Friday, November 13, 2009

Happy Birthday to Me!

Today is my birthday. Happy birthday to me!

I left home at 17. My birthday always falls late in fall term. I have been an academic all of my adult life. I have been single the vast majority of my adult life. I only truly celebrate my birthday once in a blue moon. Sometimes I take myself out for dinner. Sometimes I indulge myself in some way that I rarely do on other days, but not in general.

My parents always send me a gift and a card. This year the gift was a wonderful cookbook… 200 curries? It looks fabulous.

In truth birthdays are only special for people with families that they live with I think.

I threw myself a good party on my 30th, and a good party on my 50th.

Sometimes people say, “What are your plans for your birthday?” or “Have a wonderful time on your birthday!”

In truth it is just another day.

I had a beer and a piece of cheesecake. Last Friday I had a better beer and a piece of cheesecake. I have been thinking about Sushi for weeks. I got paid today. I could go get sushi. If I take grading with me, I can perhaps get something done, and have something to do, while eating.

I was talking to Noelle this afternoon. She was musing on who takes care of the childless when they are old, as we have mutual friends who are childless couples. My answer: friends or strangers. If you have children it may well be friends or strangers too, but with feelings of guilt and abandonment added. In addition in a childless couple one may get taken care of by the other, and that other then has to shoulder that as well as often being alone afterwards. Then there was that study, reported in the New York Times, on how over 20% of married women who get brain cancer or MS are divorced by their husbands within a year of diagnosis. The reciprocal rate for men who were diagnosed and then divorced? 3%

There are distinct advantages to being single and unencumbered. If I were to develop a serious illness I will not need to worry about being abandoned on top of it.

Meanwhile, I am free to celebrate my birthday, or not, as I so choose.

I am going out with friends tomorrow, two of my fellow faculty (the gray haired ladies of the department) and their husbands. Tomorrow is one of my colleagues birthdays.

My only caveat to all of this is when people expect me to DO something for my birthday, and then express… sympathy? Or insist that I MUST do something If I don’t have plans. It rather makes me wish that I were the only one who knew when my birthday was (aside from my parents of course). It makes me feel like they think that I am deficient or sort of pathetic.

My colleague just called to tell me when and where we are meeting tomorrow. Her husband is a picky eater, so we have settled on a close but not very inspiring bar/pizza place before the play. My colleague sighed and said “you have an advantage being single”.

Yes, I get to do what I want, eat what I prefer, and celebrate or not depending on what I need to do.

Today is my birthday! Happy Birthday to me!

Sunday, October 11, 2009


I was reading an article in the NYT about the well over a million dollar cost of a pair of IVF twins with complications, and how this is not terribly uncommon with IVF babies. This often ends up as cost to our health care system that we all end up subsidizing directly or indirectly. Now I happen to like children, and when I was young I always assumed that I would have some. Such is not the case. If I had been married and unable to have kids I MIGHT have adopted, but then again maybe not. As a single woman, nurturing kittens and my garden sometimes seems like too much work. I cannot imagine the extra stresses of a child under these conditions, no matter what the joys. Several studies have indicated that people without children are happier than those with. On top of that, there are waaay too many humans on this planet.

So, in a curmudgeonly fit I wrote this comment in to the NYT:

"I am a childless woman, and not childless by choice, who truly does not understand why my fellow women think that having a child is so critically important. So I am going to be a curmudgeon here. We are not short of people, or even babies, in this world. I don't think that extraordinary ways to produce a child should ever be subsidized. The ability to reproduce links us with cockroaches not the things that make humans unique. If you cannot have a child with any biological ease and you MUST nurture something because you are hardwired or socially ingrained that way, adopt, get a puppy, or learn how to transcend your animal desire to have a child. Being childless is not the end of the world. There are plenty of people who CAN have a child who will do so and raise their kids well. They will do the job nicely for those of us that can't or simply don't due to life's vagaries.

If you can't feel self worth if you can't be a mother you need help."

I wonder how many incensed replies I will get.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The meaning of Life

I should not be writing this down now as I am writing exams, but Diana jogged my memory. So here it is.

I grew up largely ignorant of popular music. It was pretty much in college that I discovered the rock and roll standards. I bought Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, soaking it all up my freshman year. I borrowed a tape of a late Beatles collection from a friend and listened to it late at night and I dreamed....

......I dreamed that The Beatles, or some of them at least, played a concert. Perhaps John wasn’t there, was he already dead? After the concert, when the audience was gone, I went backstage, and there was George, waiting for me. He took me out a back way to a sunny terraced garden, full of flowers, and he looked hard at me and told me the things I would need to know in life, the ways and secrets. I suddenly realized I was dreaming and I was horrified. What he was telling me was so very profound and important! I would forget it as soon as I woke up! I scrabbled around for a something to write with and scribbled down the meaning of life and the secrets to living it well with a stub of a pencil on a fragment of paper. George patiently repeated and waited while I wrote. When we were done I clutched the paper tightly in my hand, and awoke fingers gripped in a tight fist around nothing.

The secrets were lost.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Critical Thinking

I have seen all 400 some students twice through so far... 370 some of them again tomorrow, then drive off to Edison New Jersey.

I'm tired.

I have some interested and interesting students. The campus is crowded. Enrollment is up. I have already had students in my office hours, and have already have a handful just walk in outside of my office hours. I have put up a sign asking students to please respect office hours, or to set up an appointment. If they continue to wander in randomly I'm going to be in trouble. How will I manage my lab, make sure my lectures are prepped, my homework assignments, quizzes, and tests written and graded if some percent of my 400+ students wander in to "just ask a question" randomly throughout the day? Something tells me that this is going to be a hard term.

I have been talking about science and the scientific method to all my freshmen (around 330) and assorted other people, students and not. I am tired right now, so this will probably be less than coherent. I may edit it later. I am one of those people who goes back and edits posts.

I was reading somewhere that we scientists are doing people a disservice by being too politically correct and not promoting evidence-based information and critical thinking for fear of offending people's belief systems.

The public is largely uninformed about the scientific method and how to sort the good (well-founded and researched) information from the bad (opinions without evidential support).

If you don't know the difference than all become equal and distinguished only by emotion and belief. Emotion and belief can be powerful forces for good, yes, but also for ill.

We used to have a good non-majors class at my Unversity that I helped design and teach. We abandoned it just this year due to lack of personel to teach it, organize it and financial support. It was a science course for non-majors and thousands of students took it every year. We would teach over 30 sectios of it every term. In any case in the part I designed I had a section on science vs pseudoscience.

Science is based on trying to understand and explain natural phenomena. Pseudoscience is anything that tries to pass itself off as science but does not meet all the criteria that science meets.

A scientific statement is testable. It always has the possibility of being wrong. To be accepted by the majority of scientists it needs to be repeatedly tested. It should be tested in many ways with as many alternative explanations as possible accounted for. Many scientific tests involve controls. Control groups are the same as the tested group with the exception of the variable tested. In medicine, double-blind testing is typically employed so that neither the patient nor the scientist making observation has any idea whther the patient is in the test (placebo) group or control. There have been some very interesting studies of dramatic effects caused by things other than what you think you are testing. Red pills may work better than blue pills, pills that are thought to be expensive work better than pills that are thought to be cheap. Pills work better than no pills. All of this involving pills with no active ingredients.

So, how do you tell good science from pseudoscience?

Real Science:
Has logical explanations that are based on what we know about the real world.
Is testable, and can be shown to be wrong or can be supported.
Has been tested, using substantial different trials, and well controlled studies, which possibilities of bias removed as much as is possible.
Rarely makes large claims (for example, a good new cholesterol drug may lower cholesterol 10%)
Is verifiable through studies published in good scientific peer reviewed journals.
If it is about something ingested, it has been approved by the FDA.
It is easy to look up the scientists and research institutions that have studied it.

Does not admit to the possibility of being wrong.
Relies on testimonials instead of scientific studies.
Is not easy to find data about (numbers, study results).
Makes wild claims (Always works! 100%, miraclulous!)
Appeals to emotion, not reason
Does not have approval from FDA or other independent testing agency.
Often claims “leading scientists” or “Space age technology” or “ancient Chinese wisdom” or some such, but sources are not identifiable or clear.
Often wants money up front.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Fall term 2009

Tomorrow the new term starts. This term I have over 400 students in 4 lecture classes. My University has recently been reclassified as an Urban Research University, and we are under pressure to do more research and publish more. I have 3 undergrad researchers and 2 or three grad students in my lab, and my Dean did not even know that I have a research program. I have the heaviest teaching load in my department, I think it is even more than the full time temp we have who only teaches. The PTBs in my department have little or no respect for me in spite of the fact that I have probably the best research training in my department. Indeed my research goes very, very slowly. It is hard to keep the lab and it’s members functional when I am tied up in classes like I am.

Nonetheless, I am looking forward to the start of the term. Our enrollment is substantially up, we have students who have transferred in from excellent private schools all over the country. State schools are benefiting from this economic downturn on the student front. The State is cutting our funds of course. Oh well. No silver lining lacks a cloud.

I hope that this year my students will want to learn. Maybe this year the majority will study. Perhaps this year they won’t be angry that I cannot somehow inject them with the information and problem solving skills that they seem to expect simply from paying tuition.

I look forward to the bright, motivated students that I will meet this year!

Friday, May 15, 2009

We Are Not Short of Robins

Yesterday I finished writing my syllabus for my summer Genetics class and I was heading off across campus to the copy place to get my syllabus copied. As I headed across our pretty park-like campus with it’s winding paths, rolling hills, grass, flowers, and trees I saw a large handsome crow sitting on a tree looking intent and intense. I wished I had my camera on me for his sleek and wicked look contrasting to the lovely spring day. Suddenly he swooped forward towards a set of low bushes with a small tree growing up from them, lunged in and flew off with a nest in his talons. A crowd of robins and sparrows chased him as he flew away.

"You evil thing!" I exclaimed and chased after him myself. He flew up to a lower branch in a taller tree and started to peck through what he had grabbed. When I got under the tree, waving my arms at him, he flew off again and something solid fell from his grip, down into the pachysandra.

I went over to the ground cover in the area where the object had fallen, imagining something horrible. I looked and looked and looked, and finally, there was a baby bird, a half-grown robin, already fledging, with rust orange feathers on his belly.

I headed back to the bio office with the syllabus and copy order form clutched under an arm and the little robin cradled in my hands. He was solid, chubby, very warm, and looking at me with a worried brown eye. He had a little spot of blood on the back of his skull and perhaps a scrape near a wing, small looking wounds. I talked to several people and the suggestion was to see if there was any nest left to put him back in, or to raise him myself. I raised a robin once as a child. It was a long processed, he fledged, I taught him to fly, and then he ate a slug pellet, sickened, and died. I did not want to hand raise another. I went back to the area and saw a female Robin in the little tree looking at me worriedly. I looked and looked and finally found a nest. It is an old, deep, and well built nest. I imagine that the crow had only taken the top layer. I put the baby back in it, then went on to get my syllabus copied.

On the way back I worried. What about the damage from the crow's talons or beak? Would the little bird get infected and die? So, I went back to the office and got a little packet of triple antibiotic ointment, went back out to the nest. I saw that at least one of the parents had been in the nest judging by a fresh adult dropping on the outside of the nest, took out the baby and put some ointment on his head wound. and placed him back in his nest. His mother chirped at me in concern from a nearby branch.

Today I went to the nest camera in hand to see if I could get a picture of the little guy. As I approached the tree my heart fell, no parent flew out of the nest, no parent sat on a higher branch to glare at me. The little nest was empty. Crows are smart, and they are nest predators. He probably came back around and snatched the chubby baby in the evening after I left.

I am sad about it. I felt like I had done a small creature a good deed. It has been a bad couple of weeks in cat-land, a good friend is facing a truly difficult time. Another has been setting tests for our relationship that confuse and sadden me. The baby robin was a small pleasure yesterday.

Crows aren’t evil. This is how they live. The world is not short of robins. The world is a tough place for most creatures. We humans in Industrialized countries forget that. Just 200 years ago most children did not live to adulthood, most adults did not live long lives.

How lucky we are. How obsessed with trivialities we can be.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Problems in Education.

I teach science (Genetics) at an open admission public University. I have watched my incoming students steadily decline in their ability to handle basic math and logic. As a geneticist, I can assume that their genes aren’t changing from year to year. Yes genes influence intelligence, but so does environment. On top of that, intelligence by itself is not a fabulous predictor for success.

At my University the big exception to the trend of decreasing interest and decreasing skills is foreign-born students. We have sizable communities of South Asian, Central European, and Middle Eastern students. We have very few East Asian or Hispanic students. It doesn’t matter if these foreign-born students spent their entire school career in the U.S. or not, they have learned to value education from their parents. They treat me and other professors with respect, they do their homework. Some American-born students do too, but there is a pronounced difference in the groups as a whole.

Think about it, there are advertisements that make fun of science and learning. Smart kids are stereotyped as socially backwards nerds. The popular “Rate My Professor” website gives points for “easiness”. We do not value knowledge or intelligence.

I try to make my students work hard, solve problems, and comprehend the material. The end result is hopefully some better mastery of the subject, but my student evaluations are full of hatred for my expectations and for making the students work. My good students hang out in my office and lab, asking questions, discussing genetics and biotechnology, trying to convince me to let them work in my laboratory. They always express puzzlement about the terrible things they have heard about me from their peers.

In truth, the terrible thing is that I want my students to learn and understand. I want them to think.

Until we, as a society, start putting a high value on academic achievement we are going to continue to slide compared to the rest of the world. We don’t value education. We pay teachers poorly and make them work very hard. It is no surprise that students who struggle with their classes often drift into education, and that brilliant education majors often do not stay education majors. Education is considered low-end work. It does not command respect.

What do we value? Money, fame, and sexiness. That won’t serve us too well as a nation in the long run.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The 'Destruction" of Wealth

OK, economics is not my thing. I am pretty good at seeing the big picture, the concrete, the forest that all the tree are in, whatever, but economics largely escapes me.

NPR was talking about the "great destruction of wealth" that is going on.

I don't understand the concrete reality of this. Wealth usually has to do with money, yes? So you have money or you don't. If you have money and put it in the bank, the bank presumably will give it back to you when you withdraw it. If you have money and you put it under your mattress it will stay there, but also serve no useful purpose in the meantime. If you put your money under your mattress, smoke in bed, catch your mattress on fire and burn up your money, you have destroyed it.

Now, if you put your money on a bet on a horse, you no longer have that money, you spent it. It is not destroyed, it has been spent. If you were clever and lucky, the horse wins and the track awards you money based on how much total money was bet on the horse out of the total money spent on that race, and taking their profit margin into account. Overall, all the people betting on that race put more money in than they get back with winnings, and the best horses win some money, and the track makes a profit off the bets, the horses entered, and the people who paid admission to watch as well as what they ate and drank. All together no wealth was destroyed, though it got moved around.

Now if you are a bank you have people pay money into a variety of banking services, the bank in turn pays money out in various ways that they hope to make money on. In recent years the banks foolishly sent money out to people who were buying houses that they couldn't really afford, and spent money on other things that were essentially bets. The banks were not clever or lucky and they lost a lot of bets. the money is not GONE it just got moved around.

Similarly, people bought houses by taking out loans and then bet on the idea that their houses were increasing in "value" and took out more loans etc.

Turns out that the housing market was overinflated. Real Americans just can't afford to pay that much for houses, so the bets were not good ones. Any perceived wealth that these people thought they had was just not there. Nothing was destroyed. The houses still exist. Unfortunately for the mortgage holders, they can't make their payments, the loans default and all the money that they HAD paid to the bank stays with the bank and the people are tossed out of the house. So the people spent a chunk of money and only got the time they lived in the house from it, kind of like paying rent. The bank got some but not all the money they loaned back, only the original seller should be still happy. nonetheless, the money used was not destroyed, rather it is all in the hands of the bank and the original seller.

I would chalk it all up to foolish betting. Investors were imagining big wins that they just didn't get.

Unfortunately, that left these bank's money spread in places where they couldn't get it back, so they are short on cash and won't lend money easily and we are way to used to doing too much on credit so the whole economy skids. But, no wealth was DESTROYED.

So, what am I missing?

Educate or leave it be?

I am an educator. I also have a standard academic/intellectual approach to things. I am happy to debate, I like to find out what the truth is, I take a bit of odd egotistical pride in admitting I am wrong when I am.

Now, what if someone else is wrong, or says I am wrong when I'm not? My native tendency is to correct them, and supply direct evidence showing what I am saying is true (or as true as we poor human creatures normally get to).

Now add on another hitch suppose the misinformation that the other person has is common misinformation? I run into this problem frequently, as there is a lot of common misinformation out there.

And finally what if the misinformation is propaganda? This is where I get the most conflicted. 1) Wow is that WRONG and it is used to support what I think of as bad ideology on top of that! 2) If I give this person the information that will show the errors they will think it is an attack on their ideology, which in truth it will be and they may take it very personally. 3) They may be so successfully propaganda brainwashed that they will assume that I am the one who is, and disregard all evidence to the contrary.

But still, there I go, bringing out information, showing data, all with a sinking heart.

Tonight I was doing it about stem cells. I was so pleased to see the removal of Bush's strict limits on human embryonic stem cell research. There has been so much promising work done with mouse ES cells that it is a real shame that similar work has lagged so with human ES cells. Obama's removal of Presidential limits will not open the field wide of course, congress and States need to deal with it now. But, I was pleased and Obama's statements about separating science from ideology were nice to hear.

Of course I found myself accused of being blatantly political in my approach to science. I was told that "All of the promising research is in adult or umbilical cord stem cells. This is nakedly political." In truth the person doesn't think that the federal government should support ANY scientific research, or education for that matter. The free market should handle everything. Personally I would not want to live in that entirely free market world. I think the government provides societal roles that the free market really can't, but that is besides the point.

There is some very exciting embryonic stem cell work being done. Most of it is done with Mouse ES cells, and a good chunk of it not in the U.S. So, I supplied lists of articles and titles and authors for a handful of cool new ES studies published in the last few months. Most of them were done with mouse cells, most of them were not dne in this country. A couple of them checked non-embryonic stem cells to see how they might work. Answer? Not so well.

I completely expect to be lambasted for this, or to be met with hurt. Oh well. It seems that I can't not do it. I want to set the facts straight.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Truth, and Falsehoods, are Out There

“Why” Noelle said to me on the phone ”do people get angry when you tell them the truth?”

My immediate thought were of people asking for an opinion on how they looked, or the taste of a newly tried recipe, or a student asking “is this ok?” about some idea for a paper. That was not what it was about.

Noelle’s son is in a parochial school. It was a little before Christmas. His teacher had told his class a story about the meaning of candy canes. The teacher said that the hook shape is the letter J for Jesus, that the red stripes were for the blood of Christ shed on the cross. She had a Christian meaning for everything. (you can find this kind of interpretation with minimal Google searching on the internet). Even the pepperment flavor has been linked to a biblical herb.

Noelle had thought that this sounded bogus, so she looked up the origins of candy canes. All even semi-scholarly accounts had them starting as simple sugar sticks as a treat for kids that were initially bent (according to legend) in shepherd’s crook shape by a Choirmaster at a cathedral who would give them to the children there in the 17th century. They hung nicely on Christmas trees and caught on. People made them at home, simple white bent sugar sticks hanging on Christmas trees. Some played with flavors and colorings.

The “traditional” flavor and striping are 20th century additions. The red stripes were pretty on the trees, the peppermint flavor cheap and popular, and were incorporated by commercial manufacturers. They sold well.

Noelle told this to her son, and then, out of curiosity asked her husband what he knew about candy canes. Even though he is an atheist, he repeated the blood of Christ story, which he had heard when he was young. When Noelle told him that that was modern myth-making, he was angry.

So, the phone call: I said that I found the attached meaning to be pretty harmless. If it had been my kid, I would probably have looked it, found it not to be true, and told the kid that that wasn’t the origin, but that adding the meaning to the modern red striped canes helps remind us of the origins of Christmas. If I had been the Catholic school teacher (and more religious than I currently am) I would have said that the red stripes can remind us of the blood of Christ who died on a cross for our sins, and if you turn the cane upside down it is a J, and if we do that, even this simple candy treat can take on Christmas meaning for us.

Noelle was not impressed.

Since then I have been thinking about this often. More and more I am seeing in it an underlying flaw in human nature. People tend to make up or hear stories that they like. They invest in them emotionally. They go through all kinds of avoidance and denial of any facts that might show the story to be false. On occasion this can be helpful, or harmless, but more often it is counterproductive or even harmful.

People take hypotheses or even cobbled together bits of poorly sorted observations and treat them as if they were true facts and explanations, not unsupported ideas. Then they willfully adhere to them in the face of contradictory information, or simple refuse to look and see if they might be false.

Our student newspaper had a headline “Parents say MMR vaccine linked to autism” when the article was about a court decision to not allow people with autistic kids to get monetary compensation from a vaccine-related damages fund. The article went on to correctly report that huge studies have found no link between autism and vaccines and that author of a founding study that led to the idea of the connection had been found to have manipulated and falsified records to support his hypothesis. Yet, the headline implied the well-refuted hypothesis.

For ten years individuals advocacy groups have been raising money wasting time and energy on a incorrect hypothesis. There is no problem with that initially, as hypotheses need to be tested, but once it is clear that they are wrong, work on others! Years of time and money that could REALLY have made a difference wasted. Children were put at risk, and some died due to fears about vaccinations.

Interestingly, the student newspaper also reported a story about Beer Pong and infectious diseases such as herpes, supposedly reported by the CDC. Um, no. That study has not in fact been done. Once one newspaper reported it, large numbers of others picked it up. It was an the kind of story the student newspaper wanted. The editor published a well thought out apology for jumping on the bandwagon without checking the facts.

Needless deaths, our history is full of them, and often they are due to willfull belief in falsehoods. What about the Bush administration’s belief, or if one is more cynical, the Bush administration’s success at getting many Americans to unquestionably believe, that there were WMDs in Iraq. How many lives did that cost? How many trillions of dollars? If only people had paid attention to the quality of the evidence. Certainly, one can argue that Saddam unchecked would have cost many many lives as well, and that would be true, but that was not the argument that took us to Iraq. I suspect that there would have been MANY better possible solutions that what happened, many that would have not cost so very much in money and destruction and lives.

I talked to a bunch of people in Colorado in 2004 who had allowed themselves to be convinced that Saddam had orchestrated the bombing of the World Trade Center. When I tried to say no, all the evidence points elsewhere, I was accused of having been brainwashed by the "liberal media". I wonder if there are still people who believe that. Alternatively, a couple of Middle-eastern students on campus told me that it was an Israeli plot and that all of the Jews had been warned in advance and so didn't go to work in the towers that day. All the information about Jewish people who died in the towers was ignored, or said to be misleading lies. Craziness.

What about the long denial by smokers that smoking was harmful? What about the conspiracy theories that perpetuate hatred?

Why do people want to believe things that aren’t true? These days it is so easy to go online and sift through information from a variety of sources and often quickly determine what is likely to be valid, and want is just rant, and opinion, and uncontrolled observation. Why is that so hard to do?

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

A Narcissistic Post

My last entry was number 100. I suppose that I should have paid attention and maybe done this there.

Sometimes I wonder how many people are out there who are like me. Only two or three people look at my blog so it is hardly the place to find out. Nonetheless,it makes me think about what I think are my defining characteristics. Katie occasionally puts up a list of assorted things about herself. Is it useful? Is it an exercise in narcissism? I don’t know. It is why people design and repeat memes. So, with those useless ruminations I am going to embark on a list of what I think are defining characteristics about me, numbered but in no particular order:

1. I’m smart. My IQ was measured at about 160 when I was a child. I assume that it hasn’t changed. Though one never knows.

2. I’m dyslexic. I attribute to that my poor spelling, inability to tell left from right, inability to memorize, and poor organizational skills.

3. I’m creative. I’m a creative cook, have an arty side, like to doodle and draw and create things from beads, clay, whatever. Unfortunately I have little time for that.

4. I’m devoted to and like my job, and it was what I wanted to do since childhood, a Genetics Professor and researcher and a teaching oriented University. I like science in general, biology more specifically. I view the whole world through my scientist eyes.

5. Unfortunately I am a procrastinator and a slow grader.

6. I’m unusually strong. I do not need to work out to keep my unusual muscles, though I like to work out.

7. I’m fat. I have fought with my weight since puberty. Before puberty I was scrawny.

8. I love music, a lot of music, though I tend to dislike pop and country and the classical impressionists like Ravel. I like Beethoven, Bach, Poulanc, Shostakovich, Dvorak, Schubert, Beatles, Led Zeppelen, Stones, REM, Radiohead, the Talking Heads, the Ramones, Reggae, blues, jazz, some rap and reggaeton…. you get the idea. I like my music darker and harder, less sweet and fluffy.

9. I like fantasy and science fiction in book and film.

10. I am interested in politics.

11. I like my steaks very very rare.

12. I am handy with tools and equipment.

13. I have never been in a lasting romantic relationship. In fact, my longest relationship was almost 30 years ago and it lasted 3 months. I find the opposite sex quite attractive in general, and I liked sex in the distant past when I actually had some, but I guess trying to find someone is way low on my priority list.

14. I painted my office a deep winy purple. I like it.

15. I think greed is one of the greatest evils of our age.

16. I like to garden.

17. I’m pretty lazy at times.

18. I dislike heat.

19. I don’t wear pastel colors.

20. I think valuing things based on the label and the price is very silly. As a result I really don’t pay attention to labels. I see women exclaiming over a purse or shoes. I look, they rarely look practical or aesthetically pleasing, so I don’t understand the fuss. Turns out, they are expensive, have a name attached that informs people of their expensiveness. Those people who judge by shoes and clothes… well, they won’t think highly of me.

21. And yet. I am picky about clothes, shoes etc. I have to LIKE them, they need to please me in cut and color and comfort. They gain desirability to me if they are inexpensive as well.

22. I really, really wish I were a better housekeeper.

23. I have too many cats. Anybody want one?

24. I have a healthy ego.

25. I have no phobias.

26. I rarely get sick.

27. I dislike the vast majority of junk food and fast food.

28. I have little interest in sports. Curling kind of fascinated me a couple of Winter Olympics ago though.

29. I think snow is beautiful.

30. I like having four seasons.

31. I was born in California but have something of a distaste for the state now.

32. I think that more people, ideally almost all people, should be able to think critically and have the ability to tell what is substantiated from what isn’t.

33. I am not good with handling money. Some of that may come from the fact that I don’t truly care if I have money or not. I have survived on very little (10K a year living in Manhattan) and it’s quite doable, and not terribly oppressive. 5 years ago I lived in Cambridge England for 5 months on almost nothing. I rented a room in a house by the week. I rode an old bike to get around. I had possessions to fill two suitcases. I was very happy.

34. I am not frightened by the future.

35. I will take off by myself on 9 hour drives, or travel overseas without concern.

36. I like to drive.

37. I can drive through the entire night without a problem.

38. I have some trouble driving entirely through the day, particularly if it is sunny and warm, I get sleepy.

39. As I have little interest in sports, never had kids or a long term relationship I can be very uncomfortable in social situations with adults my age. Everyone talks a lot about sports, their kids, and spouses. I find it difficult to project the appearance of interest and involvement in these conversations.

40. I like to wear black.

41. I like rich spicy scents, sandalwood, patchouli, roses, peonies, nicotiana, cinnamon, wood fires.

42. I seem to be able to get older babies and toddlers to stop crying by catching their eyes and holding hard to their gaze. Stare hard, they shut up. I don’t know why.

43. Generally I don’t like gold or diamonds, except for ornamentation as in gold leaf, and giant diamonds in museums. Huge diamonds hold the light in an interesting way, mesmerizing.

44. I am almost always wide awake at midnight.

45. I like red wine. I know a glass a day is probably good for you, but I often am busy or forget. Once in a while I will have two or three glasses. That is not probably what the studies showed benefits from.

46. I wish I could figure out a way to easily stop doing one thing and start another. I tend to do whatever I’m doing for long periods of time. Other things don’t happen.

47. I think about everything.

48. I love to debate or take a contrary stance just to think about all sides of something. My family as a whole does that all the time. There is no emotional weight attached to it.

49. I am not a very emotional person, I am rarely sad, anxious, blissful, giddy, angry, furious, or depressed.

50. I like to dance, even all by myself.

Fifty is good.

Monday, March 02, 2009

So, you want to be a Doctor?

Some days I just don’t understand people.

I find myself asking good friends odd, rather basic questions, to see if the way I approach and think about things is way outside the norm. The answer is often yes. Often enough, the norm is simply incomprehensible to me.

I recently was interviewing prospective students for a very advanced, accelerated program that ideally takes kids who just graduated from high school and pops them out as newly minted MDs in 6 years. I teach Genetics, which is required for the program.

(Yes, yes, I know many people say “graduate high school” but as no student I know finishes their education by measuring and marking the institution that was conferring a degree upon them.)

In any case, these were high school kids who have been very successful students, with high GPAs, high test scores, and great recommendations. They claim that they want to be doctors. They claim to ready to dive into year-round classes with high workloads and potentially go 200,000 in debt over 10 years (you have to add on internship and residency in the timeline) to end up licensed to practice medicine. Even in the accelerated program this is a long time and a lot of money. No one should go into it unless this is what they really, really want. I know several people who left the program, already in debt, either realizing that medical school or being a practicing physician was not for them. I have interacted with even more who I would never want to be my doctor because they have little interest in the well-being of people, and even less in truly finding out how to be a good doctor. There are many outstanding students, of course, who will end up fine physicians, but not as high of a percentage as I would like.

Our Medical School’s goal, which is stated frequently, is to produce general practitioners, ideally for rural and urban under-served areas.

I was tired of the same old questions and the typical pat answers.

"Why do you want to be a doctor?"
"Because my (mom, favorite uncle, best friend's dad, or beloved grandparent) got sick (and maybe died) when I was (5, 7, 11, 14). I spent lots of time in the hospital and saw that doctors really help people so I want to be one"
or "My father is my role-model and he is a doctor and I want to be just like him"

"What would you do if your best friend in college was cheating?"
"I would tell her that she shouldn't, it's wrong, and turn her in"

"What are your strengths and weaknesses?"
"I'm caring and smart but I can be impatient, or I need more confidence, or I can be too serious"

"Why did you apply to this accelerated progeram?"
"Because I really want to get done and be a doctor and help people as soon as possible" or "Because this is the main way to get into you wonderful high -ranking med school!" (which is bull, we do not rank high)

So, what did I do? I made the mistake of thinking about how I was as a high school student. I wanted to end up a professor of Genetics before I even entered high school. There was no life-changing event, or great teacher, or geneticist parent to inspire me to do this. Rather, I read a lot, I read the newspaper, the information that I ran across about genetics fascinated me. I looked up more things. I read “The Double Helix” by James Watson when I was a Sophomore in high school if I remember right.. I followed news on the topic, I looked up all kinds of things in the library. I knew how political candidates stood on issues of Biology, and the Environment, and Education, and yes, even health care.

I never had a great Biology class. In fact I think I had ONE biology class total in Jr. High and high school combined. It was experimental. It didn’t work well. It didn’t matter. My heart was already in it. I also played in orchestras, drew and painted, swam on a swim team,and had fun writing in AP English, but Biology degrees and Genetics was where I was going.

So I asked these candidates questions to determine whether they were devoted to their area or not, such as:

1. What do you think of the various health care plans that the Presidential Candidates presented before the last election?

2. What problems face health care in the U.S. now?

3. Do you know what the rough rank U.S. health care holds in terms of cost and infant mortality among developed countries?

4. Why do you think the U.S. has the most expensive per capita health care and yet the highest infant mortality rate amongst “advanced” countries? (this one added when clearly no student had a clue about the last one)

5. What do you think general practitioners could do to help the health care status of individuals in their communities?

1. “I don’t follow politics”
2. “Ummmmm”
3. “I don’t know… we are pretty good, right?”
4. “Ummmmm”. Finally, after being pressed two of the batch that we interviewed (two interviewers and one student at a time) said “Welll, I guess Americans eat too much junk food, and some people really don’t take care of themselves.”
5. “Ummmmm.” One finally said “Maybe doctors could spend more time with their patients.

After this debacle we started asking whether everyone in the U.S. had good access to health care. The answer “Yes!” and then on seeing our faces said, “Well I guess some people might live a long way from hospitals”

Of the eight, six had fathers who were doctors. How can they know NOTHING about issues in area in which they want to work?

I also asked questions about medical news to no avail.


What are we doing? What are THEY doing?

I asked several people if I was being unreasonable. Some said that high school kids don't read newspapers and should not really be expected to know much about the area in which they plan to eventually work.

But I did!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Another Meme

I found this one here, and had a hard time finishing what I needed to do earlier today and not procrastinating to do this first.

Summer or winter? Winter
Hugs or kisses? Hugs
Favourite desserts? Mmmmm Deep dark chocolate Mousse, hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce, creme brulee but only in Paris. The secret recipe Cheesecake...
I’m most likely to... stay up late
I’m least likely sit-coms
What book are you reading now? “Storm Front” by Jim Butcher
What is on your mouse pad? I have a track pad, it is the same color white as the iBook it is in.
What did you watch on television last night? X-files
Favourite sounds? Wind-chimes, rain, nightingale
Least favourite sounds? Babies crying, cat fights, car alarms
Rolling Stones or The Beatles? I have very high regard for the Beatles, but, The Rolling Stones!
What is the furtherest you’ve been from home? Latvia, or maybe Rome, which is farther?
Do you have a special talent? I am told “procrastination, and inducing it in others” by one and “finding male kitten testicles” by another, in truth, I think Turning Out Streetlights, a talent that I had though left me a couple of years ago, but which seems to be back with a vengeance.
Where were you born? Northern California
Who do you miss the most? Real Mountains, Thai food, fresh fish
What colour shoes are you wearing? I am barefoot
What was the last thing you ate? Singapore My Fun
What are you listening to right now? Law and Order on the TV, sorry to say. Not a common thing.
Favourite smells? Sandalwood, Nag Champa, Patchouli, sautéing mushrooms, wood fire in the fireplace, fresh baking bread, garlic in almost anything
Who was the last person you spoke to on the phone? Noelle
Hair colour? dark brown with silver wings
Eye colour? green gray blue
Do you wear contacts? no
Favourite food? Sesame noodles, rare grilled steak, Caesar salad as I make it, Green curry, fatty tuna sashimi, Uni, Salmon raw, cooked... whatever. Lobster, Dungeness crab fresh caught then cooked fast....
Scary movies or happy endings? Scary
Last movie you watched? Blade Runner Final Cut
What colour shirt are you wearing? turquoise
Were you named after anyone? no
When was the last time you cried? Today, reading a story about a cancer patient’s thoughtful and orderly suicide.
What is your favourite lunch meat? Good roast beef, hard to find, my own roast turkey, from the store... maple ham
If you were another person would you be friends with you? probably
Do you use sarcasm a lot? no
Do you still have your tonsils? no
Would you bungee jump? yes
What is your favourite cereal? Lucky Charms
Do you untie your shoes when you take them off? No
Do you think you are strong? YES
What is your favourite ice cream? Dve Caramel Toffee Moment, and Breyer's Mint Chocolate Chip (not together)
What is the first thing you notice about people? Their eyes, their appearance of fitness
Red or pink? Red
What is the least favourite thing about yourself? Fatness, disorganization

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Inauguration

It is a beautiful, cold and snowy day here in Ohio. I stayed late at home to watch the inauguration.

High points for me:

Aretha Franklin singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” I was wiping my eyes.

A quartet consisting of Itzhak Perlman on violin, Yo Yo Ma on cello, Garbriela Montero on piano and Anthony McGill on clarinet playing a piece by John Williams that refered to other American classical music, most notably Aaron Copeland. How wonderful to bring classical music back into a spotlight.

Poet Elizabeth Alexander on being asked about why Obama chose to have a poem for the ceremony “He has said the precise and distilled and mindful language of poetry is perhaps something that can create a moment of meditation for us”. Again, we have evidence of the restoration of thought, scholarship, and the arts to our leadership.

Her poem:

Praise song for the day.

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."

We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, "I need to see what's on the other side; I know there's something better down the road."

We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.”

Exerpts from Obama’s address that particularly impressed me:

“We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

“For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.”

“Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.”

“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”




I hope that we turn from sloth, selfishness, greed, and thoughtlessness to a future in which we move forward, improving the world and ourselves together.

Achievement, Responsibility, Compassion, Sustainability, Freedom, Peace

“In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.”

Today is a good day.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

New Year's Musings 2009

I could have been a pretty good scientist. I am smart enough, and I have a good concept of scientific method and experimental design. I can work very hard when the occasion arises, I have done 36 hour experiments with pleasure. I love finding out new things. My teaching load and lack of resources makes being an outstanding scientist nearly impossible.

I can be a very good teacher. When I have motivated students, I am good at advising and presenting material in new ways. Those students that I have interacted with who have gone on to become very good scientists in their own rights I am very proud of. That means you, Diana, and Anna, and Rob, amongst others, though only one of you may ever read this. You have done well, you are smart, you will contribute to the body of human knowledge. I wish I reached more students with potential.

I might have been a good mother, that possibility is gone by the wayside naturally, and I am not inclined to ever adopt. I appear to be missing some essential social skills or attributes or opportunities to have achieved that. I like men. The feeling does not seem to be mutual.

I might have been a good lover/wife/companion to someone. I seriously doubt that I ever will be. I have rarely even dated in my life. I have had what, a half a dozen sex partners? Only one did I love, and all of that is in the very distant past. I have had the pleasure of any number of love interests, but only one or two reciprocated in any way, and those were not truly possible.

I could look great (for my age). I have good bones, decent genes and I really like to work out. I have often thought that one could spend much of one’s life at the gym, perfecting the body, leaving to read or party. Unfortunately, I really like to eat. I’m a good cook. I am terribly subject to continuing doing whatever I’m doing. I can sleep and eat and read books for days and days. I can work out and watch my diet too, but I have to get started. My schedule for the last year has interfered withy my normal gym habits. My schedule this term is finally light. Yay! Maybe I can get back into good habits.

I could have been an artist perhaps, or even a poet, but my heart is truly in science, and you know, you can make a living with science.

I am an overworked professor. Most of my students hate me, I neglect my grad students. I WANT to teach well, I WANT to be a perfect mentor. Unfortunately I have trouble with prioritizing, am a slow grader, and have a workload unimaginable to my scientific colleagues. And, you know, I am just not a type A person. I am not terribly competitive, I like my personal time, I am watching Star Wars and drinking a light margarita as I write this. I have a lap full of cats. I should be cleaning, or working on revising lectures for the classes that start in 2 days. But there is lovely snow out, Star Wars is on, the cats are warm, and I am comfortable.

I am tenured, my job is secure. My cats love me. I reach the occasional student. Already I have perhaps effected more people in a positive may than the vast majority of people ever do. Hopefully I have not discouraged more people who would otherwise not have been discouraged and who had potential. I like teaching, particularly early in the term when I still believe that ALL the students can succeed and do well. Being single, my life is my own, I can pretty much do what I want.

I really have a good life.

I am not one who makes New Year’s resolutions, but, with the light schedual I have finagled this term, I hope to do more research, get back into shape, and work more with my research students.

Here’s to the New Year! (and we have a President I have hopes for, and lovely lovely snow)

All is well.

All will be well.