Archive | August, 2014

Within and Beyond Academia – Science Communications Intro for Graduate Students

22 Aug

Natasha and I had often chatted about me running a science communication workshop/presentation for graduate students in the department. A few months ago this became a reality – and it worked quite well since there had been some interests among the students to learn about career paths alternative to an academic one.

I put together a fairly short presentation for this purpose. The idea is to talk about the changing landscape of science communication, and to bring a little bit of social sciences into the picture, as the study of science communication often falls into social sciences – and not easily within the reach for science students.

You can go through the slides below via SlideShare. Alternatively, you can also download the high quality pdf through UBC cIRcle (thanks for UBC cIRcle for hosting the presentation!).

 

I was quite relieved to see many graduate students in the room (Apparently I was competing against an Astronomy talk that offered free pizzas!!). The presentation itself was only about 30 minutes, and we spent another 30 minutes having an open discussion about science communication. A few interesting questions were brought up. For example, some wonder if it was a smooth switch for me to go from graduate studies/research to science communication. The answer to that was no – you can read all about this in my earlier post. Another student asked if she needs to use Twitter, considering all the recent focus on social media and online communications. I personally don’t think everyone needs to use all channels, but it is important to try a few out and see what works for you. There are also a lot of in-person outreach opportunities that have been overlooked now because everyone is going online. In any case, it is useful to have a landing page/online profile where you can showcase what you have done.

Last but not the least, we chatted about whether it is easier to find a job in science communication. Just because it is an alternative to an academic career doesn’t mean that it will be easy. Some institutions don’t even have such positions, so it is up to you to pitch this to institutions and to convey why science communicators are needed. In the end though, it really comes down to whether you are passionate about it, and whether you are good at it – a lot of soft skills are involved here. Natasha also brought up another point – a good science communicator in physics and/or astronomy is likely higher in demand compared to one is other fields of science; I think it is mostly because some of the concepts in physics and astronomy are more abstract and more difficult to explain, so having that background is definitely a plus.

After the presentation, I was approached by a graduate student about the possibility of me starting a department blog. He was very interested in writing, but found the idea of maintaining a personal blog is just a bit too much for someone who is trying to wrap up PhD. I think a department or an institutional blog is a great idea, not just because it will showcase the work done by the department, but also provide an opportunity for students in the department to put together a “writing sample” for the future. Right now, I do have 3-4 graduate students interested in this, but I think it will take more people in the dept interested before I jump into this. I am also going through all the points mentioned by Matt Shipman in his article, Institutional Blogging: Do You Really Want to Do This?  I shall continue to contemplate what he discussed…to start an institutional blog or not…

The bitter sweet “first woman to…”

18 Aug

First female winner for Fields maths medal – BBC

Nothing But Gold: First Woman Wins Math’s Nobel Prize – Forbes

Fields Medal mathematics prize won by woman for first time in its history – The Guardian

Math’s Highest Honor Is Given To A Woman For The First Time – NPR

Finally, a woman wins the Fields Medal – Vox

 

Every time I see headlines like these, I have a whole bag of mixed feelings. On one hand, this is quite an achievement to be celebrated. The Fields Medal is a big deal. Not to mention Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the Fields Medal since it was first awarded in 1936, is now a role model for those (particularly women) who are interested in studying mathematics.

Maryam_Mirzakhani_2014-08-12_18-14

Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the Fields Medal. Image credit: Wikipedia under public domain

As pointed out by Anushay Hossain in her article in Forbes:

Imagine the message that is sent to women and girls with Mirzakhani being awarded such a prestigious prize. The image of her on the stage receiving her honor from President Park Geun-Hye, the female head of state of South Korea, herself a pioneer for women, reminds us that we are breaking barriers across the board, around the world.

Maryam Mirzakhani shows us not only that there needs to be more women and girls in the academic disciplines of STEM, but that also we should not fear to go where not many women went before us.

Her win gives women and girls the message that not only can we enter these fields, but we can succeed and thrive in them, too, breaking century-old assumptions that women are naturally weak in math and sciences when in reality our accomplishments can make history.

And mentioned by Sir Tim Gowers, a Fields medallist and mathematician at Cambridge University, in his interview with the Guardian:

I am thrilled that this day has finally come…Although women have contributed to mathematics at the highest level for a long time, this fact has not been visible to the general public. I hope that the existence of a female Fields medallist, who will surely be the first of many, will put to bed many myths about women and mathematics, and encourage more young women to think of mathematical research as a possible career.

On the other hand, the headlines made me sad because they raised more questions in my head. Are we still surprised that women can achieve greatness in science? Or, are we finally realizing how women have been overlooked when it comes to scientific achievements? When will we stop having headlines like these?

In the coverage by BBC news,

Prof Sir John Ball, another British mathematician and a former president of the IMU, agreed that Prof Mirzakhani’s win was “fantastically important”. Speaking to BBC News from the congress in Seoul, South Korea, he said that a female winner was overdue and that Prof Mirzakhani is one of many brilliant women mathematicians.

So, who are these “many brilliant women mathematicians?” How “overdue” are we? Who else should be recognized?

Quoted by the Guardian during her talk to the American Mathematical Society last year, Maryam pointed it out herself that the situation is far from ideal,

The social barriers for girls who are interested in mathematical sciences might not be lower now than they were when I grew up. And balancing career and family remains a big challenge. It makes most women face difficult decisions which usually compromise their work

When the news came out, a friend of mine jokingly said, “Girls can do math!!” While it was meant to be a joke, it reflects the situation we are in. That time and time again we still need to “prove” that we can make it in STEM, particularly in male-dominated fields such as mathematics or physics.

When will a woman receiving her well-deserved recognition in STEM become normality?

Will we need to wait for much longer for the next female Fields Medal winner?

Will we need to wait for much longer for the next female Fields Medal winner? Image source: Wikipedia under public domain.

 

Postscript (September 7, 2014): I didn’t realize it at the time of writing this post, but what I wrote above was actually pretty much about the ‘The Finkbeiner Test’ – a set of “rules” (test) to follow when profiling female scientists. And if you are wondering why this matters, check out this project Catherine (aka @genegeek) gave to the high school students who are part of the Vancouver Science World Future Science Leaders Program – write about female scientists following the Finkbeiner Test, or write about male scientist while breaking all the rules in the test, and then see what happens. You would be surprised.

It’s been too long!

8 Aug

It has been way too long since my last blog post! In the next few weeks you will see more posts because of my current staycation. I have the following planned for the blog:

Earlier this year, I mentioned that I would like to write something about clinical trials. With the latest Ebola outbreak, there are a few things I want to write about. Is it difficult to develop treatments for Ebola? Who is working on this, and why haven’t we made progress? You probably heard that an experimental drug is being used in the US to treat aid workers who are infected Ebola, and my impression is that the drug itself hasn’t gone through a proper clinical trial. What is the typical process for a clinical trial, why is it necessary, and why does it take so long? And then, let’s look at the ethics of drug development: Why is it difficult for drugs for illnesses common in less privileged countries to be developed?

Working in science outreach and communication, one trend I am noticing is the move from rigid teaching curriculum and standards to something focusing more on big ideas, including one that science is a process, not just facts. I am glad to see this move, but at the same time uneasy about it. I plan to work on a series on science education. Why is early science education important? What does this shift in curriculum and standards mean to students, teachers (in my opinion, a component often overlooked in this re-development of teaching standards), and informal science education (science outreach)?

I have always been quite a hands-on, “DIY” person. This probably comes with working in the Physics department and have access to all the cool electronics stuff. With that said, my health sciences background doesn’t lend help here. In the next few months, I will be playing with some basic electronics stuff based on the book Make: Electronics. This means that I will share my success and failures on the blog…

And of course, other than these “themes,” I will continue to share other random inspirations related to science communications and outreach. I am also hoping to update the resources page when I get a chance.

Thanks again for your patience and it’s good to be back! 😀

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