Category Archives: Education

Talk science

Biology, the study of life, as I always tell my friends. It’s so much more than that.

Biology talks about the internal milieu of our human bodies, the interactions of living organisms with the environment, how the environment shapes our behaviors and also physical appearances, and how we came about.

But often, the lines between sciences blur when boundaries are crossed. The alteration in the molecular pathways in neurons can affect our mind and behavior, which in turn changes the way we interact with people around us or the environment. But it doesn’t just stop there. The interactions of people within a community pave the way for the establishment of social norms and cultures, and also govern the development of constitutional law that serves the rights of the people. And it all zooms down to how the brain functions, which till now, we still do not have a complete idea what is contained within.

I don’t always love science, at least not when I was younger. I was in science because I can’t do well in arts, probably due to my poor command of language. Whereas for science, content matters more than the expression of the content. At least up till tertiary education, where communicating science takes on a whole new level. In fact, I am happy with where I am. So if given a second chance, I would still choose the path down science discovery.

Ideas are always scattered in my mind like bullet points scrambled around the PowerPoint slides. Till this day, I am still unable to link up all the ideas in succession into a beautiful constellation and translate them across to the audience. So whenever I listen to someone deliver a speech/lesson on science across to the audience with such charisma, I am always in awe.

Science isn’t just a field that excludes the non-science. Many scientists and science journalists have been reaching out to the general public, simplifying grossly worded and intentionally sophisticated scientific journal paper into engaging and entertaining articles. Science communication, they call it, is about helping everyone understand the development and discovery in science, which may in many ways affect their lives unknowingly to them. Knowing simple terms like blood cholesterol or antibiotics is pretty much the same as understanding the concept of down-payment and recession. One difference is how much it affects your life that you’ll have to read up on it in order to continue on with your journey.

The list is not exhaustive and there are many more writers out there trying to bring science to the rest of the world.

As such, the idea of applying for a PhD has crossed my mind a few times. The autonomy (partially) of discovering and diving deeper into a field does pique my interest. Then again, I always reflect back on what I want and what I can. Unfortunately, these two aspects don’t always see eye to eye. Though they may have crossed shoulders in some point of my life, but only for a brief period. Since then, science comprehension has eluded me most of the time.

I still love reading the articles nevertheless. And hopefully one day, I’ll pick myself up and truly appreciate the beauty of science and spread the passion.

Just in case you missed out on the links above:

Ed Yong – Not Exactly Rocket Science

Ilana Yurkiewicz – Unofficial Prognosis

Suzi Gage – Sifting the Evidence

Peter Lipson – White Coat Underground

Virginia Hughes – Only Human

 

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Filed under Education, Science, The writer

If you walk long enough

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

– Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

I believe everyone has written the passage on “Who do I want to be when I grow up?” at some point of their lives. Teachers, doctors, fire-fighters, gardeners or even the President. Yet I vaguely remember knowing any friends who said that they wanted to be a bioethicist, a tax accountant or an property agent. Why so?

My 16 years-old tutee once asked me what’s there to do out in the world if he gets a diploma, or a degree. While I listed out many opportunities available (from the back of my mind), from designing polymers with high tensile strength, to managing funds of a company or creating investment portfolios for an individual, and also inspiring and educating the next generation of youths in schools, I can’t help but wonder what it takes for him to survive in the economy and the society. Or me, as a matter of fact. Passion or practicality? In the face of an adversity or survival, should we continue with making good arts and doing good deeds? Or should we step back and review on the practicality of our dreams and the family that we have to take care of?

Then another group of friends, who constantly questions the relevance of the education they receive in their tertiary institutions. (Below are edited forms of the comments, just wanting to bring the point across.)

“Why do I have to memorize all the organic mechanisms and synthesis pathways? Not as if I’ll use it after I graduate.”

“Biology is all about memorizing, the more you can take in, the more you can regurgitate out during the exams.”

“Whatever that the professor teaches during our engineering lectures have real life application in the industry.”

Though it may sound legitimate, they aren’t entirely true. There’s always more than biology to learn in a lecture on biomolecules. Which brings me to Meselson and Stahl’s experiments to investigate the semi-conservative characteristics of DNA replication. It’s an established fact now, but it isn’t built upon thin air. And it’s an established fact now, why do we have to memorize it? Without the foundations firmly built on the ground, even the tallest building will fall. And not surprisingly, most of them have no idea what and which building to design.

And as mentioned right from the start, it doesn’t matter which path you take, if you don’t know where to go.

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The first encounter with a patient

It’s amazing how C’s words carried a tinge of positivity when he introduced K to the class. It was my first encounter with a patient cured of cancer. Personally, I have only known one other person who had an encounter with cancer. She shared her experiences on coping with the lymphoma, walking to the hospital from home though she could have fainted because of her low blood count, shelving her travel plans away because of the diagnosis.

The session went on under 50 other keen eyes, listening attentively to her recollections while C kept the mood light and made occasional humorous comments. Probably because deep inside, we know that the diagnosis often signifies that the life is close to an end. While some treatments are meant to extend the lifespan of the patients, other treatments are curative. But we all know cancer remission is like a weed, refusing to steer clear of the field, hiding and haunting deep inside. Or probably it’s just me. We weren’t allowed to ask question on the prognosis, on the other hand, others asked about the changes in lifestyle and counseling. It was great to hear that she could lean on her family in critical times like this, receiving love and support from family members must have aid a lot in overcoming the side effects of the treatments.

Sensitive topics like death are often overlooked by people. People choose not to discuss about it because of fear and judgement. In the face of death, would you choose to do the activities you love, disregarding the people around you? Because death is such powerful excuse nobody talks about it though it’s running through everyone’s minds. And what I learned from watching American dramas, death is the end for that person, nothing else comes after that. Pain is only felt by the rest still breathing, enduring the emotions and feelings of missing someone.

The class ended off with a birthday song (in Swedish) for one of the students (while the exchange students stood blankly and clapped along the rhythm.) and C’s personal lesson:

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Skogskyrkogården is a beautiful cemetery in Stockholm, one of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The serenity and cool air are a fantastic getaway from a busy schedule, and also watching people stroll along in the paths in the woods. The tombstones are decorated with flowers and ornaments (mini-lampposts), which are quite cool. Truly celebrating life, embracing death. I’ll probably talk a walk back when winter comes.

You know you need to take more photos when you’re focusing on the wrong point. ):

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Filed under Education, House M.D., Sweden

Raise your hand

Culture explains the social phenomena and human behavior in a local setting, disregarding the effect of genetics that shape the person to who he is. The debate over nature or nurture that realizes the inherent potential and characteristic of an individual has no end to it, as experimental settings and controlling of variables are not possible. Neither could we wind the clock back to reset everything.

I guess back home, I was not accustomed to speaking up in classrooms or lecture halls. Not because teachers don’t encourage questioning during lecture, but more because the environment discourages it. Because no one else is doing it. Conforming is one pressure that alters a person’s behavior under a certain situation. The absence of societal pressure (not possible though) would allow the person’s inherent characteristics to surface, while the presence of such pressure suppresses them.

To understand a new culture is to read from texts and papers. To fully appreciate a new culture is to indulge in it. To walk the journey in their shoes and to see the world through their lens. Culture is not passed down genetically, but through learned behaviors. Monkey sees, monkey does, monkey learns. Thus to learn the culture, we have to do what the local people do after seeing it for the first time.

And so, I may have raised my hand for the first time in the lecture hall.

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Shall make an attempt to upload a photo with every post. Can’t seem to scale down the photo without losing the pixel information. Uploading the original picture takes up some space though. Oh well.

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Filed under Education, Europe, Sweden, Travel

Taking chances

Fighting the bitter cold every morning, the urge to stay snuggled in the bed under the warm blanket.

If I couldn’t take the chill, what about those out in the cold without a shelter over their heads, experiencing the merciless wind whenever they sleep? To feel fortunate to be where we are and be ashamed of  what we could have done, I suppose that’s humility.

During the orientation, the President of the school said that the most valuable asset of the school is its students. Partly because the school requires the students to be functional, more so because the school is indeed grooming the pillars of the society in the future. Tertiary education comes with power and responsibility, not just pure fun and experience. I looked at the students around me who came from different part of the world. Indeed, we are the fortunate ones.

That being said, we are not obliged to fulfill any responsibility because tertiary education is a demand and supply concept after all. We were not chosen, we applied for it. Some to seek knowledge in a certain field, some to experience college life, some to improve on their prospects in the future, and some who jumped on the wagon because that’s what the society requires of them. It wasn’t responsibility that some of us signed up for. But it is endowed upon us, hoping for us to create changes to the world (positively) and to improve the qualities of lives.

So while my ears and fingers turn cold from the wind, I shall seek to fully utilize my time here, in a foreign land far away from the comfort of my home. (I’m really not a cold person.)

Image: A flower from Suomenlinna in Helsinki, Finland. It used to be a sea fortress. A beautiful place away from the hassles of the city.

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Filed under Education, Europe, Finland, Nature, Travel

What is a flame?

The flickering glow of the beautiful candle flame caught the eyes of a young Alan Alda. And as he watched intently as the candle burned, a question popped up into his mind: What is a flame? Carrying the question to his teacher in an attempt to satisfy his curiosity, he was greeted with a discontent answer. A flame is oxidation.

No doubt oxidation of fuel contained inside the candle leads to the flame. However, using a technical term to explain a concept to a 11-year-old boy, it’s as good as telling the kid the sweet-tasting sensation he felt from the lollipop is because of the presence of saccharides.

That incident brought us the Flame Challenge today, explaining science to an 11-year-old (a Primary 5 kid in Singapore). The Flame Challenge does not just want the question answered in the simplest way possible, but it also hopes to encourage scientists to explain science in a manner where anyone could understand. Using simple words to describe phenomenon seen on a daily basis. Imagine the gap in between.

I find this particularly interesting as this kind of knowledge isn’t what the mainstream schools are passing down to their students. As a kid growing up in Singapore, I memorize concepts in chemistry and biological theories through ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels without fully appreciating the science behind it. It was until I stepped into university, that I understood why charcoal turns orange when heated up. On the other hand, I find it daunting whenever I fail to put into simple words the concepts that I’m explaining to the kids, or draw a practical usage on a daily basis.

Anyway, the winner for the Flame Challenge went to Ben Ames and the following, his award-winning cartoon.

It was clearly explained, with humor and music involved to keep the 11-year-old hooked onto the screen. Fantastic piece of work. Through reading the articles on this Flame Challenge, I recall one of the quotes mentioned by Einstein – if you can’t put into simple words what you’ve learned, you’ve learned nothing.

New York Blog – World Science Fair: What is a Flame?

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Filed under Education, Flame Challenge, Nature, Science

Does it still burn?

I was talking to N about academic-related stuff and on landing an research attachment (or they call it an ‘internship’) while on the ride home. Science undergraduates (possibly biological sciences in particular) are where they are now, burning midnight oils for exams and committing into memory behavioral theories and molecular signalling pathways, because of the passion for biology a few years ago.

Reality hits onto them when they discover that biology is more than just understanding how Mendelian genetics work or how synapses relay information in our brain. It entails appreciation of miniscule processes and discovering de novo mechanisms that underlie the physiological responses that we see.

And through the three/four years undergraduate course, to realize if sitting at the flow hood or analyzing spectral results are what they want (of course there’s more to it).

What I want to bring across here is that though eventually all of us will graduate with the Bachelor of Science, it neither means we’re particularly good in biology, nor does it truly reflect our passion. Probably except those who are kept awake 3 am in the morning just because they’re doing some readings, voluntarily. However, whether we like it or not, we are provided with this opportunity, thus reflecting our capability to a certain extent and that we must cherish this chance to make it worthwhile. Because not everyone in this world has that opportunity to sleep in the lecture theater while the lecturer is rambling away.

And precisely the point, that we’re fortunate for this opportunity to occupy that one seat in the lecture hall, that we must fully utilize it, and make an impact in the world.

So never give up.

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Ed Yong, a science writer from UK, and his blog for Discover Magazine. Putting science into simple words, appreciating and understanding, most importantly, sharing that passion with the rest of the world. Brilliant.

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