Will I ever leave school?

“Will I ever leave school?” This is a question that I often ask myself. My dream is to receive a M.D/Ph.D and to work as a doctor who conducts his own research. Medical School alone requires an extra 4 years (plus the years of residency) after college before I am officially a doctor, but the Ph.D will add another 4-6 years. That is over 10 additional years after college before I am doctor; I will be at minimum 32 years old before I begin my career. So why am I doing this to myself? Because I love science, specifically health related science. Going to school isn’t work for me (but it’s not quite play time either). It is a challenging activity that keeps me interested and productive. As a doctor with an M.D/Ph.D I will be familiar with conducting research which will allow me to excel at clinically related research. To get a better understanding of what lies ahead, I spoke with a co-worker in my lab who is currently in the “Ph.D” phase of his M.D/Ph.D program. This means that he has completed his first two years of medical school, in which he is constantly studying and taking tests, and is now conducting research. To put it simply, to get a Ph.D the candidate must have noteworthy publications (publications in prominent magazines such as Nature or Cell) and present his work at his dissertation. A committee from the school then decides whether he receives a Ph.D or not. I also asked my co-worker, Bali, the differences between communicating his work to people within his field, as opposed to people not in his field like the general public or grant committee members. He described the process as having four levels of how specific he needed to be. When writing a paper for a journal Bali needed to be very technical and formal. He can’t allow any emotion to seep into his writing as to avoid any accusations of his results having a bias. This was his top level for specificity. The next level, he described, occurred when giving a presentation at a conference to people in his field, or talking to his supervisor. Because this level involves communication through speech, Bali could put in his own opinions and emotions when describing the research. While he could not scream that he is conducting the best work in the world right now, he still needed to get people excited and interested in his research. The third level of specificity is used when Bali is writing a grant proposal. He told me that most often, the people on the grant committee are scientists but not scientists in the field of research you are proposing. He said that this requires him to still be formal, but because he is writing about why it is important that his research be funded, he is allowed to put in some of his voice.  He also writes his grant proposals in a very simplified manner. The board members are familiar with experimental design and the scientific methodology of thinking, but they do not necessarily need to know the specifics of “why the Hb9 gene-carrying stem cells express GFP when differentiated into motor neurons.” The final, and least specific, level Bali described is when speaking with friends, family, or other members of the non-scientific community. He says that when speaking to friends he tries to simply things as much as possible. The applications of his work are often much looser and he says that his work could help treat knee injuries, but if he were talking at a presentation a tighter application would be that his research can be used as a model system to understand why cartilage in knees gets damaged over time. Hearing this information from Bali has further increased my interest in striving for an M.D/Ph.D because I find that by learning how to speak about a subject in both a highly technical manner and very simple manner requires a greater understanding of the material. So, will I ever leave school? I will but I am not in a rush to do it, and who knows, maybe I will be the doctor that puts a nose on a guys forehead or the doctor-researcher that cures cancer.

(Insert pun involving nose here): http://www.edmontonjournal.com/health/Chinese+doctor+creates+nose+mans+forehead+ahead+unusual/8970477/story.html

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Necessary Communication

Effective communication is vital for any field of science.  As a (hopefully) future engineer I’ll need to use writing to communicate my ideas to the company I’m working for in order to get my design plans accepted and implemented.  A major part of the type of engineering I’m hoping to go into involves designing chemical reactors for optimal safety and productivity.  The chemical engineering department of Carnegie Melon University has a research paper titled “Synthesis of Optimal Chemical Reactor Networks” that is similar to something I might have to write someday of I ever come up with a new design process for a chemical reactor.  The abstract and introduction of the paper clearly outline the need for higher optimization of chemical reactors and they explain the sort of math that is used in the report to draw these conclusions.

Although this report is not interesting in any way shape or form, the information and evidence contained within it are concrete and the paper clearly outlines the method of design for the chemical reactor.  This is a report meant solely for other engineers and is not meant to appeal to the general public whatsoever.  A part of this report that would be challenging is the fact that it cannot show any bias whatsoever, at the risk of seeming unprofessional and losing credibility with its audience.  All claims made in the paper are either referenced to another work or backed up with mathematical modeling.  The report is rife with equations and algorithms and most of its content is written explanation of the derivation and usefulness of these equations in regards to the reactor design.

Although this form of communication is effective in reaching the intended audience, a much simpler form of writing would have to be adopted if the writer of this report wanted it to reach the general public.  To make this report more appealing to the masses there would have to be less math in it and more of a rudimentary explanation of how chemical reactors work and the physical measures that should be taken to optimize them.  However, the general public probably doesn’t really care how chemical reactors are optimized, so the need for a more general article on the subject is really quite unnecessary.

Keeping it Simple

As an ROTC cadet and future Army officer, I spend a lot of time learning about the primary communication source that officers in the Army use. That is the OPORD (Operation Order). To someone who has never seen or heard one, they may seem like alien writing. OPORDs are used at all levels of the Army, from the highest general to the lowest squad member. Everyone in the Army knows about OPORDs. Any time any training or mission is to be completed, several OPORDs are used.

The commander issues an OPORD containing what is supposed to be done, his intentions, considerations for the planning of the mission, a timeline of events, etc. His subordinates receive that OPORD and change it to reflect their intent and so on toward their subordinates. It goes through these changes so that a General can give an OPORD pertaining to some training that he wants to happen at a division level (several thousand troops), and a private receiving the OPORD can know exactly what is going to happen and what he will be doing. Of course, that will be after about 5 or so rounds of changes, but you get the point.

OPORDs are used because they are simple. The Army likes to keep things simple. The Army writing style is defined by the simple acronym KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Basically, writing in the Army is supposed to be easy enough to understand so that anyone with a high school education can easily read and understand it. The Army supposedly writes everything at about an 8th grade reading level.

The order is broken down into manageable paragraphs that contain easily digestible information. Every soldier learns the basics of an OPORD so that when missions come, they can understand what is going on. Again, they are taught in a broken down manner so that even the most unintelligent soldier can receive an OPORD and comprehend his most basic task.

As a budding leader, it is difficult to learn this whole process. The hardest part is learning how to tailor the OPORD toward my subordinates. I am expected to know the information given in an OPORD from my commander, and be able to change all of this information and present it so that my subordinates understand what’s going on. Chances are, once I am an officer, I will be expected to give several OPORDs every week.

The Army writing style makes all of this nice though. Since the writing is supposed to be simple, there is much less of it required on my part. Another aspect of OPORDs are the acronyms. There are seemingly hundreds of acronyms that are used to make the communication simpler and more universal. Several of these are PLT, NLT, PSG, LD, MEDEVAC, FOB, AA,CCP, BTN TTB, EPW, SALUTE. Using these acronyms makes it so that instead of using one of dozens of different words to describe something, we use the acronym so that anyone can understand what we mean.

All in all, OPORDs are a very useful tool to communicate directions to anyone throughout the Army. Other branches of the military also have a similar process that reflects their specialties. This makes it so that OPORDs can be universal throughout the military community. The best part about them is their ease. Once I am an officer, I will be able to receive one, and then send out my own within a period of no longer than 15 minutes. In my future career an OPORD may be just as important to me as my own rifle.

An example of an OPORD can be found here: Sample OPORD

The Internet: A Resume For Scientists

In our modern world, more and more information is found on the internet. Because of this, the Internet has become one of, if not the best way, to get your name out there.

For me and my particular interests, The American Psychological Association is a king among citizens in the world of psychology. There website is no different. APA.org is not just aimed to give out random streams of psychological information; its aimed to help people and allow Psychologists to communicate and network with each other. 

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 There mission statement explains their goals perfectly:

“Our mission is to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives.”

The audience that this site attracts are both ‘normal people’ and scientists who are looking for information about psychological research. Because of the broad audience ranging from fellow Phd holders to Joe Six-Pack, the information is presented in a ‘humanistic’ or plain English style of literature. When writing in this style, the psychologists are not bending themselves from their norms of rhetoric because, their research is almost completely comprised of working with people in the general public, and their writing style reflects that. 

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There are hundreds of topics to choose from when logging onto the site and each topic is littered with informational articles written by highly respected psychologists. Reviewed by the ‘Senior Staff’, the Information that is placed on this site is cited with empirical evidence to ensure facticity and the scientists who publish the articles have researched their specific topics extensively before it is seen by the public and other scientists alike.To be published on this site would be an honor to any scientist and would be an ideal way of getting a ‘foot into the door’ in the psychological research world.

 

A Double-sided World

Everybody likes a good argument, whether it is between two friends or two complete strangers. How about an argument between a scientist and a normal everyday working citizen? Despite the amount of interest I would find in two completely different minds battling off I personally do not think it would be very enjoyable to listen to, partially due to the fact that I have come to learn that science is ’emotionless’. That, however, seems to be a necessity; we would not be anywhere as advanced as we are today if we took into account the feelings of every person affected by the actions of science.

Animal experimentation has brought forth many medical findings and it can also be said that human experimentation has brought forth some important findings as well. Despite all this I do not exactly find happiness when listening to a podcast that involves bringing a woman to tears, all while ignoring what she has to say so that a ‘scientist’ can get his point across. This may make me seem like a bad guy to some people for putting down science but, on the contrary, I agree with both sides of this argument. Science may seem cold but I believe it means well. As such lets take a look at the controversy regarding nuclear power as I previously talked about.

In Japan (you may realize by now I am infatuated with Japan), there are always anti-nuclear power rallies going on. As I have said before I have seen a couple personally, such as the June 2013 60,000 person rally in Tokyo by the Diet building. This is due to the recent failings of the Fukushima Nuclear Plant and yet, despite the country-wide disapproval of nuclear power, there are plans to build another nuclear power plant in Japan by 2030. As such this too is science ignoring the pleas of the people with the intent of bettering the nation. If we have to dirty our hand to make the world a better place then so be it!

Subjectivity in Science

While science, specifically scientific research, is a study area where facts and findings allegedly rule over emotion, emotion and motivation still play a major. There is no scientific research without funding, and while many researchers state that they are researching a specific topic solely for the “potential benefits to mankind”, the underlying, deciding factor for choosing what experiments to run is what experiment will get results that can be published in a major journal, which will lead to more grant funding.

This truth has raised a lot of controversy about scientific research. If people are only researching what will get them the most money then isn’t scientific research selfish?

No. Sure there may be some areas of research that are neglected because there is no funding to back that, but researchers do not get paid enough to consider their work “only for the money.” With all the negative connotations associated with being a researcher, ranging from being a nerd to being a machine, there are many other lucrative fields to pursue for those with the drive to do research.

Luckily for mankind, many of the areas of research that generate a lot of funding are areas which do benefit people. Of course there is research being conducted for seemingly shallow reasons (i.e plastic surgery), but even aesthetic scientific research can help save and better lives (burn victims, car crash victims, birth defects, etc). Then there is research that may or may not benefit people such as stem cell research. While it seems promising, stem cell research still could be a dead end. However large advances have been made in the past few decades that make stem cell research an area worth investing research money into.

Whether it is for selfish reasons or not, the pros of continuing scientific research outweigh the cons, so why not keep going?

A Matter of Uncertainty

I’ll be the first to admit that I absolutely adore controversy—just love it.  I’m fascinated by political debates and scientific disputes can keep me spellbound for hours.  There’s something intriguing about the way that the proponents of either side maintain their points using both scientific and cultural elements and I always like hearing both sides of the argument regardless of what my own stance on the matter is.  Such debates rarely manage to sway my own opinions on controversial issues, but I find it interesting that opposing sides can both manage to sound correct based on how the facts are picked and presented.

My very latest obsession is the controversy surrounding climate change and the other day, while mindlessly perusing internet articles on the topic, I came across an interesting line: “politicians and activists tend to speak in black and white, while most scientists speak in shades of gray and temper their complex findings in degrees of uncertainty.”  The quote was in an article from the Chicago Tribune discussing the conflicting claims about global warming but I think the statement is accurate for all aspects of science in our society.  The scientific community has a deep mistrust of “absolute certainty.”  If a scientific report was published stating that the claims it made were one hundred percent guaranteed accurate it would absolutely be met with the ridicule it deserved.  In science there is no such thing as absolute certainty, in fact there are multiple mathematical models that scientists can use to determine exactly how uncertain they really are.

This all sounds well and good but the problem arises from the fact that the scientific definition of uncertainty is very different from the public definition of uncertainty.  This is understandable—if I’m crossing a bridge or taking an antibiotic I want the science behind these things to be extremely sure of itself.  And it is. To a point.  Although nothing in science is absolutely certain, there is a degree of certainty to which scientific findings can be accepted as fact.  Science lends itself to its own public bastardization however by truthfully acknowledging that it can never be completely certain.

This is stunningly contrasted by politicians and activists who claim to be arguing their beliefs with absolute truth.  Nobody would find a presidential candidate very appealing if all of his speeches were full of 75% certain’s and not sure’s, so adamant (although sometimes unfounded) belief is almost necessary in politics and other advocacy groups.  This often causes problems for science when its opposers use its inherent uncertainty as defamation of its findings.  This is unavoidable if science wishes to continue to present itself in a truthful and unbiased manner, however the public needs to realize that uncertainty is a part of the scientific process and it is the means by which science is able to catch and correct its own mistakes in order to continually keep moving forward.