Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Graduation, Richard Feynman, and Choosing the Right Career

Because we just had graduation here at the University of Puget Sound (even though I was out of state at the ASMCUE and ASM meetings), the idea of student potential and career choices has been much on my mind.  Especially as a I grade final exams of freshmen!

Then I saw this wonderful image on Facebook.

Thanks to advice from talented science artist and all around cool dude Glendon Mellow, I have been trying to chase down images and give them proper credit in blog posts and elsewhere (it makes sense:  I don't like it when people steal images from my CafePress site---it's insulting to the wonderful artist Kaitlin Reiss as well as yours truly).  It turns out the image was to be found here, with a nice explanation I suggest interested folks marvel at as they read.  The image of an atom itself, complete with wave function---a tiny periscope into the spooky quantum world!  Amazing!

This image reminded me of a wonderful essay by the late, great Richard Feynman (background information here and here).  Feynman's books, essays, and videos have long had quite an impact on me.  

But first, a typically Feynman story, that actually happened to me as an undergraduate.  In the 1970s, when dinosaurs ruled the planet (according to my students), I was an undergraduate at UCLA.  I had always loved science, and the ideas of astrophysics enthralled me.  Even though I struggled with higher mathematics, I felt drawn to the field.

After winning his Nobel Prize in 1965, the always iconoclastic and unusual Feynman came to hate the adulation and attention he received.  So he would often give seminars "incognito," using an assumed name, to actually meet with real students instead of acolytes.  Thus, he came to UCLA to give a lecture on "The Structure of the Atom," but I had been clued in by a friend in the Physics Department:  it was Feynman, he of the "Feynman Lectures in Physics!"

Oh, such a lecture that day!  Feynman was exactly, precisely, as he was in the videos that many of you have seen, and that I adore:  theatrical, fast, irreverent, and full of fun.  Not at all stodgy or arrogant, though he was clearly brilliant beyond words.  Complicated things like quantum electrodynamics suddenly seemed straightforward, real, clearly correct as he paced the stage.  Feynman was a little younger at the time, but this video gives the best flavor of how he talked with undergraduates like myself.  The lesson in that particular video has stayed with me for a lot of years. If you haven't seen it, I recommend you watch it, and I always do when I see it.

And I got to talk with Feynman after his talk, Styrofoam coffee cup in my hand, untasted.  He looked at me, really looked, and for once I wasn't tongue tied in front of famous people.  Feynman was interested in what people thought.  Even me.  So I told him that I loved his lecture, but that I was sad, because though I could see the outlines of his ideas (such as his wonderful artistic manner of describing quantum electrodynamics), I didn't "speak the language" of mathematics.  And I was coming to the sad conclusion that I never would.  I was a blind man admiring a rainbow, or so it felt to me.

My wife is a mathematician, and doesn't believe me, but I strongly feel that "getting" higher mathematics is a knack, and that you must have the talent for it, like music or athletics.  And I could see the forest of what physics meant, but not the trees themselves, to mix my metaphors.

Feynman just smiled at my emotional outburst.  "Kiddo," he told me (and he talked just like that), "Don't sweat it.  Find what you love in science, and do that.  You'll know it when you see it."

Then he looked from side to side, that impish grin growing on his face, and back at me.  "Besides," he said, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, "Most physicists?  Putzes."

I didn't know any Yiddish, but I got his point. We both laughed, and he shook my hand. 

And so I delved into biology in the coming years, and found my One True Professional Love:  the microbial world.  I believe what Feynman told me:  you have to have a passion for the science you do, and you will know it when you find it.  You can't help it.  You will burn to know more, to "get it," to tell everyone about it.  The New Age writer and pseudo-guru, Carlos Castaneda, called it "a path with heart."  And so it is, for me.  I knew, just knew, that microbiology was my calling.  Which is why I get called a microbial supremacist, I suppose. 

Which brings us back to the photograph of the atom, above.

I have read a lot of books about Richard Feynman, because I admire much about his approach to science, and clear love of life.  Plus, he just makes me laugh.  But there is a book about him that means a great deal to me personally:  "Feynman's Rainbow:  the Creative Mind," by Leonard Mlodinow, written in 2003.  Mlodinow was a postdoctoral scholar in physics at Caltech toward the end of Feynman's life.  Mlodinow kept looking for wisdom from Feynman (and who can blame him?), even though his efforts sometimes appeared to irritate the scientist, then ill with cancer.  At the end of the book, Mlodinow talks with Feynman about how a person can know she or he are studying the right thing in science, both as a topic and as a career.  

I have read the excerpt that follows to many people in my life, and handed out dozens of copies of the book to undergraduate students.  To me, it is like a lamp shining the way to, again, a "path with heart."   The passage summarizes how I feel about science and about life.  I know that my brother Jack Martin understands why this is so important to me.  I'm pretty sure that my friend Gregory Benford sees it clearly, since he is a physicist, too, and has known me for many years.  I hope that my wife Jennifer Quinn sees how this is at my center as a person.  And I pray that my sons learn the lessons contained.

I don't know if it actually happened the way that Mlodinow describes, but it is very reminescent of my own short conversation with Feynman so many years before.  Regardless, it hit me like a ton of bricks.  Mlodinow starts first, with Feynman replying.

"Okay, then . . . thanks for all the . . . conversations we've had. Whether or not you've taught me anything, I've enjoyed them." 
"Look, if you're going to insist that I've taught you something, I guess I should give you a final exam." 
"One question."
"Go look at an electron microscope photograph of an atom, okay? Don't just glance at it. It is very important that you examine it very closely. Think about what it means."
"And then answer this question. Does it make your heart flutter?"
"Does it make my heart flutter?"
"Yes or no. It's a yes or no question. No equations allowed."
"All right, I'll let you know."
"Don't be dense. I don't need to know. You need to know. This exam is self-graded. And it's not the answer that counts, it's what you do with the information."
We locked eyes. His younger face flashed in my mind. The energetic, smiling bongo drum player I had seen pictured in the front of his book, The Feynman Lectures on Physics. A question popped from my lips.
"Do you have any regrets?" I said.
Feynman didn't snap back that it was none of my business. He didn't do anything for a moment. I wondered if he would open up about his frustration with quantum chromodynamics. But then his eyes welled up with tears.
"Sure," he said. "I regret that I might not live to see my daughter, Michelle, grow up."

That passage always makes me emotional on a number of levels.  Which brings me back to career choices for students.

It's easy for students to begin research projects like a job, instead of a calling.  But science is an unusual profession:  it's like a love affair with the universe.  Sometimes the universe loves you back.  Other times, it is unrequited love.  For me, I just knew...even if I am not at an RO1 institution with graduate students and postdocs.  So I teach undergraduates, and have a small research program with them.  There are many things I cannot do, but at the same time, many things I can.  

And I know in my bones that it is the best, the only, job for me.  So I tell my students as they graduate, hoping they will find the same path I did, to a profession that they adore.

And Feynman was right:  ask yourself if what you plan to do for a career excites you.  If it makes your heart flutter.  Because, if it does, it is indeed a "path with heart."  

Sunday, May 26, 2013

ASMCUE, Citizen Science, and a Surprise!

It's important to go to scientific conferences, especially if one teaches and does research in a small liberal arts institution.  It can be easy to lose that "spark" of enthusiasm for science, or the ability to network/share experiences with colleagues, otherwise.  I try to go to two sets of meetings per year:  the West Coast Bacterial Physiologists conference in Asilomar, California in December, and the dual American Society for Microbiology General Meeting and the American Society for Microbiology Conference for Undergraduate Educators in May or June.  The latter two conferences are usually back-to-back or overlap for one day.

I have been attending ASMCUE meetings for quite a few years now.  I have developed strong friendships and a network of colleagues with whom I can share ideas or gain advice about microbiology education.  This year, the ASM-sponsored conferences were both held in Denver, Colorado.  It was a lovely time---I had a chance to attend exciting "cutting edge" talks, catch up with old friends and colleagues, make new friends, physically meet with fellow microbiology enthusiasts from Twitter (whom I call "microtweeple" or "microtweeps"), and even visit with former students attending the meetings (which is the big payoff for me, as an educator) or otherwise living near Denver.

During ASMCUE, I was quite excited to attend a wonderful talk on "Citizen Science." This idea---outreach of science to the public, or even how to obtain a bit of funding from the public---is increasingly important, not simply because external funding is difficult to get these days.  More important, I think, is the ability to inform the public of what we do in the lab, that it is exciting, and why they should care that we do science in the first place!  We often hear that the public doesn't "understand science."  This may or may not be true; what is true is that we scientists can and should do something about it.  Outreach can be a large part of this strategy, and it is increasingly clear to me that the public is receptive.  

Dr. Nicole Garneau, of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, has a fascinating project in which she involves the public:  the genetics of taste perception.  Dr. Garneau was enthusiastic, energetic, and a superb spokesperson for "citizen science."  During her talk, she described the myriad ways in which the public could become involved with science, and the benefits---direct and indirect---of doing so.  During her talk, Dr. Garneau briefly mentioned how students could explore the connection between science and art in an educational setting, and showed a familiar image from my own past!

Yes, that is an image of my former student Kayla, who extracted pigments from bacteria and then created paintings using those pigments---joining microbiology and art in an effective and evocative fashion.  I took the above photograph myself, and realized Dr, Garneau had found it on my own blog post describing the linkage of art and pedagogy and microbiology!

Surprised and a bit excited, I stood up during the talk, and exclaimed "I know that student!"

Dr. Garneau (whom I had never met) smiled and replied "And I know you, Mark Martin."  She then had a few kind words about my blog and that particular post.  In fact, I asked Dr. Garneau if she would pose next to that slide after her talk.  She did so, charmingly, as you can see:

The point here goes beyond my feeling flattered that anyone, let alone Dr. Garneau, reads this blog.  It demonstrates that we are all connected via social media, and often in ways we might not expect.  And it underscored Dr. Garneau's larger point, that there are many ways in which science and the public can engage one another in productive and interesting ways.

It was quite a nice feeling for me, to be honest.  And I contacted Kayla who was very excited to learn that a small side-project she and I had carried out a couple of years ago still created some buzz outside Tacoma, Washington.

Albert Einstein is reputed to have said "If you cannot explain what you do to your grandmother, you do not understand it yourself."  There is much truth to that, regardless if it is an accurate quotation. As scientists, we must "preach" about our science to students and the public.  We rely on science in modern society, and increasingly so.  One way to help the "outreach" of science to society is by approaches such as those championed by Dr. Garneau and others involved in "citizen science."

I should add that there was an entire (and quite exciting) session on "Citizen Science" at the ASM General Meeting later that week.  Dr. Jonathan Eisen of UC Davis co-Chaired an entire session on that topic, which was quite remarkable.  He describes it here.

Do give some thought about how to best explain the excitement of your field of research to others---other scientists, students, and the educated layperson.  It is an important part of being a scientist, I think.  Perhaps one of the most important parts of being a scientist, in fact.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mothers' Day, Marcus Aurelius, and Microbiology

Just a quick post on this particular day, which is more than a little bittersweet to me.  It is Mothers' Day, as it happens, and it is also my first Mothers' Day without my being able to call my mother, Wanda Jean Martin, to thank her.  On the other hand, I get to celebrate how my wife, Dr. Jennifer J. Quinn, is a wonderful and beloved mother to our two sons Anson and Zachary.

My mother died last October, after a long and extraordinarily brave struggle against ovarian cancer.  I wrote about my mother and her struggle here, and discussed her relationship to my interest in microbiology.  My mother, unlike the mothers of some scientists, understood little of my love of science.  But she did her best to support it, in the ways that mothers always have, and hopefully always willMy mother would gamely sit through all those PBS shows on science, come to science fairs, and listen perplexedly as I prattled on about what I was learning.  I don't think my mother had an easy time raising either of her sons.  I am grateful, and try to remember my mother's example when my own sons develop interests I do not share.

Here is my mother, in a photograph taken on Thanksgiving in 2011, with my eldest son Anson (who is SO much older looking now after not even two years).  She detested her photograph being taken (as I do), but was a good sport about it; this is a photograph that really shows my mother as she was in conversation.

I was teaching my Fall semester Microbiology course during the time that my mother entered hospice care and passed away.  I spoke with her a couple of times a week during the process, but she was increasingly more focused on her pain and the latter part of her journey.  I cannot complain; anyone who survives over ten years with Stage IIIC ovarian cancer is "Chuck Norris" tough (though, again, my mother did not think she was tough).  

Losing my mother impacted me, of course.  And my microbiology students noticed.  They made for me this shirt.

 It's kind of a visual pun.  My initials spell "mom" which seems endlessly amusing at first (I'm philosophical about it).  So I am often called "Dr. Mom" or something similar by students.  But the shirt is about my mother, about me, and about microbiology.  I don't often get gifts from students, and never from a class.  

I was deeply touched, and grateful. 

Two memories about my mother are particularly relevant on this special day, and I would like to share them.
When I was in junior high school, I carried out a science project investigating the memory of planarians.  Briefly stated, I was able to train these flatworms to associate darkness with an electrical shock.  Because they are so skilled at regeneration, I was able to cut the flatworms into two, and the pieces grew new heads and new tails.  The "head portion," after regrowing a tail, "remembered" the conditioned response (perhaps not so strange, given the presence of a primitive brain).  But so did the "tail portion," once regeneration was complete!

I did not know that this underscored the "distributed location of memory" theory that was all the rage in neuroscience at the time.  So, as an 8th grader, I was recognized with a national award (along with several other members of my class).  I received letters from congresscritters and faculty members from universities, encouraging me to go to graduate school and become a scientist.  

That was when I first became utterly certain about a career (though I ended up a microbiologist, rather than a neuroscientist).   

This project was weird beyond belief to my parents.  Since I was unable to type at the time (long before word processors), my long suffering mother typed the application and report (putting aside her beloved "Laverne and Shirley" on television).  She told me not to get my hopes up, and kept asking me how all of this applied to people.  To be kind to the flatworms (which confused my 13 year old brain).   I did my best to answer her questions.  And I didn't have my hopes up about winning any awards.
But instead, I received exactly the kind of encouragement with that award that I needed to solidify my career choice. So, like most people on this day, I have much to thank my mother for.  She was awfully humble.  I would like to close with an interesting comparison.

My brother, Jack S. Martin, Jr. (a retired contract attorney and now a budding novelist) was always encouraging me with new books, new ideas, and endless stories.  It was my brother who first introduced me to a wonderful book of philosophy by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.  His "Meditations" (which he called "To Myself," since he had written the book as self-reflection) was a revelation.  The Stoic philosophy seemed to "fit" so well into my psyche, and his words engraved themselves into my heart and soul.

My brother Jack recognized and encouraged my interest in this Emperor, his philosophy, and his reign.  For that reason, he got me a silver denarius minted during the reign of Marcus Aurelius as a gift.  I carry it with me daily.

I remember, many years ago, discussing Marcus Aurelius with my mother (probably after "Gladiator" came out, which gave an, um, unusual view of that period of Roman history, and Marcus Aurelius in particular).  My mother asked me why I liked the book so much.  I told her it has so much deep philosophy to it.  Like what, she asked?  So I quoted:

"Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be.  Be one."

My mother's forehead wrinkled a bit and she frowned.  

"That's not such a big deal, Mark," she said.  "Pretty obvious.  Everyone should live that way.  And he was some bigshot philosopher?" 

You and the Emperor are right, Mom.  We should all live that way.  Thank you for being my mother.  You---and your lessons---are not forgotten.

Love and miss you.       


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Freshmen, Extra Credit, and Different Ways of Learning

When I was in freshman biology (Biology 4A, with the great Dr. Robert Goldberg at UCLA in the late 1970s), things were pretty "old skool" about learning in and out of the classroom.  We took notes during lecture.  We studied.  We were tested.  We sweated over and earned grades.  

But even then, Professor Goldberg insisted that it was all about our taking "ownership" of our own learning, and he held us to strict percentage standards.  In part, this was to encourage us to not feel competitive with one another (as grade curving can).  More to the point, with humor and rigor, he challenged us to do better than the results for which we would normally settle:  to demand more of ourselves.  It was not about the exam, but the focus was on the learning, with a sense of ownership and a passion for the subject matter.  The grades were simply the result of the work we put in, and the standards we set for ourselves.  I think of Professor Goldberg every time I step in front of a classroom; a very inspirational fellow from my perspective. 

My wise friend of mine from graduate school, Dr. Daniel Klionsky, a superb cell biologist and educator, makes a very powerful point:  we don't do many things in science the way we did them a century ago.  Why should we teach the same way?  Dan's collaborative learning model is wonderful, and during the past several years, I have begun to incorporate aspects of it into my "bag of educational tricks," just as I have tried to use some of the teaching skills and educational philosophy that Professor Goldberg used with me so long ago. 

I have come to understand that there are indeed many learning styles among undergraduates.  For some students, the best way to learn is by "doing," almost a kinesthetic approachFor example, when I am teaching the portion of my freshman course involving genetics, it is common for students to look at a Punnett Square and feel confident that they understand it.  The truth is, they have seen it, which is emphatically not the same thing at all.  But after physically drawing out a Punnett Square, I find that students "get it" much more readily, especially under stressful conditions such as  exams.    

More importantly,  I have seen this more physical approach work with some of my microbiology students, as I relate here.  For many  students, the "creative projects" approach can enhance and fortify concepts and learning outcomes.  

So why not try this approach in my "Unity of Life" course for freshmen?

As an extra credit project, I gave the following instructions to interested students in that class:  (i) come up with a creative way to engage material we have covered in lecture, (ii) obtain my verbal approval of topic, (iii) write a one page summary of your project, and (iv) go to it!

The results were pleasing, and I am certain the projects will help these students on the upcoming cumulative final exam.

One group of students became interested in building models of viruses via orgami:

 I still think that virions look like tiny invaders from another planet or dimension!

Another student was quite taken by "artwork" made from DNA gels.  Based on what she found on the Internet, she painted the following piece on canvas, which I found quite lovely:

Another student decided to approach Mendel's Laws via poetry, as you can see here in this excerpt:

Another group of students decided to create a short "puppet show" illustrating issues of antibiotic resistance (the rise of drug resistant microbes is one of the most relevant subjects to everyday life in my course, I believe).  I thought this was quite creative (especially the aluminum foil representing resistance!).

 Another student created a "posterboard" detailing what takes place at the fork during DNA replication.  My guess is that this student will understand the process quite well!

Another student group created a "comic book" detailing the rise of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, using quite a unique metaphor.  It's always interesting for me to see what information I present in lecture appears to "stick"!  Here is the cover and one of the pages:

Here is an interesting creative approach.  One student wanted to represent the "Z-diagram" of photosynthesis using flower petals.  That's one way to remember photosystems, electron transport chains, ATPases, ferredoxin, and the like.

 Another student put together a "stop-motion" video (RIP, Ray Harryhausen!) depicting mitosis.

This student tried her hand at artistically depicting the different levels of protein folding:

One student was particularly taken with viruses, and tried her hand at poetry in honor of these tiny entities:

Another student group decided to highlight mitosis in plant and animal cells, painting a series of small tiles that could be assembled in different ways:

This student created an "ABCs of Molecular Biology" style "childrens' book."  Here is a sample page:  "F is for F plasmid."

One student feared that she wasn't "getting" photosynthesis as well as she would like.  To deal with this, the student created a "comic book/graphic novel" booklet of the process.  Here is a sample page.

Another student decided to turn central glucose metabolism into a prose metaphor, using a "fairy tale" style.  Here is an excerpt.

This student loved photography and art, and created a booklet of the stages of mitosis, using twigs and flowers and tiny pine cones as props.

Another student group confronted the complexities of meiosis by creating a large poster of the word "meiosis," using images of each stage in the creation of each letter.

Finally, one student group created a children's book version of mitosis that was quite lovely.  Here is the cover.

And here is a sample page.  

There were others, but you get the idea, I think.  And I now have many new items to put on the walls of my office and lab!  I was really quite pleased by the creativity and enthusiasm I saw with this project.

I think it is clear that each of these "projects" took time and thought and close attention.  I believe that this approach will help students with their preparation for the cumulative final exam in my class.  Beyond that, it is yet another example of how using different learning styles in the classroom can allow students to take control of their own education.  Not simply to do well on an exam, but to "get" the material, and own the positive outcomes.

I'm glad I tried this approach with my freshmen.  We shall see how it goes next week on their Final exam!