Performing science outreach has become a common alternative career for many classically trained scientists. Whether it’s running a popular YouTube channel where you perform chemistry experiments for kids or writing articles for medical magazines, there are plenty of ways in which you can work within science outreach once you’ve defended your dissertation! Just ask the fine folks at ComSciCon, who are pretty much the United Nations of science communication with their impressive diversity in subject matter.
My Journey into informal STEM education
Before starting my doctorate, I did archaeological research as an undergraduate at the University of Oregon. I realized the kids on the field trips were much more interesting than the shell midden I was analyzing. Why did everyone love being inside a museum more than a science classroom? How could we tell they were engaged? And Why? Was it because of my awesome Hamlet impression using a skull of a cave bear?
My experience at the museum led me to informal science education research, a field that’s garnering more attention. Today, kids are often learning outside of their traditional school settings, especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to school closings and prompting students to learn elsewhere.
While completing my doctorate in Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I worked in two different science museums and conducted research about informal science education. Currently, I’m the director of STEAM and Innovation for the Boy Scouts of America in Chicago. I oversee all STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) programming, which runs the gamut of different mediums of science outreach, from videos to after-school activities! I’m fairly extroverted, so doing this work is quite a joy.
Outreach through writing
I’m also a writer, mostly for mainstream online mediums. In most of my articles, I unpack challenging scientific findings and make them easy to understand. This kind of work is perhaps one of the most common jobs we think of when it comes to science outreach, i.e., the scientist penning a brilliant and retrospective piece for National Geographic. However, there are issues when it comes to writing, especially with presenting current research to a wide range of audiences. Sometimes the science itself is challenging to slough through (such as my Kavli Award-nominated piece on Neanderthal DNA in modern humans). Sometimes, it’s emotionally hard to work through (such as my article on the history of American eugenics). But kindling a sparkle of interest in someone’s eyes when they learn something new brings me such joy and fulfillment, and I bet it does for you too.
If you’re still interested in doing this as a career, awesome! I love my job, and I can’t recommend it enough, especially for those passionate about making science engaging and inclusive for everyone.
Here are some tips on how to get started:
1. Identify what medium you want to do: Are you chatty? Think about public speaking, a video series, or even serving as a scientist-in-residence at a museum (think Emily Gaskin of the Field Museum’s The Brain Scoop). But not everyone is outgoing, and some may prefer writing or drawing their science out. Heck, with all the animated modes that exist now, I’ve seen some brilliant work explaining challenging science in less than 5-7 minutes on teded.com. However, be honest with yourself: how do you like best explaining challenging subjects? On that note...
2. Identify your audience: Who do you want to explain scientific findings to? It’s easy to say kids for most communicators. After all, children are young, they’re excited, and a little bit of foam and lightning gets them cheering. However (and I say this as both an educator and as a parent), certain subjects work better with older age groups, as well as humor. If your humor is a little of the dark and cheeky side, you may get some surly middle-schoolers engaged in physics. If you’re into bright and straightforward science that focuses on size, pre-kindergarteners may be your audience. But don’t forget their parents: adults are the largest audience for science communication and can understand more complicated concepts. With that being stated, as we’ve seen with the last four years of the Trump administration, science denial is a real thing and can be crushing to hear as a novice science communicator. Science denialism is especially relevant when it comes to what you are presenting on….
3. Identify your subject: Some folks within science communication love to focus on one specific topic, such as neurology or wildlife ecology. However, plenty of informal educators focus on a wide range of subjects, such as myself or my fellow communicator, Sadie Witkowski at PhDrinking. Give yourself some thought: which topics make you passionate to write about, heck, to sell? There’s plenty of folks that groan at theoretical physics but squeal with joy when presented with the opportunity to give a tour of invasive plants in a prairie ecosystem. Speaking of green...
4. Look for work (if you want): If you’ve read this far and are going, “Yaaassss, Dr. Voggut Vegeta-barge! This is me, and this is the song of my people! I want to work in science communication!” Awesome, love to hear it. And don’t worry, boo, no one can pronounce my last names. Remember, there are a ton of different jobs to find, with various titles. Always look for the descriptions:
5. Start your own work (if you want): A few folks have successfully trekked out on their own as guest speakers, authors, and illustrators. Self-starting and free-lancing can be challenging to do, as it requires not only grit (think rejection after rejection...but everyone reading has at least one failed NSF project under their belt, so y’all get it), but a fair amount of paperwork. It can be done, though! I’m currently getting paid for many of my articles through taking part with MassiveSci, where graduate students can gain experience, network, publish, and find out new paid opportunities for both contract and full-time work.
This list, and my experience, is far from exhaustive. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me or to many of the brilliant people running ComSciCon, which was the basis for me getting back into writing.
Just about anyone who has come into contact with popular neuroscience and psychology has surely heard of the trendy notion that our brains are "hard-wired" in certain ways. A simple search of "hard-wired" in Google News demonstrates how pervasive this idea is:
Let's dig into that last link. Here's a quote:
"It makes more sense to see traits such as cooperation, egalitarianism, altruism, and peacefulness as natural to human beings. These were the traits that have been prevalent in human life for tens of thousands of years. So presumably, these traits are still strong in us now."
This is the classic argument so often presented: that although the world around us has changed drastically in the last 5,000 years, our brains haven't, and that is why we are ancient brains living in a modern world.
It's easy to see why this argument is so popular. For one, it's intuitive. Evolution occurs incredibly slowly. That's why it took so long into human history to discover it, and it's one of the many reasons people today deny its existence. If evolution occurs slowly, then our biology is likely extremely similar to the biology of ancient humans.
But I also think these "hard-wired" arguments are popular because they subvert our responsibility for our own behavior, and it can go both ways. For behaviors we feel guilty about (such as prejudice and racism), "hard-wired" arguments offer excuses for immoral behavior. Similarly, for behaviors like altruism, "hard-wired" arguments let us point fingers away from ourselves and instead at systems and institutions which have supposedly betrayed our natural tendencies.
A common thread in the above links is that the trait which is supposedly "hard-wired" is whichever trait fits a narrative—it's racism if we're talking about mass incarceration or it's cooperation if we're looking to inspire institutional change.
Yet, in my view, none of these "hard-wired" arguments seem to have any respect for our developmental potential, our changing brain, and the complexity of human behavior.
Our Changing Brain
It's probably obvious to most that a child's brain has the capacity to change, develop, and adapt to their environment. As just one example, a child's prefrontal cortex, compared to adults, is very underdeveloped— therefore, a typical child is less effective at making complex, long-term decisions.
Yet, in the past few decades, neuroscientists have begun to have a much deeper appreciation for the adult brain's capacity for change—a term known as "plasticity." For example, we now know that adults, too, grow new neurons in some regions of the brain and that the brain undergoes profound differences throughout one's lifetime.
Imagine for a moment that the neurons in your brain are a series of connected roads, crisscrossing and linking to each other like a complex city. The neurons in your brain change in two prominent ways.
First, the intersections between roads are either formed or lost in a process called synaptic plasticity. Some intersections become stronger and more efficient, such as a cloverleaf interchange between highways. Others become weaker—maybe a four-way gravel road with a flashing red light.
Second, the capacity of each road can change; some become 6-lane highways and others two-lane streets through a process of myelination that is performed by the supportive glial cells. (Written about in an article of mine, here.)
These processes are happening constantly throughout childhood and into adulthood. It's believed that plasticity influences our effect, character traits, and of course, behavior. None of what I described is compatible with the notion of "hard-wiring" in our brain.
It’s time to give up our supposed evolutionary baggage
The problem with the "hard-wired" argument is that it is inherently rigid and, I think, potentially dangerous. From Barbara King at NPR:
"A big problem with words like "hard-wired" and its familiars is their fuzziness, particularly in regard to what they might imply about the human capacity for learning and change."
One common argument amongst evolutionary psychologists is that our brains are hard-wired to feel more empathy toward people within our own tribe—our own social status, race, sex, etc. This trait stems from an ancestral world in which it would be advantageous to vigorously protect your own group and be suspicious of difference which may introduce conflict. Indeed, I can understand this line of thinking—it is very difficult to extend compassion beyond our close inner circle, people who share our experience.
But this fact doesn't abrogate me from the practice of intentionally mixing with groups from different backgrounds and certainly doesn't provide any evidence of a "hard-wired" opposition to difference. Feelings of love and hate are "triggered under given circumstances, facilitated or hampered by social conditions and structures" (Anthropologist Patrick Clarkin).
In fact, there is strong empirical evidence of our social group's influence on our view of others — not our brain's hard-wiring. Psychologists Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp carried out an extremely extensive meta-analysis of over 1,400 papers that analyzed the effects of intergroup contact and found that an astonishing 94% of the studies showed that increased intergroup contact was associated with less prejudice. An association is, of course, not exactly a causal link. Yet, impressively, the study ruled out the possibility of a reverse causal sequence, publication bias, and other alternative explanations to put forth the most substantive evidence to date that it is our social structure, not our inherent biology or "hard-wiring," which influences our prejudice.
It goes without saying that this is an extremely complex and nuanced topic. Certain aspects of human nature are inherent, such as those embedded in the genetic code itself. Yet my point is to simply urge you to think critically about popular arguments that attempt to portray your brain as already formed, ancestral, and incapable of change. If 2020 has shown us anything, it's that we don't have a choice—we need to change ourselves for the better.
“So, where are you thinking of applying for college?”
The dreaded question every high school senior is asked around this time of year. As deadlines for early and regular decision applications loom in the not-so-distant future, most students are looking at co-ed colleges and universities, especially if they are thinking about going into a STEM field. But women interested in pursuing a STEM major should also consider women’s colleges* as an incredible alternative to the typical college experience. Women’s colleges are undergraduate institutions where the population of students is exclusively or almost exclusively women. Though opportunities for women in higher education are always growing, women’s colleges allow women to be the primary focus, which is extremely beneficial.
1. The science is just as good as co-ed schools. One common misconception about attending a women’s college is that they mostly cater to students interested in the arts and humanities. However, going to a women’s college does not mean that you have to sacrifice working in a scientific research lab during undergrad. Grant-funded scientific research is thriving at women’s colleges. Students are encouraged to ask questions, learn new methods, and even publish papers and attend conferences. Students are 1.5 times more likely to graduate with a degree in a STEM field if they go to a women’s college compared to women who attend co-ed institutions, and they are also almost twice as likely to go to graduate school. Some women’s colleges are building curriculums around research and allowing students to develop their own questions within the scope of a course in order to gain research experience.
2. Women’s colleges tend to be small.
With some of the country’s largest universities topping out at over 60,000 people, it can be challenging to stand out from your peers. Women’s colleges are much smaller, generally ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 students (though if you want to go really small, Sweet Briar College in Virginia reported 351 students enrolled as of September 2020). This means fewer students in classes, even in introductory-level courses. When moving into junior and senior-level courses, it is not uncommon to have fewer than ten students. My largest class at Agnes Scott College was an introductory biology class with 40 students in it, and my smallest class was my senior seminar with five. These small class sizes allowed me to build strong relationships with faculty members who were then able to write strong letters of recommendation for my graduate school applications.
3. You’ll find and grow your confidence.Women’s colleges pride themselves on being supportive environments. Part of that comes organically from the absence of male students on campus, as students may feel more comfortable on a mostly single-sex campus. But part of that is also fostered by the staff, faculty, and students. Alumni describe that encouragement from faculty to engage, even if they fail, had an immeasurable impact on their confidence and abilities. In the words of a Bryn Mawr College graduate and faculty member at Cedar Crest College: “Being taken seriously for four years will do amazing things for a woman’s confidence.” Additionally, students and alumni report that a distinct lack of sexism, particularly in traditionally male-dominated majors, gave students space to learn freely and grow their self-worth. This confidence building goes beyond the classroom and the lab, though. Women hold all of the leadership positions in school clubs and organizations, so you are always surrounded by women who are doing great things.
4. You’ll become a well-rounded student.While many women’s colleges started out as seminaries, they have adopted a wide variety of majors across the arts, humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences. This breadth of knowledge works to your advantage as a budding scientist. Not only does taking courses outside of your comfort zone challenge you, but it also teaches you “soft skills” which are helpful in any career. These can include public speaking, writing, creativity, and interpersonal skills. Alumni of women’s colleges recount that having experiences in different fields of study provided them with more opportunities professionally. One Sweet Briar College graduate noted, “In graduate school interviews, I could talk about my research and science, but also about music and traveling. [The interviewers] liked that I had a diverse background.”
5. You may even be more prepared for graduate or professional school than your co-ed peers.When I asked about the experiences of women’s college graduates who went on to graduate or professional programs, almost all of them said that their undergraduate education at a women’s college more than prepared them for graduate school. In fact, several of them said that their undergrad was more rigorous than their graduate program. Faculty at women’s colleges hold their students to incredibly high standards and push them regularly to be the best students and scientists that they can be. Students are asked to think critically while engaging in the course material, which is often what is asked of students during graduate and professional school.
I graduated from Agnes Scott College with a B.S in Neuroscience in 2018, and I loved my experience. Though the choice to attend a women’s college seemed unconventional when I first applied, I now, as a graduate student, attribute my successes in science to my experience at a women’s college. The faculty supported me in my research and academics throughout my time at school, and they pushed me to apply for a PhD program directly out of undergrad. I believe attending a women’s college was one of the best decisions I ever made as a nascent scientist, and I would encourage other women to explore these institutions when applying to colleges this fall.
*An important note: as the culture and language around gender identity shifts, many traditional women’s colleges are adopting policies to be more accepting of current and prospective trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming students. Generally speaking, women’s colleges foster a culture of openness and acceptance with regard to sexual and gender identity. For more information regarding the shift in the definition of women in women’s colleges, see https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/9/21/16315072/spelman-college-transgender-students-womens-colleges
From zero to infinity, the thought itself is formidable for most of us. When a large population considered mathematics as a pointless and cold subject, a young woman's mind was fascinated and excited by it. Transcending beyond boundaries, Maryam Mirzakhani, a woman mathematician from Iran, went on to become the first woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal. Fields Medals are regarded as the mathematics' Nobel Prize (which does not exist for mathematics).
Growing up in Tehran was difficult for imaginative Maryam since the Iran-Iraq war was fought from 1980 to 1988, and the environment was tough. She dreamt of becoming a writer and was creative enough to make stories of a girl who achieved great things like becoming a mayor. Growing up, her favorite pastime was reading novels, and surprisingly she did not love playing with numbers. Her older brother got her curious about mathematics by telling her stories about elegant ways to solve problems. She completed her schooling in Tehran and has always credited her teachers for her education. She stressed during an interview that she was fortunate to have a nurturing environment at home and that her mentors fought hard to have equal opportunities for girls in a post-war world. She also stated the importance of her friendship with a classmate, Roya Behesti. She has said that such alliances not only help to build your passions but keep you motivated to achieve your dreams.
Maryam Mirzakhani represented Iran in the Mathematical Olympiad in 1994. She scored 41 out of 42 and was awarded a gold medal. The more time she spent with mathematicians, the more she fell in love with mathematics. During her undergraduate program at Sharif University, she published scientific papers and survived a bus crash while participating in an inter-city mathematics competition. There was no stopping Maryam henceforth. She completed her graduate studies at Harvard under the guidance of Prof. Curt McMullen and was awarded the doctorate in 2004 for her 130-page thesis Simple Geodesics on Hyperbolic Surfaces and Volume of the Moduli Space of Curves. Being from Iran, she often drew comparisons between the education system of Iran and the USA. She took the best from each of the cultures advancing in her pursuit of mathematics. She described her work to be connected with theoretical physics, topology, and combinatorics. Being a pioneer in her field, she was fascinated and inspired by the multiple ways and perspectives a problem could be approached as well as the existence of different methods to solve a problem. She found collaborations exciting and learned a lot from collaborators, all while working on her mathematical enigmas. While she took pride in the accolades, she was never concerned with them. Her research ideology was to follow the problems and be guided by them in the field. She directly engaged with the scientific challenge with mathematics, no matter how formidable the challenge was.
In 2004 she was offered a junior fellowship at Harvard, but she turned down to accept the Clay Research Fellowship. She was appointed as an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University. The Clay Fellowship offered many benefits to Maryam. She was able to think about more challenging problems, travel freely, and it allowed her to have rewarding mathematical conservations with colleagues. She has also said on record that she was a slow thinker and took time to clean and present her ideas. Her humble nature allowed her to admit her shortcomings and praise colleagues of different backgrounds for helping her make progress in her work.
Maryam started her career in mathematics with a background in combinatorics and algebra, but by the time she joined Stanford University as a Professor of Mathematics, she was described as "a master of curved spaces." In a short time, she proved many amazing theorems about shortest paths called 'geodesics' on curved surfaces, among many other remarkable results in geometry and beyond. In her own words, she described that "The most rewarding part is the "Aha" moment, the excitement of discovery and enjoyment of understanding something new, the feeling of being on top of a hill, and having a clear view. But most of the time, doing mathematics for me is like being on a long hike with no trail and no end in sight!"
Maryam advocated for students to find their passion in life. She did not believe that everyone should become a mathematician, but she firmly believed students should give mathematics a real chance. She once said, "I did poorly in math for a couple of years in middle school; I was just not interested in thinking about it. I can see that without being excited, mathematics can look pointless and cold. The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers". Upon being asked to give career advice to students, Maryam simply said that she used career advice on Terry Tao's web page herself.
As of today, women only represent 20 percent of full-time math faculties in U.S. universities, according to the American Mathematical Society. Women need to change the stereotyped role models to "see themselves" in certain STEM careers. Maryam's legacy will inspire the next generation of women.
Legacies are not defined by accolades but are defined by the way they inspire millions of minds. A down to earth woman mathematician who won a Fields Medal loved spending time with her husband and daughter while enjoying herself reading and exercising. Being a simple, humble young woman from war-torn Iran, a loving wife, and a beloved mother of a daughter, Maryam Mirzakhani has shown the world that legacies like hers will inspire millions of young women to pursue and excel in any field of choice. Maryam Mirzakhani's stimulating legacy dares girls all over the world to dream big and pursue their dreams facing any adversities in the way.
HAVING A BABY DURING A PHD
When my husband and I started chatting about having kids, I was in the first year of my PhD. We went back and forth, trying to decide between having a baby during my PhD or waiting until I submitted my thesis. My PhD supervisors, who were all mothers, gave me great advice: there is no right time to have a baby when in research and to go with your life plan. Putting my PhD out of mind, we decided that it was the right time to start trying. I had my daughter at the end of my second year of my PhD and had a year of maternity leave in 2018 (3 months paid and 9 months unpaid, which is fairly normal in Australia).
Having a baby during my PhD had its pros and cons. It brought time for my manuscripts to go through the peer-review process and get published while on leave. It was hard to come back, and when I did, I only had six months left to submit my thesis. My husband ended up taking his paternity leave in the last three months of my thesis so I could focus all my attention on getting it done. Having a baby definitely made the experience harder but ultimately more rewarding! The same options for maternity and paternity leave are not readily available to everyone, so make sure to be aware of the support you are entitled to and use them to your advantage.
Tips to share from this experience:
TRAVELLING FOR RESEARCH (WITH A BABY)
I was fortunate enough to receive a grant to collaborate in Germany while on maternity leave. As a PhD student, this was too good an opportunity to pass, so we decided to go, though we recognized the challenges ahead. I was then lucky enough to get a travel award to attend a conference in Scotland. Perfect! We would extend our trip and after Germany, do a bit of travel and then head to Scotland.
But of course, things don't always go to plan. My husband got promoted. The role change meant he couldn't take two months off anymore. He still was able to take off a month for Germany, but what about Scotland?
Since grants and awards don't come easily, we decided to go to Germany for a month, go back to Australia, and then after two weeks, I would head back to Scotland by myself to attend the conference. It was an insane plan that I can't believe we managed to pull off!
Tips to share from this experience:
SCOTLAND WITHOUT A BABY
The trip to Scotland was much harder. The conference was a great experience, and I got to present my research. But being away from my daughter was incredibly difficult as it was the first time leaving her for an extended period of time.
Tips to share from this experience:
COVID-19 AND A TODDLER (AND DEALING WITH THE TERRIBLE TWOs)
I was a post-doc for seven months before COVID-19 struck. Our daughter turned two just before the craziness, and we are dealing with the 'terrible twos' while juggling working from home. I work in the morning while my husband looks after our daughter, and then we swap in the afternoon.
Tips to share from this experience:
Here are two hard truths that I've come to (eventually) accept two and a half years of juggling parenthood and research that help me maintain my sanity:
While I was fortunate to have generous support during my PhD from my supervisors, family, and the university in terms of maternity leave, not everyone has the same support. Policies that help new parents in science will provide equal opportunity around the world. In particular, universities should provide paid-leave, well-appointed breastfeeding rooms, and flexible working hours to support new parents and nursing mothers. Parenting often coincides with when female researchers are climbing up the career ladder. A lack of support will leave researchers struggling at crucial phases of their scientific career.
However, the positive message I leave you with is that while having a child and juggling research is challenging, it is not impossible. I'm amazed at what I've achieved so far, and I know many mothers who have successfully balanced parenthood and research life!
The subjects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are often grouped together due to their inherent overlap in subject matter and logic-focused approach to teaching and learning. However, with a rising employment focus on interdisciplinary skills, STEM is increasingly paired with the arts to create the all-encompassing educational approach known as ‘STEAM.’
Even for those within the field, the ‘arts’ can be hard to define. In reference to ‘STEAM,’ the term ‘arts’ typically refers to the creative arts, subjects such as creative writing, photography and film, music, drama, illustration, and design. The integration of these subjects into STEM learning is no new concept; you could say it laid the foundation for the entire European Renaissance of the middle ages, driving rationalized creativity, invention, and perhaps even modern society as we know it. STEAM thinking has served an excellent purpose for societal advancement throughout history; however, in our post-renaissance logic-centered world of circuit boards and wires, do the arts really have a place in 21st Century STEM, or is STEAM-thinking just another outdated trend?
A Focus on STEM
Despite many groundbreaking scientific discoveries being coupled with the arts (look at the first images of microbes sketched by van Leeuwenhoek, or the amazing mechanical inventions of Da Vinci), not everyone agrees upon the value of modern STEAM; in fact, some believe that the arts should leave STEM well alone altogether and not detract from a purist approach to technological progress. This resistance to STEAM is perhaps unsurprising, considering the STEM-focused pressures of our rapidly changing world and 21st Century fears surrounding job insecurity.
In recent decades, an explosion of new technology, environmental issues, and consequent social pressures have resulted in increased funding opportunities (https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/uk-cues-big-funding-increases-rd) for science and technology research and development, supposedly increasing job security for those who study within STEM-related fields. This wealth of opportunity within STEM has detracted potential funding from the arts, forcing a clear distinction between the two in schools and universities - this is probably the main reason many of us view the arts and sciences as inherently distinct.
A scarcity of funding for arts-based research has made establishing an arts-focused career a challenge for many - a fact which has not been overlooked by schools and universities. A lack of tenure track opportunities for arts-qualified individuals means that STEM professors remain the pride of educational institutions, leaving post-doctoral artists hidden in shadowy, forgotten departments (should there be any at all). Outside academia, the prospect for arts graduates looks a little more promising. However, creative arts retain some of the lowest employment rates of any discipline (https://theconversation.com/humanities-graduates-earn-more-than-those-who-study-science-and-maths-141112). These ongoing challenges have forced many creative personalities into a more lucrative career in STEM, making STEAM an all-the-more appealing outlet when it comes to professional development and creative careers.
Integrating Art into Science and Tech
By integrating the arts with STEM, a growing market for education, communication, and engagement provides much-needed career opportunities for creative individuals. This is perhaps best exemplified within the increasingly diverse sector, known as medical communications (medcomms). Increasingly, visual artists, producers, and writers are employed into medcomms for their visionary thinking, communication skills, and understanding of design. These skills are extremely valuable when communicating hard-hitting, complicated, or technical aspects of STEM (such as pharmaceutical, surgical, or public health matters) where relying on non-creative insight simply would not be enough.
Though the arts and sciences share a distinctly different agenda, understanding and interpretation are both essential to innovation. Typically, STEM subjects focus on hard skills (such as calculating, operating, and building) in an understanding of how the world works. The arts, however, tend to focus on soft skills (such as communication, understanding, and expression) through an interpretation of our human experience. By applying an arts perspective to STEM know-how, creative solutions can be found for real-world problems; perhaps the most obvious example of this is in the development of advanced robotics and artificial intelligence.
Fiction and fantasy have long since predicted the development of machines that can truly live the human experience (consider films like ‘AI’ or ‘Ex Machina’). While there is no doubt that robotic technology is rapidly advancing, true intelligence will never be achieved without a deep and profound understanding of the arts, imagination, and culture. While humanized robots may seem far from reality [yet], STEAM is already having an impact on innovation closer to home. If you own a high-end or latest generation tablet, computer, or mobile device, there’s a strong probability you chose it, at least in part, for its appealing design and intuitive user experience. Steve Jobs famously said, “technology alone is not enough,” and this STEAM approach has produced some of the most human-centric innovations of our lifetime.
STEAM For The Future
As we continue to innovate our understanding of the world, we must also innovate our education systems. By re-integrating the arts into STEM within schools and universities, it is possible to appeal an understanding of science and tech to the broadest possible audience - not just those who have a natural aptitude for hard skills. By using the arts as a tool for science communication, it is possible to promote a new, public understanding of science and trust in technology - something which is ever more essential in our STEM-driven world and not least prepares young people for a STEM-oriented jobs market.
A collaborative post with the Fancy Comma
Each day, there is new scientific information to absorb from daily interactions and the media. The most pressing issues facing the world today, like climate change and COVID-19, require scientific understanding and scientific solutions. This post will explain the significance of science literacy with the goal of educating how to arm yourself with the necessary tools to meet the information age from an informed position. With science literacy, the ability to judge truth from fiction becomes a reality.
What is Science Literacy?
Science literacy is the basic understanding of scientific concepts, methods, and research findings to be able to comprehend scientific studies and results. Science literacy involves four interrelated abilities:
1. Determining scientific validity. The awareness of basic scientific standards which validate research such as reproducibility and peer-review.
2. Knowing where to find valid scientific research. Websites such as PubMed and Google Scholar are hubs for peer-reviewed journal articles. Some journals are accepted as legitimate by the scientific community, while others are viewed skeptically.
3. Understanding scientific information and arguments. The basic understanding of scientific concepts and methodology. Perhaps paramount, is the ability to judge the validity of conclusions made in scientific studies based on the presented data and chosen methodology.
4. Applying scientific concepts to other contexts. This means understanding the relationship between research and real world application.
Why is Science Literacy Important?
Science literacy allows us to understand what is happening in the world, how to prepare for the effects, and what you can do to mitigate the impact. Knowing what questions to ask about the information you are presented with will influence the solutions you support. Conflicting explanations, media/political bias, and the shortcomings in science journalism can cloud a scientific message. Science literacy is the power to make your own evidence-based conclusions that can guide your actions (ie: voting, mask wearing, vaccination choice).
How to Improve Your Science Literacy
There are essentially two different means of increasing your level of science literacy. One is to take a “textbook” approach, using learning resources available online, such as PowerPoint lectures, recorded lectures, study guides, or print resources such as textbooks or books.
The other approach is a “learn-as-you-go” approach, reading scientific research and researching the meaning of specific concepts, methods, or findings as you come across them. The key is to make sure that you understand these concepts, methods, and key findings well enough to explain them in simple terms to others. As you read more research your knowledge will continue to build. If using the "learn-as-you-go" approach, be sure to check that the information you gather is coming from a reputable source.
It seems there is an ever-increasing proliferation of competing research and scientific explanations that bring with them a rapidly increasing need for every individual to have a basic level of scientific literacy. Keeping up with this information and making determinations about the legitimacy of competing arguments is no trivial task. To learn more about science literacy, why it matters, and how to gain it, check out our blog post here.
As per the CDC, in 2018, an estimated 16 million people in the United States live with a smoking-related disease, and 1 out of 5 deaths is due to cigarette smoking. Smoking-related maladies can vary from cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, and lung diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). While cancer-related deaths are the leading cause of premature deaths, respiratory diseases like COPD rank second among heavy smokers. An estimated 328 million people have COPD worldwide. COPD was also estimated to be the seventh and tenth leading cause of disability in high-income countries and low or middle-income countries, respectively. COPD is a clinical manifestation associated with the lung, leading to shortness of breath, cough, exercise intolerance, and sputum production. Lung function tests and chest X-ray primarily detect COPD. Although constant exposure to pollutants and particulate matter can lead to progressive COPD, a survey conducted by Copenhagen City Heart study for a period of 25 years showed that the absolute risk of developing COPD among smokers is 25% higher than non-smokers. Another survey conducted in South Carolina similarly reported that 25.6 % of active smokers who had smoked ≥ 30 years had developed COPD.
Effects of cigarette smoke on the lungs
The human lung is a complex system involved in gas transfer. It possesses a large surface area (nearly 100 sq meters), which begins at the trachea, gradually branching out as bronchioles (airways) to over millions of closed air sacs, termed alveoli, where gas transfer takes place. An average human inhales about 10,000 liters of air per day. The lung possesses an elegant set of defense mechanisms (cilia, mucus, and immune cells like neutrophils, alveolar macrophages, and dendritic cells) to protect itself from inhaled particulate material and pathogens. Cigarette smoking leads to particulate material deposition in the lung. Inhaled tobacco smoke moves from the mouth through the upper airway, ultimately reaching the alveoli. As the smoke moves more deeply into the respiratory tract, more soluble gases are adsorbed, and particles are deposited in the airways and alveoli.
Cigarette smoking causes severe pathophysiological changes in the lung, including mucus production, airways remodeling, tissue damage, and accelerated decline in lung function. Constant exposure of cigarette smoke initiates a cascade of chronic inflammation characterized by activation and infiltration of inflammatory cells like neutrophils, T cells, and B cells into the lung.
Smoking = accelerated aging
Aging is a natural process that results in a decline in organ function and an increased vulnerability to infection and chronic diseases. The human lung none-the-less faces the same fate. Lung aging is associated with several anatomic (enlargement of alveoli without alveolar wall destruction, the reduced surface area for gas exchange, often referred to as "senile emphysema") and functional changes (reduced elastic recoil and increased gas trapping). These changes result in a progressive decrease in expiratory flow rates with age in otherwise healthy people.
Smoking induces a profound remodeling of the aged lung. As per CDC reports, approximately 80% of the COPD related deaths have been associated with smoking, and approximately 8.4 % of the US population above 65 years smoke regularly. The World health organization (WHO) states that by 2050 approximately 22% of the world population will be over 60 years of age compared to 11% in 2000.
A study in a mouse model demonstrated that cigarette smoke exposure in aged mice (12-month-old) accelerated inflammation (higher accumulation of neutrophils, macrophages, and lymphocytes in the lung) and COPD symptoms as compared to young mice (2-month-old). Cigarette smoke exposure increases collagen deposition around the airways of aged mice, enhancing stiffness resulting in difficulty in breathing. Accelerated aging was also observed in mice exposed to cigarette smoke. In short, cigarette smoke exposure elevates lung inflammation in old mice, induces changes in the immune cells, and accelerates COPD's pathophysiological hallmarks. The duration of smoking is also directly related to COPD severity. The combined effect of age and smoking duration correlates with higher lung deterioration among aged subjects (60 years and above) with over 20 years of smoking than those of the same age with only five years of smoking.
Although not completely curable, COPD progression can be eased with proper medications, like inhalers, steroids, or surgery. Inhalers are prescribed depending upon the severity of the disease and can be short-acting (inhaled just before any physical activity) like albuterol, levalbuterol, or long-acting (inhaled daily) aclidinium, arformoterol, formoterol, tiotropium, etc. These inhalers act as a quick relief and function by relaxing the muscles' stiffness around the airways. Steroids (inhalational/ oral) are prescribed to patients with worsened COPD conditions. They function by preventing airway inflammation, relaxing the airways, and preventing exacerbations. A few names of steroids are fluticasone, budesonide, roflumilast, and theophylline. Often, these steroids are given in combination with inhalers. However, prolonged use of these steroids can lead to side-effects like weight gain, osteoporosis, diabetes, and cataracts. Surgery is the option for patients who are not relieved by medication. However, they carry significant risks, such as organ rejection, and one may need to take lifelong immune-suppressing medications. Finally, COPD is a disease manifestation. Its progression can be paused with proper medication and care, like breathing exercises, avoiding pollution and smoke, a healthy lifestyle, and regular consultation with your healthcare provider.
PhD students are often asked what they like to do after graduate school. Since the beginning, my answer has always been something in the realm of science communication. Sure, I have flip-flopped between being an MSL, a medical writer, and working in science policy — but I’ve always stayed steadfast that my post-PhD job will play towards my strengths: critical thinking, presenting, and writing. At first, I mostly received encouraging responses to my career goals. I felt special, like I had my life together with a solid plan of where I wanted my PhD to take me. A couple years into my PhD, that perception changed, when I met the “post-doc bullies”.
Post-doc bullies might be a confusing term, they are not post-docs who bully, they are people who bully you into doing a post-doc. Post-doc bullies believe a PhD is not worth pursuing if a post-doc is not the next step. They also share a perspective that academic research careers are paramount, and that choosing otherwise is a lesser option. They might say an alternative career is a “sell out.”
In the current economy where industry hires as many PhDs as academia, perhaps it’s time we stand up to these post-doc bullies and have alternative opinions be heard. This blogpost is not a condemnation about doing a post-doc. If a post-doc is in the cards for you, get after it! Chase your goals. I advocate for putting a stop to pushing ideals on the next generation of scientists and recognize them for the individuals that they are.
Perhaps the worst trait that some post-doc bullies have is the perception that they know better, more specifically, they know what’s best for you (the audacity!). I’ve been talked to in this condescending manner a few times, “trust me I’ve been in academia for so many years, you haven’t been a scientist long enough to understand.” To this I concede, I am younger than most (all?) established academic scientists, and yes, I have less experience than them too.
When I’m told this, I second-guess myself, even doubt the research and networking I’ve done for my career. When someone says, "I know better because I’m older," they are using their position to make you question your own reasoning. They are making you feel ignorant so they can win the argument.
How do you combat gaslighting career advice? Don’t take the gas-lighter head on. First, recognize that you are being gaslighted, their attempts to make you feel stupid is an attempt to appear superior. Recognizing this behavior will allow yourself to alleviate your uncertainty and hold true to your beliefs. If the gas-lighter is your PI, speak to your committee members or other mentors who support your choice. Always remember, your thoughts and opinions are valid.
Most post-doc bullies believe the only option post-PhD is to post-doc. Academia or – well, there is no “or”. This philosophy negates the fact that scientists are firstly, humans and thereby unique.
I am a person first and a scientist fifth (wife, daughter, sister, and friend precede scientist). As an individual, I have expectations in my life that do not align well with a post-doc. Some scientists may love the culture of academia, while others look forward to a new work environment. Advising every PhD student to do a post-doc assumes that other factors aren’t pertinent to a career choice, utterly dehumanizing the scientist.
In conversations with cookie-cutters I first ask myself if the argument is worth my time and effort. It usually isn’t. But, if you decide to argue, take the high road. Congratulate them for making their choice and highlight that you are a different person from them. Explain why the post-doc option is not right for you. If all else fails, explain that academia does not make you happy and you want to find a job that makes you happy. They can’t argue with that, although some may try.
Skewed perceptions of time
Many post-doc bullies will argue that a few years in a post doc is not much of a difference in the long run. “Building a career is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t be impatient.” This point is something I agree with from time to time. After-all, I made this same argument to convince myself to pursue a PhD.
However, I inherently do not understand what is wrong with wanting a well-paying job in your late 20s/ early 30s. When I graduate, I will have a B.S, M.S, PhD, and two years of industry experience. Why should I accept a job with a $50,000/ year salary? I was offered a job with that salary without my M.S and PhD in 2015. I want to pay off my student loans, buy a house, and raise a family. I want to retire at 65. Unfortunately, a $50,0000 salary cuts into my financial well-being, and makes my personal goals, which I elevate above my career goals, harder to attain. I am happy to bring up these points in arguments against post-doc bullies because I am not ashamed to have prioritized my personal life over my professional life.
Most often, a post-doc bully does not have a good understanding of the job landscape for STEM PhDs. Fortunately, arguing with a post-doc bully with outdated facts is the easiest, all you have to do is update them:
Post-doc bully: You won’t make as much money if you skip your post-doc.
Rebuttal: PhDs who skip the post-doc make almost a quarter-million dollars more in the first 15 years of their professional career than their post-doc counterparts.
Post-doc bully: You can’t get a job with a post-doc.
Rebuttal: No. This is not true. In fact, a recent independent survey said 40% of PhDs began their post-graduate school career in a position that did not require a post-doc.
Post-doc bully: Play it safe, do the post-doc first, then do industry.
Rebuttal: Some argue that doing a post-doc might make you less marketable for industry. If you truly want to play it safe, try an industry post-doc.
Post-doc bully: You can’t come back into academia if you don’t do a post-doc.
Rebuttal: Not completely true. If industry doesn’t work out, there are avenues back to academia. It’s the road less traveled, but not impossible.
Disclaimer: Not all post-doc bullies are malicious. Some truly believe the post-doc route is the way to go. When faced with a post-doc bully, you might not be able to dissuade them. And that’s ok, we are entitled to our own opinions. I respect the pro-post-doc attitude as long as team post-doc lend non-post-doc proponents equal respect.
I’m a postdoctoral researcher now, but truthfully, I never did like science. Nor did I see myself having a future in academia. Throughout my career, I’ve wondered which is better, do what you like, or like what you do? A simple Google will result in many articles discussing this, so I can’t be the only one wondering.
Growing up financially restricted, I could not afford many things — education was one of them. This was the case for many others in my home country. The education system is a little bit complicated to describe, but suffice to say, higher education was not equally accessible, influenced by uncontrollable factors, like finances and racial identity.
Here in Melbourne, Australia, I am now a post-doc, with four first-author publications resulting from my PhD, and several awards. To this day, I continue to reap the fruits of labor from my PhD even after having left the lab nine months ago. Believe me, when I say, most of my early accomplishments were not planned! My end goal was to live comfortably overseas in a country with better living standards, and along those lines, that required a PhD in a relatively well-established university. Although concerned I wouldn’t enjoy the PhD journey, it was my genuine captivation for research that got me through grad school — even though I had begun my education with hardly any passion.
A university degree in molecular and cell biology
In high school, I picked up biology faster than my peers, probably because English was the language in which it was taught, and I had a reasonably good command of the languages, but honestly, studying was never my thing! Not knowing what I could achieve at the end of high school, I thought it would be best to do what everyone did – attend a university and graduate with a degree. With some luck and a student loan as a stepping stone, I acquired a relatively competitive (and high valued) scholarship to transfer from Malaysia to Australia midway through my undergraduate.
Though biology was easy for me to pick up, I had a lot of doubt if it was my calling. I spent four years studying something I was “talented” at, and asked questions later. During those four years, I was somewhat engrossed in molecular and cell biology, yet I would not have called it “my true calling.” It was hard to know if it was, probably because the bulk of my life decisions at that point were made by going for the next best thing.
Genuine interests for the sciences developed during grad school
As an undergraduate, my grades and my performance for molecular biology were pretty decent, and I received some encouraging remarks from others that led to thoughts of considering undergrad research. Despite the grades and favorable outlook, I was still uncertain at this point in time if I was cut out for research. When I applied for grad school in Australia, one person berated for deciding to do a PhD just because others encouraged me and thought it might be a good fit. After all, one can imagine that this was probably not a very sound reason to pursue years of commitment to research.
The first time I learned of my PhD topic, I struggled to genuinely fall in love with it, but I had hopes that curiosity and passion could be nurtured because it would have been disastrous to go through a PhD training without any enthusiasm.
What really made the difference was having a great team that nurtured what little excitement for the sciences I had. I was fortunate to have a wise PhD advisor who often integrated the humanities into our PhD training, making science more fun and enjoyable. Who knew that years later, I would be going to conferences, engaging with scientists of different backgrounds, most of whom seem to say I am full of vibrant energy when I speak about my research. Once, a PI said to me, “Wow, it’s incredible to see someone at the end of their PhD, and still have so much passion for science!” and it was then I realized that I was actually passionate about my work. Go team cholesterol and ubiquitin! Oh, and I’m still working on ubiquitin!
My advisor always focused on the positives. He brought out my strengths, which was certainly not an easy endeavor for an introvert like myself with low self-esteem. The support for many of my decisions and unwavering trust in my abilities were huge bonuses for my PhD experience. The outcome? Papers, travel awards, conference opportunities, and now a job in another lab!
Maybe it worked out eventually?
I aimed to live as a permanent resident abroad, and one such path included a PhD program. I took an approach where I grabbed opportunities first and worried later. But it was certainly not easy to pursue a PhD as a means to an end.
It was easy to lose sight of my research and life goals considering my limited devotion to science, and I was still unclear of many decisions while working towards my goals. From time to time, I would remind myself to always be honest and true to myself, to not let goals blur my judgments of what I was comfortable with. For instance, I would like to always be surrounded by respectful, empathetic, and supportive individuals. I also value honesty and kindness. Looking back, it was this environment that nurtured me as a scientist during grad school, and I am still grateful for that. Perhaps as long as we stay true to ourselves and ensure our needs are met, we would always be happy regardless of the career path we choose to take?
Eventually, the time came when I applied for post-doc jobs, and the same thoughts replayed. What kind of research was my calling? Is it better to prioritize a work environment where my personal needs were met? Or, should I chase the topic and hope I can cope with a subpar work environment?
In an ideal world, the best situation is to love what you do, and you’re able to do what you love, but perhaps that may be age-old advice? How many of us get to do that? My main job is a scientist, but that is not the entirety of my life. There is a lot more in life to look forward to! Yes, a significant amount of my time is spent doing research, so I probably should learn to enjoy it, yet I know what speaks to me. In fact, from a young age, many of us probably know what excites us! That is also part of the reason why this article is written because I like to share stories!
To live a happier life, I try to find new outlets to accomplish things I’ve always intended to do! Sadly, being a Pokémon master is not a real-life job, so I’ll have to make do with decorating the lab with Pokémon stickers! As I’m entering a new phase, I think I’ll do the same in my post-doc. I can learn to like my job, but importantly, I need to make sure that my science role can meet my personal needs too!