and outreach is all about creating a scientifically literate society. All 34.7 million in Canada, and all 7 billion (and counting) in the world. I want everyone on this planet to be able to read a news story about “proof” against evolution or global warming and be critical. I want every patient to not take whatever their doctor says as the end-all-and-be-all advice for their health decisions. Hell, I want people to stop using “astrology” when they mean “astronomy”.

Is this goal too lofty for one person? Most definitely. Is it something I’m passionate enough to dedicate my (work) life too, to try and change the world one person at a time? Absolutely.

I’m not the type to have “causes”. I don’t get riled up about politics or religion. In fact, I’m one of those people who can see many sides to many issues, and generally accept the viewpoint of others. But, when it comes to the understanding of science – especially when public opinion matters more and more and when governments are making decisions on what science to fund and what to cut – the level of scientific literacy has to be raised in our world.

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