Archive for: April, 2011

A few of my favorite things

Apr 26 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

One thing I'm realizing about this semester is that I really miss teaching. I've been able to keep my lab running via email and skype, and this semester my class was kindly taken over by my department chair, who has run the course excellently by giving some of the lectures himself and by filling in with other faculty as guest lecturers. Since I still administer the course website I occasionally check out the new lecture slides, etc. and wonder whether the students are enjoying the course more now, or whether they enjoyed it more when I have taught it. Who knows. Today I read a blog post which got me thinking, how do you really know whether students are enjoying a class? There are course evaluations, but those are filled in during the last day of class in a hurry and have pre-packaged questions. Often whiny students who have complaints are the ones who write the lengthiest comments and those tend to be the ones that stick out. I'm sure every professor has their own personal way of gauging their teaching independently of course evaluations. For example, midway through the semester I hand students blank cards and ask them to write some comments about the course so far. I find these much more informative than the end-of-the-year evaluations since they tend to be more candid and allow you to adjust the course to address any problems. But to really know if I'm doing a good job engaging the students I usually look for the following good signs:


1. On a large-ish lecture course I get lots of questions during lecture.

Bored or utterly confused students never ask questions during class. It is actually quite hard to get students to pipe up during a big lecture class. My mid/upper-level course has about 100 students so the room is typically not huge but not tiny either. I usually will stop after discussing a difficult concept and ask if there are any questions. They key here is to wait a full minute before proceeding since it is rare that students can both digest what you just said and come up with a question. I tell them to think of what they heard and I'll give them a bit of time. Of course this is awkward because you just stand there like a fucking dope until someone asks a question. But once one hand goes up, lots of hands start popping up, like little tulips. After a few lectures, if you are lucky, hands simply start popping up at all times without the "awkward minute o' silence". Then you know you've got 'em.


2. Lots of people show up to office hours with elaborate questions and what-ifs about the material.

I enjoy office hours the most 'cause I get to pull out my pencil and paper and go over the concepts with little sketches and shit. Really I think students would learn a lot more if core courses were taught in groups of 3-4 students. Then it's more like a conversation and you can really make sure they get all the concepts. I take showing up to office hours as a sign of being interested enough to make sure you really understand the material. Sure some whiny-o's come to see me with excuses about why they can't take the exam, or whether I could just tell them exactly what the exam will cover, but for the most part, I find that the average office hour visitor is part of the hard-core clique of students that are just curious. I wish there were more of these dudes and dudettes. Some students have told me after graduating that they still have some of my little sketches.


3. Students send unsolicited emails with scientific papers they found and wanted to get my take on them. Or with general more philosophical questions.

Again, there are some students who don't like the office hour scene, but still are thinking of the class material outside of class, or in relation to their other classes. This means they not only are getting the material, but they are applying it. Sure, a lot of "studies" the students ask me about are either based on popular press articles or related to some new alternative woo (eg. "Prof, this paper says they found the medical basis of Reiki!"). But you can use this to teach the students how find the primary source material on their own, and to teach them about differentiating science from pseudoscience. In any case, at least they're thinking about the material.


4. After the term is over students send you emails thanking you for the course.

And this of course is highly appreciated. If you're a student reading this, go ahead, send one of your professors some love (in the form of a nice email or card, not the other kind).


I think what is important, aside from giving awesome lectures and conveying the material clearly, it is very important to make yourself accessible to the students and make them feel comfortable asking for help for clarification or for whatever. I find that most students are really quite good once they are engaged. In fact even if you are a crummy lecturer, being accessible will go a long way towards correcting this.


So do these good signs always happen to me? Am I an awesome teacher? Not always, but when I see these things happen, it's nice. And these are a few of my favorite things...


2 responses so far

Why I don't own a Kindle...

Apr 12 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Yesterday, as I was exiting the bathroom I heard a large splash and realized my new book had slid into the toilet. Although the toilet was empty, I was grossed out enough that I had to go buy a new copy. If I had a Kindle, I thought, I could just download the book again and I wouldn't have to buy a new copy. Then I thought, if I had a Kindle, I would no longer have one that works.

4 responses so far

What have you learned?

Apr 07 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Recently there has been some talk  in the blogosphere that PhD students in biomedical fields are a particularly unhappy bunch. One of the reasons given is the claim that as part of their PhD training, students in life sciences acquire no transferable skills, and if they fail to land an academic position, then they are left with bupkes (ie. nothing). That the training is so specialized that it can only be used within the context of biomedical research, and to go further it can only be applied to the research that is going on in the lab where the training is received. In contrast to other scientific disciplines, students in life sciences do not acquire more generalizable skills such as high-level math or programming. Moreover, due to the rapid progress of science, that these skills will even become obsolete within a few years as new techniques are developed.

Frankly, I think this is all a bunch of hoo-haa. While I agree that in graduate school you do learn some pretty obscure techniques and become the world's expert in one  little corner of the scientific literature, if someone thinks that getting a PhD is solely about getting technical skills then they are completely missing the point of graduate school and should not be getting a PhD. Going to graduate school is not about learning techniques, but about learning to think and problem-solve like a scientist. Learning to identify and tackle an important scientific question and to design experiments to answer that question. To evaluate the data from those experiments  and draw appropriate conclusions. To learn to test hypotheses. Even to learn to develop new techniques to answer those questions if available techniques are not sufficient. Furthermore, one goes to graduate school to learn to evaluate the scientific literature, to find holes and identify important questions. You are also learning to write coherently, to put together a logical argument and to be prepared to defend it. And I'm not saying this is an easy process, and it is often frustrating. However these problem-solving skills are definitely transferrable and applicable beyond biomedical sciences.

In my lab, most of the techniques, even the more difficult, ones can be learned by a motivated undergrad or by a lab tech, there's nothing special about a PhD student (or even a postdoc) that allows them to perform these difficult techniques. What's different about the grad students and postdocs, is that they are also thinking about the whole project, and carrying it to completion from start to finish. This ability to complete a large-scale project is also a very transferable skill.

Apparently many complaints from grad students also stem from the feeling that their PI's discourage them from pursuing difficult projects, that they are usually pigeonholed into doing one specific technique for the lab and that's all they do for their PhD. Also, that they are often discouraged from gaining additional skills that come with a PhD, such as teaching, outreach or public speaking. If this is the case, then you are in the wrong lab or graduate program. This has to do more to do with bad mentoring rather than with an inherent problem with getting a PhD in life science.

So my advice to students who feel like their PhD is a waste of time is to think about the broader picture, don't let yourself be pigeonholed, make sure you get your own project, and if your mentor discourages from any of these things, then find a new one. If you are thinking of joining a lab talk to the other students, see what kinds of projects they are doing and how happy a ship a given lab is. What you shouldn't do is pick a lab because you want to learn a specific technique, then you will likely end up with a single, soon to be obsolete skill.

I'm curious to hear from my readers. If you are a grad student or postdoc, what has your experience been like? Do you feel you have not acquired any skills that you could use outside of academia? For PI's, how do you view your students, as specialists or generalists? Do you encourage them from acquiring further skills outside the lab such as teaching or participating in science outreach?

Dr. Frankenstein acquires some non-trasferable skills.

8 responses so far

You've really got some huevos!

Apr 04 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

I've been living in the US for over 20 years and have seen lots of things pass for 'Mexican' food. And I'm not talking about Tex-Mex, which I like but it's clearly a different cuisine. Even in places that are heavily populated by my fellow invaders from the South, the Mexican food has somehow evolved. For example, the giant piles of lettuce, sour cream and cheese on top of everything. Or the humongous so-called quesadillas. Or burritos – where did those come from? And it's not that I dislike this kind of food, but somehow its not quite the same. One dish which has become particularly corrupted is one of my (and Supercoolwife's) favorite breakfast treats – Huevos Rancheros. Now this isn't dish to be messed with, particularly because the alternate meaning of huevos rancheros can be translated as Rancher's Testicles, and you don't want to mess with those. Nevertheless,  I've seen all sorts of crazy stuff called that, some even resembling some type of breakfast burrito, but I'm yet to have some really good huevos rancheros served up this side of the border. Fortunately, they're easy to make. So invite your amigos and fry some up!





1-2 Chiles (serrano or jalapeño)




Cooked Rice

Corn tortillas

Huevos (eggs)


Optional: Queso fresco, crumbled


The basic design is as follows: A bed of rice, with a slightly fried tortilla on top, with a fried, runny egg on top of this, covered with the ranchero sauce. First start cooking the rice using your favorite method. To make the sauce stick tomatoes, onion and the chiles in the blender until pureed. Then cook the salsa on low heat for about 10-15 min and add the salt and oregano to taste. The salsa should be on the runny side, so if it is too thick add a little water. Keep it warm on low heat. Put a little oil on a pan, just enough to cover the bottom, maybe a tablespoonful, and wait until it's hot. Fry each corn tortilla on both sides until moderately crispy and blot on paper towels. DO NOT try this with flour tortillas. Start frying the eggs. Meanwhile take a plate and put some rice in it and flatten it out and put one tortilla on the rice for each egg. When the eggs are ready (ideally somewhat runny) put each egg on it's tortilla and spoon some sauce on top of the egg. Crumble some queso fresco on top. Serve with a side of black or pinto beans and maybe some slices of avocado.

¡Buen provecho, dudes!


5 responses so far