Why so many pre-meds?

As a teaching assistant, part of what I love doing is talking to my students about their career goals. Some of them know what they want to do, many of them don’t, and a handful are pretty skilled at telling me what they think I want to hear. A large proportion are pre-med or pre-health. This question is posed at the end of a thoughtful article on School of Doubt on advising students about career options:

“Here’s my question to you: what makes students so intent on specific career options so early?”

In other words, why do so many of our students want to become doctors? The article is good and wonders why pre-med is such a popular major among life sciences majors. The author floats a couple of hypotheses, including the hero complex and prestige of the position.

While I agree, a couple of other factors I didn’t see mentioned are family pressure and the fact that the road to becoming a doctor is quite standardized. I’m going to set aside family pressure for now, which can be a very strong and complicated factor for many students, as it really warrants an entire post (or book) of its own. I think this second factor, the desire for a set pathway, is more common than we realize. Let’s be honest: very few jobs out there have linear career paths leading to them. Sure, pretty much any profession requires that you bring certain skills, experiences, and maybe a degree or certification to it, but a majority of people out there didn’t get to their current job by traveling in a straight line. Not even (or especially) the academics I work with now. An example, from Duke professor Sönke Johnsen:

I entered college and quickly discovered that my Physics classes bored me. I switched majors to Math, mostly because my favorite teacher at the time — who shared my interest in modern dance and told funny stories about Abel and Galois — taught this subject. This major also gave me time to do what I really enjoyed: dancing, painting, playing practical jokes, and worrying about my personal life. I graduated early, moved to a clothing-optional group house with my girlfriend, and started teaching dance to three-year-olds. I fully expected to never return to academia.

(I highly recommend reading the rest of his fantastic Q&A for the full story.)

Given that most people land their jobs by some mixture of circumstances, geography, opportunity and luck, momentary personal motivations, and ‘just figuring it out’, becoming a doctor (or planning to become a doctor) is reassuring in this sense. There are on the order of 10 years’ worth of hoops of definite heights to jump through. A close friend of mine who recently became an RN told me of the pride she felt in her achievement: “I set myself a goal, I went through all the necessary steps, and here I am.”

To become a doctor you know exactly what you have to do: get good grades, do well on the MCAT, go to medical school, do your rotations, complete a residency, and then, BAM, DOCTOR. For a directionless college student (there are many and I was one) a proscribed pathway can be reassuring. It is much less comforting to hear, “You’ll figure something out, but first you have to go wander and struggle and be a bit lost until you do.” I had a wonderful Albanian math teacher in middle school who was fond of telling us, “Freedom is like a fat in your body.”

This linear pathway is not unique to doctors, and includes many of the health-related professions, lawyers, and others. As a graduate student in the life sciences, I think we tend to see the most wanna-be doctors because biology is the most obvious plinth upon which modern medicine sits (and at a university like mine where there is no official pre-med major the biology-related majors are packed with pre-meds). Additionally, compared with other health-related professions, “medical doctor” carries with it the one-two of high prestige and high earnings. My students’ backup plans are usually quietly considering pharmacy school, PAing, or dentistry.

The article asks a second question at the end: “How do we expose them to what [their early, restrictive career fixations] will really mean?” For that, I think the best thing is to encourage students to engage in volunteering and internships in their desired field early. They should seek out (and we should help them find, as much as possible) older students and professionals in the field to talk to. This would help them think about their career path more critically and expose them to the realities of what it means to be a doctor (and more than the melodrama, hero worship, and martyr complexes portrayed on House, Grey’s Anatomy, and other TV shows).

What do you think? Anything else we’re missing?

Lionfish or honest fish?

[Originally published July 31, 2014]
Last week’s buzzworthy ecology story about 6th grader who ‘discovered’ euryhaline* lionfish leaves everyone pointing fingers

The full context surrounding the story of a sixth grader’s science fair project sticking it to The Man (if The Man is native estuarine of flora and fauna) is finally coming to light. The coverage of Lauren Arrington’s project, which demonstrated that lionfish can live in low salinities, has left a messy trail of missing credit and hurt feelings in its wake. My only hope is that everyone who enthusiastically shared the initial story will get to read the follow up.

To fill you in on the backstory:

Arrington’s experiment revealed that lionfish — the invasive, venomous species of fish thought to be native to saltwater oceans – could actually survive in nearly freshwater environments, which could potentially damage the marine ecology of estuaries, where salty ocean water and fresh river water mix.

The story went viral. Arrington’s work was featured in science magazines and local newspapers, and word of her “breakthrough” discovery made its way to major news organizations, including NPR, CBS and NBC.

But on Monday, a marine biologist by the name of Zack Jud made an explosive claim: All these stories were based on a “lie,” because Arrington was taking credit for research he’d published three years earlier. [WaPo]

As the Washington Post states, the story exploded. Everything is there to make the internet collectively squee: precocious youngster, saving the planet, and rocking The Establisment’s boat (if The Establishment is Marine Ecology).  NPR originally covered the story thusly, though they’ve since updated the piece:

Unfortunately, on the internet headlines travel faster than facts and the speed of propagation of a tweet is proportional to the inverse of its veracity.**

I’m not going to take sides here (those who are interested in doing so should read the full Washington Post article, this io9 piece, and Dr. Craig Layman’s timeline of events) as I want to make a different point. This whole kerfuffle underscores the importance of having highly science-literate journalists. Those who write about science need to thoroughly understand how science works, as a field and a process. Just as in marketing, law, or any other profession, science has its own shibboleths and rules of collegial conduct.

As a scientist you have to cite who you worked with and where your ideas came from (if not all your own, which they rarely are). This isn’t just important, this is tantamount. It isn’t like award shows where you can get up there and thank your mom and Jesus and all the little people when you and your PA both know you wouldn’t be there if they didn’t drag you out of bed every morning and have that almond milk half-caff no foam latte to get your brain started.

My speculation (and I want to stress, this is only speculation) is that the proper credit was lost at an early stage, between subject and journalist, or original article and viral reposting. A non-scientist could easily interpret a comment like, ‘She got the idea for her project from my colleague, Dr. X’ as an offhand remark instead of a crucial piece of the story. With the wheels of the internet news machine spinning as fast as they do in our modern world, flawed stories get shared (at best) and loosely paraphrased as new posts (at worst) faster than you can say “fish fight”.

All of this underscores the deep irony that we simultaneously live in an age where we have to fight for our right to be forgotten on the internet but nobody fact checks anything anyway. It took me all of 2 minutes to search Google Scholar for pre-2012 papers with “lionfish low salinity” (Jud’s 2011 paper is the second result) and find that Arrington did in fact cite Jud when she published her results in 2012.

Fact check your stories, people. Do it for the kids. (And adults and dogs and everyone else who uses the internet).

*Able to survive conditions across a wide range of salinities (e.g. from seawater to freshwater)

**It may be helpful to think of tweets as having the properties of both waves and particles.

Science Speak [The Scientist]

Great article from The Scientist about a new wave of science communication contests sweeping academia. From Three Minute Thesis (3MT) to FameLab

Contests that challenge young scientists to explain their research without jargon are turning science communication into a competitive sport.

Early on, organizers of such science communication competitions say they faced skepticism from faculty, many of whom were concerned that a contest would denigrate serious research. But CIRM’s McCormack refutes the idea that making science easier to digest cheapens it in any way. “Just because you’re simplifying it doesn’t mean you’re dumbing it down,” he says. “You’re just making it accessible. I don’t think it trivializes it at all. In fact, in many ways, I think it raises it.”

I completely agree. Explaining science in a straightforward, accessible fashion doesn’t necessitate dumbing it down. TED Talks are an excellent example of this. The presenters bring complex topics to curious audiences in engaging ways and their popularity is a testament to the success of such a format. More and better science communication can only serve to benefit both science and the public.

Variations on a Theme

Via deepseafauna with googly eyes:

Do you prefer the biologically accurate googly-eyes at the terminus of each arm…

image

…or the more whimsical pareidoliaic face?

image

Hippasteria spinosa.

[Photo by Ed Bowlby, WoRDSS.]

I, personally, am going to have to go with biologically accurate, although I do think googly eyes improve anything and everything.

But wait, you say, hold the phone. I can see that sea stars don’t have two eyes in the middle — “Correct!” I interject — but they definitely don’t have eyes on the ends of their… legs? Arms? What are those? (Arms.)

Ah, well, how am I going to put this. It turns out, sea stars actually do have eyes there. Tiny, structures that hold clusters of light-sensitive photoreceptors sit at the end of each arm, giving sea stars some rudimentary vision.

It begs the question, however, why would a sea star need to see? They’re not exactly speedy, so the sight of a predator swimming straight at them won’t send them racing away. (They’re not cartwheelingspiders, after all.) While the exact behavioral use of their eyes is still open to speculation, it’s quite likely they use their vision for rudimentary navigation.

A recent study looking at the vision and behavior of sea stars supports this hypothesis. Published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B earlier this year, the study investigated the small-scale navigation and the eye function and physiology of the blue sea star, Linckia laevigata, a tropical species that makes its home on coral reefs.

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[Linckia laevigata, from the California Academy of Sciences Research Archive]

In addition to exploring their eyes’ spectral sensitivity and resolution, the researchers, Anders Garm from the University of Copenhagen and Dan-Eric Nilsson from Lund University, found that normal Linckia sea stars were able to navigate back to the reef when placed up to 2 meters away, while experimentally blinded starfish were unable to find their way back. Pretty stunning for an animal with no advanced eyes and a simple nervous system.

This new information just adds to the fray that is our understanding of echinoderm vision. Echinoderms, an invertebrate phylum closely related to vertebrates, include sea urchins, brittle stars, basket stars, feather stars, crinoids, sea cucumbers, and our noble, sighted sea stars. Though several of these animals sport rudimentary vision and the odd pair of rogue googly eyes, none of them have eyes nearly as advanced as vertebrates. Still, as close invertebrate relatives, the development of echinoderm eyes may hold some clues for the development and evolution of our own.

App set to map the oceans’ plankton [BBC News]

Spend a lot of time out on the water and interested in getting involved in some citizen science? You can help marine scientists track global phytoplankton productivity… with your phone.

Marine biologists have been using the Secchi disk method to measure the abundance of phytoplankton for 150 years.

The white disk measures 30cm (1ft) in diameter and is lowered into the water on the end of a tape measure. When it is no longer visible from the surface, the reading – known as the Secchi depth – is recorded.

“It is a very robust method and not prone to error and it is a good measure of phytoplankton abundance,” Dr Kirby told BBC News.

“Away from estuaries and more than a kilometre from the coast, the main influence on water clarity is phytoplankton.”

He explained how he had the idea of setting up a citizen science project: “It occurred to me sat at my desk that while there are a lot of scientists, there are not that many that are marine scientists, and fewer still that go to sea.

“And the ones that do go to sea do not go out very far. If they do go out far, they rarely go back to the same place.

“I thought that there are an awful lot of sailors out there; day sailors, cruising sailors. Many of these sailors will sail the same waters and take the same route time and time again.”

The full article tells you how to get involved and provides this interesting, surprisingly Papal history of the Secchi Disk:

The Secchi disk, invented in 1865 by Angelo Secchi – the Pope’s astronomer – is a circular disk that is used to measure water transparency in oceans and lakes.

The concept had long been used as a navigational tool by sailors. By lowering a dinner plate beneath the waves and measuring the depth it disappeared, it provided the crew with an indication of what ocean current they were currently sailing through.

Fr Secchi was asked by the head of the Papal Navy to measure the transparency in the Mediterranean Sea. This task gave rise to the formalised measuring system.

Ever since the first measurement was taken aboard the Papal yacht in April 1865, marine biologists have used it to measure phytoplankton abundance.

So maybe all you need is a dinner plate, a tape measure, and your phone. Bon voyage!(Pro tip: don’t drop your phone in the ocean. You’re welcome.)

Updating my blog…

Bear with me! In the meantime, enjoy this cheerleader crab. They grasp tiny anemones with their chelipeds (aka claws) and wave them around in the water like pom poms. The anemones catch food like tiny zooplankton and then the crabs then use their mouthparts to clean the zooplankton off the anemones’ tentacles. I guess it’s kind of like using a living fork!

aneome crab

This Bothers Me (Part 1 of many)

Those of you who know me well know I love to complain and rant. A friend told me about this recent story, and the fisherman quoted in the article immediately put me in high dudgeon:

1,300-pound shark caught off Huntington Beach could be record [LA Times]

A group of fishermen hauled in a 12-foot-long, 1,300-plus-pound shortfin mako shark Monday off the coast of Huntington Beach that KTLA reported could be a record-setting catch.

Jason Johnston from Mesquite, Texas, said his group hooked the shark about 15 miles offshore. It took more than two hours and a quarter-mile of line to reel it in, he said.

“It’s unreal. This thing is definitely a killing machine,” Johnston said. “Any wrong step and I could have went out of the boat and to the bottom of the ocean.”

The shark was being taken to a weigh yard in Gardena to be certified by a weigh master. It was expected to be donated to a research organization for study.

As his group waited to hear whether the shark was indeed a record breaker, Johnston said the fishermen planned to hit the water again Tuesday.

*Looooong sigh* “Killing machine”, you say? It could have pulled you out of your boat while it was trying to escape being killed by you? I’m so sorry. See this tiny violin? I’m playing it just for you. Boasting about catching the biggest mako just seems to me like you’re boasting about killing the biggest tiger ever. (And then calling it a “killing machine” for growling when you shot it.)

Sharks get a bad rap, I recognize that. Ask anyone for the first word that comes to mind when they think of sharks and you get the answer of “Jaws”.

However, there are a lot of other things out there more likely to kill you. Dying in a traffic collision, for example, carries a lifetime risk of 1 in 83 (compared with a 1 in 60,453 lifetime risk for death by shark attack, source: NYT), but you don’t hear people say “That’s why I don’t go near roads” the way you hear people say “That’s why I don’t go in the ocean” after any shark news. You’re actually more likely to be bitten by a stranger on the subway than killed by a shark, which is news I think should really scare us all.

Things start to look even worse when you compare how many people are killed by sharks with how many sharks are killed by people each year:  on average, it’s only 6 people versus an estimated 100,000,000 sharks. Do the math and it comes out to around 11,000 sharks per hour; on the other hand, 2011, a record year, saw a grand total of 12  human fatalities. Joe Chernov and Robin Richards made this incredible infographic to demonstrate (via HuffPo):

Sweet mother of pearl.

Admittedly, cold hard numbers can only sway opinion so much. Fearing sharks is an emotional reaction, and fearing animals that could hurt you is really not that unreasonable. Sharks just need better PR. Consider instead, how you might feel about sharks if they had a different marketing crew working for them:

I personally find sharks to be really cute. Maybe if I just dress them up a little, you’d agree with me…

(✿◠‿◠)  Kawaii!! 

What does your relationship say about you?

1) Braving all the odds, the rough patches, and (especially) winters of discontent, you and your mate are intensely bonded. This bond doesn’t change when kids enter the picture, but your extreme commitment to providing the absolute best for your little one and two Type A personalities mean you don’t actually get to see each other that much anymore. In fact, a few days in between grueling 6 month stints of child care or work is it, really.  That’s ok with you, though. Anything for the advancement of the species.

You and your lover are… Emperor Penguins.

2) You felt adrift in a lonely ocean, telling yourself there must be someone out there just for you, and you were just about to give up when one day, he sidled up to you. He’s nice enough, you get along, and you can just really spend lots of time together without getting in fights or bugging each other or anything… that has to mean something, right?

Ultimately, he became intensely attached to you, reduced in size, and parasitic, to the point of the fusing of his circulatory system with yours. Even though he never leaves the house you at least don’t have to worry about him running off with someone else.

You and your lover are… Anglerfish.

3) “Fun in the sun!” and “Party Time!” and “Somewhere it’s 5 o’clock…” and “Where do I put this?” are all things you can be found shouting with glee while gettin’ your drink on. In fact, four phrases means there’s not only room for four, but plenty of room for more. Like one big conga line, you and the rest form long, copulatory chains, dispersing pheromones (…drink specials flyers?) into the area to let everyone else know what’s going on and that they can join in. When it’s all over, you lay some spaghetti-like eggs and go back to eating. Yum. Brunch time!

You and your lover(s) are… Sea Hares.

4) You don’t need anybody and no one has anything on you. That’s how you like it. No muss, no fuss, no strings, no cohabitation. You have your bachelor pad, your space, your little walled castle and that’s all you need. “I am a Rock” is your favorite Simon & Garfunkel song.

That being said, every guy has his needs, so when the time is right you don’t venture far from home. You don’t venture from home at all, actually, sticking your penis into your neighbors’ houses to get it on.

You are a… Barnacle.

Photo: Sue Scott