Friday, April 27, 2007

Life as a Scientist (in training)

I'm mining through my statistics today. As a scientist (in training), I am appalled by the errors I am finding. I'm pretty meticulous. I check and double check my figures and numbers several times when I record data, when I transfer it to my spreadsheets, when I upload it to the statistical package. To be sure I even check it again and make sure everything jives. So, whoa as me. Today, I'm trying to check my complete data set, just to get an idea of what's going on with my data and BAM! more mistakes. I couldn't reconcile the errors and missing values by comparing my various spreadsheets. I had to go and get my files containing my raw data.

Aaargh! If you (general public) only knew the pains scientists go through. Being anal is what makes one a good scientist. Sometimes I hate being so disciplined and thorough. But I couldn't live with myself cutting corners.

In keeping with today's theme, I'm sharing this Blog of Note:
Female Science Professor,

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Deciphering the Science in Science News Reports

Breast cancer is not linked to abortion. That’s the science news story of note. This is a very interesting story. It’s another example of what we know about our bodies and hopefully it can help us make better decisions about our health and well-being.
But exactly how is this news discovered? HOW did this research team come to this conclusion? How do we KNOW?
Well, the answer lies in people’s understanding and perception of what science is. It has everything to do with understanding Scientific Processes. But learning about Scientific Processes can’t be achieved in a single sitting, but here’s a start. This news story presents a perfect opportunity to point out three key scientific processes.
a) Science discovery starts with a question.
b) Science experiments are designed to be fair and objective.
c) Many observations must be made to draw a fair conclusion.

a) Science discovery starts with a question.

Science is a human endeavor to gain knowledge about the natural world. Asking questions about important and interesting phenomena is the first step. Scientists don’t sit around postulating statements about the world. In fact, scientists ask more questions than we answer. It seems obvious that this team of researchers had the following questions in mind: Is there link between abortion and breast cancer? How does having an abortion affect a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer? Are women more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer if they had an abortion sometime in their past?

b) Science experiments are designed to be fair and objective.

To answer these questions, the research team had to set up an experiment. However, researchers take care in designing an experiment that doesn’t tilt the results in one direction or the other. Science provides a way for people to learn more about the natural world by investigating a question thoroughly and methodologically. Experiments must be able to yield clear and objective answers that answer only the question at hand. Previous studies were biased because they only studied women who were already confirmed to have breast cancer. A fair experiment would involve studying women who were healthy to begin with and then see if breast cancer develops. Another thing to do would be to make sure that the supposed link to breast cancer isn’t just about an early-ending pregnancy. So the researchers also included women whose pregnancies ended involuntarily due to miscarriage.

c) Many observations must be made to draw a fair conclusion

In research, sample size matters. This study tracked over 100,000 women for 10 years. Having a large sample size demonstrates that this team expended a lot of effort to really searching for the relationship between abortion/miscarriage and breast cancer. If the studied was based only on 10 women, this would signal to me that the researchers didn’t really thoroughly and fully examine the question. By having a larger number of subjects, it demonstrates that researchers spent a lot of time and energy searching for the relationship between abortion/miscarriage and breast cancer. A study based on a larger sample size has results that are more trustworthy than the results of a study based on a smaller sample size.

A news release about the Breast Cancer and Abortion study can be accessed here. The original article published in a medical journal can be accessed here.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Minority students earning advanced degrees in Science

"If getting a Ph.D. were easy, then everyone would have one." - Author Anonymous

As a Ph.D. candidate in science, I could share a host of stories about the challenges of graduate school. Being a minority doesn't make it any easier. But there are many who are working hard to diversify Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines and increase the number of minorities who earn advanced degrees in these disciplines. For example, Southern University Professor of Physics, Dr. Diola Bagayoko, uses tough love to expand and diversify the pool of scientific talent. Link to the full story published by Science Magazine.

But there is still much work to do. The number of African-American, Latino, and Native American graduate degree recipients in STEM still lags behind those awarded to Caucasian and Asian Americans. Links to Graphs on Graduate Degrees Awarded to Minorities in Science & Engineering here and here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

What is the value of your service?

My time as a resource scientist in a local urban high school opened my eyes to the amazing amount of inequalities among urban African-American youth. Far too many are ‘racing for last place’ and haven’t thought twice about the future. I found it overwhelmingly depressing to witness these children of promise and possibility completely blind to real opportunities available to them. They behaved as if being professionally and personally successful (in a middle-class sense) was only a fantasy. It was also at this time that I began to critique the actions of the teachers and administrators of the school. They spent a lot of time, energy, effort and money to do things that I judged were of little to no educational value or relevance to the students.

At the same time I was a member of a national civic organization whose purpose was to empower people to become apart of the economic and political mainstream. So, I found myself critiquing the operations of my civic organization. We were doing good deeds (lots of good deeds) as a part of our effort to ‘help the needy’ but I began to feel as if we were not truly empowering them to pull themselves out of poverty.

As a resource scientist I was responsible for making recommendations to enrich the science curriculum. I worked with a teacher to bring the lessons up-to-date, offer suggestions to make the activities more hands-on, authentic. As one of the few scientists in my civic organization, I wanted to help diversify the organization. The organization primarily attracted entrepreneurs and corporate-types. So, I thought my objectivity and ability to attend to comprehensive details would be a great match to the organization.

Interestingly, I found myself disillusioned and soured with both the public school institution and that civic organization. I became disenchanted because their purposes are so pure and I poured lot of my self and energy into those institutions. The goals were simple: To educate and to empower the disenfranchised. However, in both situations I felt horribly under-utilized as a professional person.

Here I was, a soon-to-be Ph.D. in science, interacting with these urban youth, primarily African-American and poor. I had had high hopes of inspiring these young people to pursue careers in science or at least see how having adequate understanding of science as a process could open new doors to them. But alas, I was only a set of hands. At the high school, I felt like a mindless drone that was never asked or called upon to do anything more than make photocopies of worksheets or supervise students completing seat work. At the civic organization, our monthly community service projects involved painting day care nurseries walls, collecting food items, and picking up trash. I began asking myself “How was ‘my’ presence necessary? I mean, how doe one with my experiences, educational background, and passion to serve the disenfranchised use my skills and talents to help these families gain more in life? Anyone could paint a wall or make photocopies. You didn’t need an advanced degree to do that. What benefit was I actually extending to these children or families? Was I really making a difference or was I enabling dependency?”

I challenge service-learning programs, volunteer organizations, educational and social service agencies to really think about this. Are we really ‘making a difference in the community’ when we participate in such activities? To me, some are doing things just for the sake of doing a good thing. the deed has no greater purpose or value beyond the time it is being done. Yes, they are doing something. Yes, people – volunteers, teachers, members – are ‘giving back’ and ‘giving their all’, but are they helping people become better able to take care of themselves? Are the services they provide effective? Is it right for civic organizations or educational systems to claim that there are making a difference when nothing has changed?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Why Understanding Science Matters

Promoting quality science education, in both formal and informal settings, is essential to all members of society. However, African-Americans and people from lower socio-economic standings still fall woefully behind other groups in their ability to understand science and the role of science in society. Science plays a vital role in our ability to make decisions about our health, our families, our neighborhoods and even our voting decisions. Some ways to measure public engagement and comprehension of science and science discoveries include rate of participation in recycling programs, participation in public debates on topics related to legislation such as stem cell research, and participation in research studies.

Let’s examine the issue of environmental education and advocacy among this demographic as an example. African-Americans and those from lower SES groups participate in municipal recycling programs at much lower rates than other demographic groups. However, studies of environmental attitudes and behaviors of these groups (conducted before 1990) concluded that concern for environmental issues may be less an issue of race and more about educational background and socio-economic factors. Initially, I would agree with this. Most issues of class or welfare or political engagement come down to access to resources (this includes educational opportunities) and regrettably these problems seem to be magnified among poor communities and people of color. And it doesn’t escape me that it is often poor people, with few political and financial resources, who are typically the victims of large companies and greedy municipal leaders who commit environmental justice breeches.

Interestingly, encouraging reports from studies conducted since 1991, indicate that African-Americans, notably the middle-class, are as concerned about environmental issues as whites. However, the statistics seem to be in stark contrast to my personal observations and interactions with college educated middle class African-Americans. I have found it very difficult to engage my fellow African-American young professional friends on this topic. Attempts to initiate meaningful discussions about environmental education/advocacy, or global warming, or fossil fuel prices and consumptions are failures. Most admit to not recycling, not composting or even modifying their gas consumption when prices rise. They seem completely ignorant of how their actions relate to larger environmental and economic issues. Even proposals to complete environmentally-centered service projects are typically coolly received and followed by a comment that indicates that as black people we are excused from such considerations because it’s not important enough.

This ignorance and refusal to address larger environmental problems isn’t restricted to small social networks. African-American civic organizations, almost never address issues related to the environment, or any other issue that can be placed in a larger scientific context, such as quality science education resources or science research. More often than not, such organizations prefer to address issues that are deemed more socially and economically relevant to the "Black Community".

That’s the most distressing fact of all. When African-Americans excuse ourselves from participating in global matters, we alert other groups that we aren’t to be taken seriously. It sends the message that as a group we are not important. Our contribution is insignificant. Furthermore, remaining uniformed of recent events, specifically scientific discoveries, makes us vulnerable. We risk being left out, overlooked. Returning to the matter of environmental advocacy -- environmental issues are societal issues, something that affects everyone in some way. And history has taught us that anything that negatively affects everyone affects poor people (of color) worse. In fact, I find very distressing that minority advocacy groups don't take the time to weigh in on national or global issues unless these issues somehow specifically address the "Black Agenda". How can we/minority advocacy groups expect to be taken seriously in our effort to obtain parity if we're not willing to make contributions to some of our society's most widespread/serious issues? If we/minority advocacy groups are serious in our efforts to create a more pluralistic society, then we’ve got to educate ourselves on subjects beyond the typically-defined “Black experience”.

African-Americans are terribly under-represented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. The media outlets that specifically market African-Americans don’t help. My personal survey of popular Black media sources, including print and internet, reveal that there is virtually no science coverage. At best, these outlets will feature an occasional story on a “Black Scientist” or discuss the latest health information related to black people’s health. But as of now, there are no resources in the popular media that work toward informing this audience.

Promoting science and science education to the masses is essential to diversifying STEM career fields. We can’t possibly hope to have more Black Scientists and Engineers if the base population from which we will recruit is scientifically and mathematically illiterate!

Comprehending science is essential to all. But first people must understand what Science is. Science is a human endeavor to gain knowledge about the natural world.

Develop an appetite for science.

Become familiar with the vocabulary. Listen to NPR Science Friday Series. Subscribe to popular science magazines. Right now, the average subscriber to popular science magazines like Discover, American Scientist, and Popular Science is a white male, age 49 years old. This must change.
Participate in public forums. Attend Family and Community Science Events at your child’s school. Share science with your children. Let your children share science with you. Share science with those in your social circles.
Plan group outings to attend a science seminar at your local your local science center, zoo, or botanical garden. Encourage your local library to subscribe to popular science magazines. Host a group discussion on science and recent discoveries. Whatever you do, make science and education apart of your family’s and community’s life and conversation.