Meeting of the Scottish Neuroscience Group, Tutoring Job, and Some Thoughts About Science

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Hi All 🙂

It’s been another slow, but this time positive, couple of months with little to report. As such I thought I’d weigh in my two cents regarding a few things about the world of science after talking about the two main things which have occurred lately: a conference and a potential tutoring job!

Meeting of the Scottish Neuroscience Group

The Scottish Neuroscience Group are a collective of researchers across institutions in Scotland who meet yearly to network and discuss the broad range of fascinating work done. This year’s meeting was held here in St Andrews and it was a no-brainer for myself to go. The program is given here. Overall the entire day was great, the usual refreshments aplenty plus some surprising pulled pork baguettes! Oh, and the talks too! Talks spanned control of movement in fly embryos through to gene signalling cascades and to measuring firing resonses in the brain when we notice something novel in our environment. There was also an extensive poster session with around 40 different presenters which provided ample chance to meet more people and learn new things. I was particularly happy at the presence of 3 people who research circadian rhythms as this is a topic i thoroughly enjoy, but is unfortunately not represented here. The final talk of the day was given by Dr Nelson Spruston of the Janelia Research Campus, a massive and very well funded research institute in America specializing in neuroscience. The message he was trying to get across in his talk was that we need to rethink the way the brain works. Models of how neurons talk to each other have for years relied upon the idea that you add up all the positive and negative inputs to a neuron, and if this breaches a certain level the cell fires. He listed quite a few examples of phenomena which cannot be explained with this simple model but unfortunately I did not take a notepad, so cannot garnish this section with examples. The take home message was that the range of neuron types varies hugely depending on how you define them (shape, location, gene expression, connections) and that there isn’t always a simple relationship between what you measure (such as shape) and function. It was very eye-opening and thought-inspiring. After his talk we spoke over wine about whether our experiences are merely the activation of the connections in the brain (and if that would be a satisfying answer). Treading neuroscience, psychology, evolution, and philosophy it was a great discussion which really captured the open enthusiasm and thought process of academia. Overall, a great day and I look forward to hopefully presenting next year!

Tutoring Job

Those of you who have followed my posts for a while will know that I self-fund my PhD via working 3-4 nights a week. Whilst I appreciate my job being there for me and permitting my studies it does leave me incredibly lethargic and out of whack sometimes as I’m not very suited to late nights. Enter a tutoring opportunity. A few weeks ago the careers centre here announced the need for a tutor on a flexible, low-hours contract to help students of all ages and levels with all the generic skills one needs in academia (and wider areas): organisation, planning, reading for comprehension, referencing, essay writing, and I would assume anything else that comes up which isn’t subject specific. For me as an aspiring teacher this is a fantastic opportunity because not only will I be able to supplement my income doing something I thoroughly enjoy but I would be able to cut back a shift at work which will allow me to get into a healthier sleeping pattern. I put together my best looking CV and supporting statement and promptly applied. A few days later and I was informed I made the interview! It’s next Thursday so I’ll be spending a significant amount of time until then getting prepared with my thoughts about teaching and experiences which I’d bring to the role!

Some Thoughts About Science

This last section is going to be a bit of my thoughts trickling straight from brain to fingertips as I have a lot of thoughts and opinions about what science and research should be like and I feel I should put some to my blog (I’m sure others will come up later). We can discuss every aspect of academia and be here for ages but for now I want to focus on three things I feel passionately about, I will no doubt return to them in the future: respect for teaching, (artificial) boundaries between disciplines, and defining yourself.

The first of these is one I feel very strongly about: teaching. To me teaching is near enough one of the greatest and most important things we do as a species. Without teaching we don’t continue. We don’t have scientists, doctors, writers, musicians or possibly any significant roles. A great teacher has the ability to completely change someone’s view of not only a subject but also themselves and their own ability whilst a poor one can do the complete opposite. Teaching puts you in a position of great power and you have the ability to change someone’s life with it. Unfortunately through my, albeit short, academic career it’s becoming more and more apparent that teaching at this level really gathers little respect or priority. There is an air of “must we” or “doing this because I have to, not because I want to” about it at an institutional level. By this I don’t mean specific departments but the actual institution of academia. Research first, then teach if you have to pay some bills. This seems like a remarkable fallacy to me as I can’t imagine where the researchers would come from without their teachers before them? Granted, you do need some semblance of research or at least theories about the world to teach but really without teaching you would only have the handful of remarkable individuals who just know things and can piece things together without prior knowledge or instruction. How we’ve landed at this point I do not know, and neither do I know how true this is across the world but all I do know is that I find the undertone of derision for teaching to be awful as well as its reflection in phrases such as “bought out of teaching”. Teaching isn’t a bill-payer, it is part of an entangled role academics have: push boundaries, tell people and help them to do so as well. Two sides, same coin. Now I’m not saying that teaching-driven academics do not exist. Far from it. I have met, been taught by, and taught with some truly inspiring, enthusiastic, and intelligent teachers who are beloved by their students and manage to make even the driest of subjects exciting and manageable. It’s just that the system is set up such that a love of teaching is just that: a love of it. There doesn’t appear to be any acknowledgement or reward for doing so other than personal enjoyment. Atop of this when individuals are forced to teach begrudging it is very obvious and detrimental to students (I can attest to this personally from my not so long ago undergraduate lectures). Overall: I hold teaching in high regard and cannot imagine how we have an educational system which doesn’t agree.

The second point I have is about how administrative boundaries artificially break up disciplines. Nature is continuous (quantum physics aside for a moment); there is no point when physics becomes chemistry, chemistry becomes biology, biology becomes psychology. All of these phenomena are continuous and intertwined, and a good appreciation of any subject requires you to have at least some understanding of others surrounding it. Even within disciplines this is true: there’s little to be gained knowing about hormones without understanding the cells they affect and how they change the behaviour of the organism, it doesn’t help to know how a cell works without the context of its surrounding cells and organs, asking why an animal does something can’t be answered by just thinking about how the behaviour benefits it but also requires you to know what events went on inside to lead to that behaviour. These are quite narrow examples from my personal field of work (biology) but this is true across the sciences which aren’t linear, they’re a network. There are people in the same department as me with backgrounds in physics studying what could be biology, physics, or psychology. There are other people working between computer sciences and psychology, others who are through and through biologists. There are also across universities people who can do very much the same thing but be in departments of neuroscience, biology, or medicine. Same tools, same question, different departments. And that’s the problem: departments. Our slicing up of nature like this creates the illusion that these topics are distinct and unrelated which couldn’t be further from the truth. Now this isn’t a university thing. Universities actually do this better than the levels before but they still maintain some semblance of distinction, especially from an undergraduate’s perspective. The point I’m trying to make is that nature doesn’t fit into buckets where one thing stops before another starts and neither do our interests. Just because I studied biology as an undergraduate doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have taken modules from psychology or geology if given the chance. But I only knew about these things by going out of my way to learn about them. I set up a cross college talk series in my masters year for this very purpose: to open staff and student eyes to topics in other schools as well as those which transcend schools. Overall, I believe the experience of students as well as the development of research could only benefit by there being far, far fewer barriers between subjects. This lends me nicely to my third thought.

Defining yourself. I’ve had this thought for a while but a recent blog post from another wordpresser discussing her hesitation to describe herself as a psychologist gave me a kick to actually discuss it. Given everything I outlined in the previous paragraph about the continuity of nature and how department names don’t seem to greatly restrict what someone does I believe it would be constructive for us to describe ourselves by the questions we want to answer not by academic titles. That way by being question-defined you carry fewer misconceptions with you and you are simply answering those questions with the tools you see fit. Whether they are from physics, computer sciences, molecular biology, or psychology. I believe this will not only ameliorate the anxiety felt in that blog post but also add to breaking down boundaries between disciplines. I should put a huge caveat here: my experiences are with science and these examples work well with science. I will never assert that non-scientific disciplines should do similar as I don’t know how closely they can mingle. I do welcome all input on the thought though.

Well that’s all from me this time. The next two months are going to be diving in the deep end of my experiment (I’m already preparing myself for how tiring this is going to be), finding out about the tutoring job, and hopefully keeping a bit of time for myself too!

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

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