So I mentioned that I’m going to start graduate school again. Well, I’m here! I’ve moved to Singapore for at least my first year to attend National University of Singapore (NUS) for a joint PhD program with Imperial College London. That means, I’ll be in London at some point, hopefully at the beginning of 2014.
The lab at NUS that I’ll be a part of is the Ecological Modeling and Economics lab, and at Imperial College London I’ll be at the Centre for Environmental Policy. For my research, I’m hoping to do some work on disease ecology and economics of trade that impact infectious disease emergence.
For my first semester here, I’m going to take a few courses on doing statistics in R, a graduate seminar in the Biological Sciences department, possibly a course at the School of Public Health on the control of communicable diseases. I’m also going to focus on a few courses on Coursera:
The problem with Coursera is that too many of the courses that I’m interested in start all around the same time. It is hard enough to keep up with one course while working or studying full-time, so I’m not sure how if I’m going to succeed or if I’m going to have to give up a course or two and prioritize. I guess this might be because the professors who are doing these courses all go along similar academic calendars and this just seems to work for them this way.
Anyway, I will start posting more regularly again, especially as I start to ramp up reading of journal articles and taking the Coursera classes.
Richard Feynman has a quirky voice, adeptly captured by this book. I hope that someday I’ll have a quarter as many good stories as he seems to have. One thing that I truly admire about him is that he is completely open and is always up for a new experience or adventure. My favorite is the one where he wants to volunteer when they tell the student body that a hypnotist will be coming to the university. There are quite a few that are really funny, but this one cracks me up when I imagine it happening.
His approach to life is something that I aspire to. Although I’m not very physics-minded, it was cool to read about the work he’s done and get a glimpse into how his mind works. He always thought of things in practical terms, and especially when thinking about physics problems he would ask for a real life example to work through in his head. He is one of those people who just needs to know how things work, how they actually work. What about the things he has done for the military? He does talk about his time at Los Alamos, but mostly doesn’t go into the details of the physics or the gravity of what the work was.
One of the major concepts I like from him is that of cargo cult science and waiting for something to come that will never land. He explains it by going back to when tribes on desolate islands would be visited by cargo planes full of supplies and things they needed. The people would then become taken by the idea that some cargo plane will again come and give them what they need. So they wait around, build landing strips, for a plane that is not coming.
Deciding not to decide anymore
There is a part of the book that talks about when he was trying to decide between staying at Cornell or going to Caltech. The snow in Ithaca made him want to go to Caltech, and then there were some air pollution issues that made him think about going back to Cornell. Then he was stopped by some colleagues on campus who told him about their newest discoveries. He realized he wanted that type of environment where he could walk around and hear about all the different cool discoveries in other fields, and he decided would just stop deciding and stay at Caltech.
Reading this was great because I’m currently feeling a bit sheepish for going back on my plan to not do a PhD program. I’m deciding not to decide anymore about whether I want to do a PhD or not. It isn’t the years of hard work that I’m wary of, because anything I do I would want to work hard at it. It is the academic situation that I’m wary of (and lack of jobs on the traditional path following PhDs, but maybe I’m just not on a traditional path anymore anyway). What I will do is follow paths that feel right to me, and that lead to more interesting things. So, PhD programs in USA don’t feel right to me, at least not now. But, this other new opportunity does feel right to me. I would get to do interesting work, learn new skills, and do some living and traveling abroad. And no need to feel any anxiety, I don’t have to feel like I’m signing myself up for a life in academia, because only those who really want them get academic jobs and there are options outside of academia. I’m putting to rest these thoughts and just going to focus on what lies ahead.
In any case, Feynman definitely has had an interesting life and has inspired me to go out and do the things that I’ve been thinking about doing (like living abroad, and throwing myself into learning new skills)! I’ll go where curiosity takes me, and if this PhD position makes that possible, then so be it!
Stuart Firestein was the guest speaker at this month’s Secret Science Club. His area of research is neuroscience and the olfactory system, but at this talk he discussed his ideas on ignorance and how it is important for driving scientific research.
Ignorance, according to Firestein, is what drives science because discoveries do not happen as a result of sequential studies and reasoning. It is more like searching in a dark room for a black cat (his example), although sometimes there won’t be a black cat at all. It may be difficult for career scientists to admit that they don’t have a clear idea of what they are doing or looking for, but asking those questions to get at what we don’t know and how to get there is what is important to the process.
I put ignorance in quotes because it does have a lot of negative connotations, like Firestein admits, but I think those negative connotations are sometimes too dominant to justify using the word plainly. I think there should be a better word for it, but don’t have something in mind at the moment, so the quotation marks.
Another issue he talks about is the vastness of knowledge. How can we possibly keep up with all of the knowledge found and advances in science? I cannot keep up with ecology journal articles, much less the weekly issues of Nature and Science (which are the gold standard in academic publishing). With the increasing pace of publishing academic articles, there is also an increase in field-specific jargon. The bar to enter a field and be an expert gets set higher and higher each year, and to know one’s field becomes a really tough prerequisite to being a respected researcher (and to getting tenure for those who really care about that).
Dr. Firestein teaches an interesting seminar course at Columbia University, where prominent researchers come in and discuss what they don’t know and what they want to know in their field. It is this type of discussion that brings the research to a more universally understandable level, because the jargon doesn’t exist yet for things we don’t know about. I really like this point because I agree that it is so hard to even read a single academic article in a field that I am not active in, but I can relate to discussion in terms of the unknowns.
Firestein also said some interesting things about hypotheses (and the scientific method). He doesn’t like them, and I agree. He argues that hypotheses open up research to biases (or, more boldly put, pigeonhole research into biases and expectations), whereas more curiosity-driven open-ended questioning avoids bias in some ways. But the way to get funding for your research is to describe and structure your studies in a hypothesis-driven way. Basically, the scientific method is bogus!
If I was able to ask Dr. Firestein a question, I would ask him how he feels about the lack of interest in publishing negative results. Meaning, studies that come up short of significant results, but still might have some interesting intellectual value by informing people about what didn’t happen. I can imagine a new academic journal going by the title of “Ignorance,” but that might not give much confidence to researchers who are looking to publish. (Update on May 29, 2012: Here is a post about this very topic talked about in Nature!)
This talk couldn’t have come at a better time as I’m getting closer to doing my own research projects (I’ll post more on this later). I don’t have any hypotheses, although I have some questions, some thoughts and a short plan. But, I think it’s ok not to have set plan. Most of the time.
I’ve signed up to these courses offered online through Coursera. The courses are free, with videos and materials all available on the respective websites.
Take a look and see if any of the courses offered past and present interest you! I’ll blog more about them as they start up.
Happy (belated) Thanksgiving! In the giving mood? SciFund and RocketHub have teamed up to raise funding for over 50 diverse science projects. This is a bit like Kiva if you are familiar with microfinancing, except that this is straight giving and not loaning. They also offer rewards for different levels of giving, similar to some other giving sites like Kickstarter.
Projects range from microbiology to conservation to ancient Roman DNA to zombie research. Some of my favorite projects (to which I have donated to) are:
- Communicating science the Beethoven way
- Mathematics of Direct Democracy
- What’s that Weed? (field guide for local urban plants)
- Mapping a Bornean soundscape
These projects have 18 days left to reach their funding goals, so give to these projects while you can!
A year ago this month, I purchased new eyeglasses frames from the Earth Conscious Optics line by MODO. They are made completely of recycled plastic. I could also chosen frames that were made from recycled metals. They have been awesome so far, although they don’t sit quite evenly on my nose, but that just might be because my nose is a little uneven!
Here’s what they look like:
They are also doing an interesting promotion where they plant a tree for every pair of frames purchased. Check out their website: ECO Optics
Hopefully I’ll be able to used these frames for several more years to get as much mileage out of them as I can.
This makes me wonder, what other cool upcycled things are out there? Know of any?