Archive | April, 2013

Thoughts on E. O. Wilson’s article about math and science

25 Apr

From xkcd: Correlation

The Wall Street Journal recently published an excerpt from the book Letters to a Young Scientist by E. O. Wilson, an established biologist and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. This article, titled “Great Scientists Don’t Need Math” (or, Great Scientist ≠ Good at Math),  caused a whole lot of stir among scientists. Many people have made good points about the shortcomings of the article (the references are included throughout my post). Since I already got myself into two online discussions about the article, I figured I might as well put down some reflections here.

While the title for Wilson’s article is controversial (horrible, horrible title!!!), the actual name of the chapter that the excerpt is from is simply “Mathematics.” And, reading the article itself, in no way did Wilson mention that “you don’t need math.” In fact, it sounds like he values having a good foundation in math greatly:

If your level of mathematical competence is low, plan to raise it, but meanwhile, know that you can do outstanding scientific work with what you have. Think twice, though, about specializing in fields that require a close alternation of experiment and quantitative analysis. These include most of physics and chemistry, as well as a few specialties in molecular biology.

And, if he actually didn’t think math is important, then he wouldn’t have sat in a Calculus class himself:

 I finally got around to calculus as a 32-year-old tenured professor at Harvard, where I sat uncomfortably in classes with undergraduate students only a bit more than half my age. A couple of them were students in a course on evolutionary biology I was teaching. I swallowed my pride and learned calculus.

I believe Wilson meant to say that you will need to know math, but not necessarily advanced level math unless you are going into more specialized fields – this, I generally agree with. What Wilson didn’t explain though, was what he meant by “advanced level math.” For me, I consider algebra, statistics (covered well by Jeff Leek’s blog post), and the understanding of how mathematical equations describe relationships, all essential mathematical knowledge that young scientists in health sciences should have (the basis, not the ceiling, by the way; these are the topics in math that I used most heavily). I disagree with David H. Bailey and Jonathan M. Borwein, who think that those who don’t possess advanced mathematical skills “will be outside the mainstream of modern science, if they can gain employment in the field at all”.

Wilson’s article is passionately debated by many people. Some discussions went down the road of comparing the importance of different fields of science, which I think is comparing apples with oranges in most cases (some are more fundamental, and some are more applied; no one is more important than the other). Even worse, National Post covered the story with an article titled “‘Disgraceful’ professor ignites firestorm over his secret: modern scientists do not need advanced math,” whose url is “science-vs-math,” as if a UFC fight is waiting to happen between scientists and mathematicians. That is simply ridiculous 😦

So far, the most balanced discussion I have seen is Brian McGill’s blog post, “A calm and balanced case for math in biology (UPDATED),” which I highly recommend. My favourite part:

What I conclude is that if you are innately more mathematical, then if you want to do great science, you will spend your whole career finding collaborations, graduate students/postdocs, inspiring papers and self-educating to add-in the real world component so as to move to the center. If you are on the innately more empirical side, then, if you want to do great science, you will spend your whole career finding collaborations, graduate students/postdocs, inspiring papers, and self-educating to add-in math so as to move to the center. To say that you have to be great at math to be a great scientist is wrong just as it is wrong to say you have to be great at field work to be a great scientist.

I tend to be careful when I share personal anecdotes, because personal anecdotes are simply personal anecdotes. With each personal experience, you can probably find ten other different ones. So Wilson’s personal story is helpful and perhaps inspirational for some, but it probably doesn’t ring true for everyone and in every situation. For example, Jon Wilins’ take on collaboration is one that I agree with, more so than Wilson’s interpretation of the nature of collaborations. But at the same time, when I was working on my thesis, I was able to consult an in-house statistician, so there is some truth to what Wilson said about acquiring collaboration (or really “help”) from a statistician.

Last but not the least, I think it is okay to dislike math. But it is another thing to think it is okay to ignore math, which I worry is the message that some might take away erroneously from Wilson’s article. We actually already have lots of difficulty in trying to get high school students to know the basic math they need for doing university level science. For example, I still see students who cannot calculate molar concentrations, or hear about those who don’t understand why you need to use cm3 when you are working with volumes (huge, huge problem). And, when I went to the statistician for help on my thesis, I didn’t just follow her instructions and wrap it up. Instead, I spent the whole week digging into statistics textbooks and online resources to make sure I understand the difference between the two methods I was using to analyze my results. I did not like statistics, but that didn’t stop me from getting to the bottom of it to make sure I did it right. Then, perhaps the discussion should be about how we can encourage students to value math and to try to understand math, even if they are not good with it (on this specific point I do agree with Edward Frenkel, but that’s about the only thing I agree with him on).

How do we make math more relevant to students? How do we encourage them to think and/or communicate mathematically? And, at the graduate school level, how do we make sure students have the mathematical knowledge they need for their specific fields? I would love to see more discussions about them!

Postscript: Seriously? Wilson got tenureship by 32? I don’t think that still happens these days…

What’s ethics got to do with science

10 Apr
2013 April 2 Featured Image

The course material and essays for my 4th year philosophy course

When I was in undergrad, I was 6 credits short of getting a minor in philosophy. I was, at the time, already accepted into a graduate school program, and staying around for another year would have meant more tuition and student fees.

It was one of those things that I really wish I had the time to do.

I was particularly interested in ethics. For me, ethics is about interactions between people and the implications of their actions. While philosophy seemed to be far from the biochemistry that I majored in, in fact I would say that much of my skill in logical thinking and writing was developed in these philosophy courses (I wrote a lot of essays…).

So why am I bringing this up?

About a week ago I went to talks presented by graduate students on Ethics and Dissemination. It brought me back to the days when I wrote essays about a person’s actions and responsibilities to the society. A few situations were discussed after the presentations – What should you do if your research subjects live in developing countries and have pressing needs for water, food, and personal safety? Is it right that your research results are published in pay-walled research journals, out of reach for those who participated in the project, who will benefit from the results? Does how we scientists choose to express ourselves (speech genre, terminology, style) affect the understanding by our audience and stakeholders? Do scientists have a responsibility to the society, and how far does this responsibility go beyond our research? And these, are not hypothetical questions. The situations cannot be more real for these graduate students.

It was tremendous to see graduate students asking themselves these questions and getting involved in discussions. This makes me wonder, how many science students participate in discussions about the ethics in science? How do science students (or any students) develop their ethical views on tough issues in science – the ones mentioned above, but also issues like animal research, evidence-based policies, stem cell research, consent by research participants, etc? Is there sufficient training in ethics available to aspiring scientists?

While I won’t be able to go back to school and complete those 6 credits to get my minor *sigh*, there are now more chances to learn about ethics and critical ideas. Through the “magic” of MOOC – Massive Open Online Courses – you can now take the Justice ER22x course online, taught by Professor Michael J. Sandel of Harvard, for free through edX. The course won’t offer any answers to the questions we just asked, and it doesn’t really have a focus on science, but it should provide a good foundation for philosophical thinking. Unfortunately it’s  already a few weeks into the course (I am hoping that they will offer it again soon), but all the lecture videos are available online through the Harvard edX YouTube channel. Here is the promo video for the course (bear in mind that it is a promo video…)

And below is a short video of Professor Sandel talking about ethics and biotechnology.

For a reading list on the ethics in science, Chemistry Professor Linda Sweeting from the Towson State University put together a list back in 1995. In 1999, she published an article titled Ethics in Science for Undergraduate Students (closed access, published by the Journal of Chemistry Education), in which she made a strong case for the need of teaching ethics to science undergraduate students. Professor Sweeting was a Canadian, who unfortunately passed away in 2003.

Another excellent read is the Role of Ethics in Science by Joel Barkan.

Scientists can face many situations in which they need to decide “what is the right thing to do here?” The role ethics plays in this decision making process is not only important for scientists, but also for non-scientists to understand. I would love to see more people, especially aspiring scientists, interested in the interface between science and ethics 😀


Postscript: The talk I went to was part of the UBC FIRE talk series. During the session, 4-5 graduate students prepare and present 5-minute talks, to be followed by a facilitated discussion. They just wrapped up the series for 2012/2013, but will be back in September for 2013/2014.

Sweeting L.M. (1999). Ethics in Science for Undergraduate Students, Journal of Chemical Education, 76 (3) 369. DOI:

My Jurassic Park nostalgia: on women in science and de-extinction

9 Apr

Jurassic_Park_3DJurassic Park. Ah my childhood. Jurassic Park was the first movie I saw in a theatre, so even though I am in principle against 3D movies, I had to see it for nostalgia reasons.

(spoiler alert – if you have never seen the movie before, you are forewarned)

The movie was directed by Steven Spielberg based on a novel of the same name, written by Michael Crichton and published in 1990. Interestingly, it feels even more relevant to me now than before  (or perhaps for little Theresa back in the days, all that really mattered was cool dinosaurs on the screen).

The movie has two great female characters – a female scientist Dr. Ellie Sattler (paleobotanist), and Lex Murphy, a teenage girl who turns out to be a hacker and manages to reactivate the computer-controlled locks and phones on the premises (apparently her brother is the computer-intelligent one in the book). While I really could use less of Lex’s screaming (seriously girl?), these two characters and the roles they play are critical in the movie. Even now, it is difficult to find good female scientist characters in films or on TV. And, there are incredibly few women in computer science, both in films/TV programs and in reality. This movie is rather forward thinking in this perspective.

The movie also touched a bit on sexism and feminism:

In a conversation where John Hammond expresses guilt as he implies that he should be the one heading out to turn on the power for the compound because he is a man,  Ellie responds, “We’ll talk about sexism in survival situations later.”

When Dr. Ian Malcolm, a mathematician, says, “God creates dinosaurs, God kills dinosaurs, God creates men, men kills God, men brings back dinosaurs,” Ellie follows with, “Dinosaurs eat men…Women inherits the earth.”

I couldn’t stop laughing.

The movie is based on the idea that we are able to bring back species that went extinct long ago (de-extinction). In fact, the debate for de-extinction is very much alive now more than ever. Before you get excited about seeing dinosaurs for real – that’s not going to happen, because unlike what the movie suggests, it is not possible to preserve dinosaur DNA for 65 million years, even in the best possible environment. The focus of the discussion, at the moment, is mostly around bringing back species that went extinct more recently. It was perhaps purposely timed (?), but Stewart Brand had a TED talk about it in February:

Is it really that easy? David Ehrenfeld didn’t think so, as he explained during the TEDxDeExtinction Conference; his molecular biologist friend Jerry Langer suggested a clever way to test our ability to actually revive extinct species:

And, it can be more than just the science itself, as discussed by Hank Greely (he also wrote an article in Science on this):

Interested in learning more? In March, the National Geographic published a feature on de-extinction to discuss the pros and cons. There are also two podcasts, one from the Guardian and the other from the National Public Radio (an interview of Carl Zimmer) that you want to listen to. At the moment, I am personally not a fan of de-extinction. It does seem like a cool thing to do, but whether or not we have the right environment to support the species is a huge question in my mind. We will see – maybe I will change my mind after reading both sides of the argument, maybe not.

Whether you have seen this movie before or not, I highly recommend that you see it (again). And do keep in mind the real issues and discussions that are happening right now.

Update (May 3): parasitediary (see comment below) recommended this article in Cell by Robert P. Kruger on the scientific ideas within the movie. If you have access to the journal, make sure to check it out as well!

Calling all interested in communicating science in Canada – Let’s meet online!

4 Apr

SciCommCanada.jpgFor a really long time, I had wondered why there seem to be few people talking and writing about science in Canada. It felt pretty lonely here as a science communicator.

It finally dawned on me a few months ago that it is not because no one is doing it, but we simply don’t know what each other is doing.

Case in point, the Banff Centre Science Communications program has been running annually since 2005 (I had the opportunity to be part of the program last year). There are about 20 graduates each year, meaning that we have “at least” 160 people enthusiastic about science communication in Canada! Yet it was not until attending the program that I knew about the others. Even more surprising was that a few of my work colleagues are actually alumni of the program. I had no idea.

A session during Science Online 2013, titled Communicating science where there is no science communication, seemed to be the turning point for us in Canada (one of the session moderators Colin posted a follow up on his blog).  We are finally starting to ask why, and to think about what we can do to improve the current situation.

Two weeks ago I set up a Google+ community for Science Communication in Canada. The hope is to provide a space for those interested in communicating science to the general public to network online and collaborate on projects. The community is moderated by me and Lisa Willemse, who is the Director of Communications for the Stem Cell Network. We just had our first Google Hangout and already started some short-term projects. It was really exciting to chat with others involved in science communication in Canada.

Two other communities have also been started.

I would like to invite those interested in communicating science to join these online communities. Really looking forward to meeting you online – see you soon!

Sexy scientists are less scary? Why we don’t like the “sexiest scientists” list

2 Apr

My friend Joyce and I often discuss gender issues in science on Facebook. A couple of weeks ago she sent me this list of the Sexiest Scientists Alive! by Business Insider, one of the most popular blogs online. She was not impressed, and neither was I.

*Updated at 4:21pm on April 2: This post was originally a lot more “unhappy” about the list. I took out some stronger language I used in the post in an attempt to provide a more balanced post. However it seems that my consideration was mistaken by Jennifer Welsh to say that I enjoyed the content of the list – this is a misrepresentation of my stance. The content of the list is hardly the point, it is the way that it is presented that is wrong; I find it very troubling that she thinks as long as there is content it is okay to put together a list like this and to label scientists, and pay no regards to the context. So I am writing this to make sure that my readers know I really don’t like the list at all, and regardless of whether there is content or not, a list such as this should not happen. I also edited the content of this post to make sure I get my point across.

I got a sense of the rationale behind the list from the twitter exchange between Jennifer Welsh (science editor for the Business Insider) and Karen James (staff scientist at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory).

Hm, I don’t think I can say that I will find fashion models more approachable (?) after seeing a list of the 50 sexiest models in the world. I would rather hear about why they became models and the challenges they encounter, and know that they are people just like us – an example being Cameron Russell in her TED talk (coincidentally the TED talk goes really well with this post). While I appreciate the brief biographies and fun facts included in the list, I think scientists can be introduced without being given the “sexy” label. So unfortunately I failed to understand Jennifer’s point.

And then she explained further:

Not sure why a list of sexy scientists can make scientists less scary (are sexy scientists less scary?). There are many scientists who make science awesome and not scary – but I guess they need to be “not bad to look at” in order to make it to the list? I will let you be the judge for the discussion – read more of the twitter conversation.

When I asked Jennifer about the discussion she said

(This is included so that you also get her point of view) I want to point out that if that is the case, then why are they choosing the “not bad to look at” scientists for the list? That’s a quote from the list. Again, doesn’t make sense to me.

Some, including giovannazanardo, raised concerns about subjecting those on the list to sexual stereotypes.

And a few others talked about the list on their blogs. E.E. Giorgi mentioned why the list troubled her:

In fact, I think it promotes a disturbingly negative message, which is: do I need to be beautiful to have my work noticed?

Zuska pointed out in her post “Sexxay Inequality” that:

Sexifying scientists does not and cannot function equally for men and women.

Roxanne Palmer discussed the stereotypes female scientists face, backed with research references, and said:

There’s relatively little harm in discussing the attractiveness of scientists past and present. But sexiness does not exist in a vacuum — the label can have very different connotations, depending on whether you’re a man or a woman in science.

Last but not the least, Sarah Callori described the missed opportunity to inform people of gender issues in science:

The author of “50 Sexy Scientists” could have provided more context within the article about how science stereotypes are a problem and then added in a quick mission statement…

But they didn’t. Instead this article seems to be playing off the stereotype even more in a tabloid journalism sort of way.

If you want to see an example of what the discussion about the list can be reduced to outside of the scientific context, just check out some comments on this forum. Thanks, Business Insider 😦

For me personally, the problem is this. There are beautiful people in any professions, and of course there are scientists who are sexy. But regardless of whether they are sexy of not, scientists should be celebrated for their achievement in scientific discovery and the communication of science. The list emphasizes “sexiness” that is irrelevant in science, using outreach as the justification. Having done science outreach and communication myself for the past 8 years, and having been a basic science researcher before that, I find this extremely disappointing and disturbing.

Yes, the title is attention-grabbing and the post probably received lots of views from those who usually don’t pay attention to science news. Good for Business Insider But please don’t defend it by saying that this is a way science and scientists can reach out to people – because being sexy and “not bad to look at” is not what scientists are about to begin with.

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