Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Science doesn't always come in a lab coat...

I am a developmental cognitive neuroscientist and I don't wear a lab coat. Except maybe if it's purple.
~Daphne Ling~

Read more about my work and the things I have learnt here.

Photo courtesy of Alistair Eagle Photography.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Science is about imagining the possibilities in our world...

This is the season where students applying to graduate school, medical school, and professional school are panicking over standardised tests and applications for admission and funding for the upcoming cycle.
I am so thankful that not all universities now require the GREs because I would completely bomb it. While I can understand the need for an standardised measure that is common to the whole application pool, the validity of that standardised measure is questionable. There's plenty of evidence out there they don't predict graduate school and/or scientific success.
The Boss herself told me early on to N.E.V.E.R. write the GREs because I would fail.
"GREs are not for creative people who think laterally. To do well in the GREs, you have to pick ONE answer. Not imagine the possibilities of every choice."
Ironically, that was perhaps the biggest compliment she ever gave me as a scientist.
Because science is about imagining the possibilities in our world. It is about imagining the possibilities others have not thought of, and to find ways to systematically test our assumptions and ideas. It allows us the opportunity to see, explore, and understand our world, bodies, minds, thoughts, societies, cultures, languages, civilisations, natural wonders and phenomena, and a limitless array of the multiverse. It is about seeing the wisdom in the past, appreciating the present, and imagining the future.
What is science not about? Science is not about test scores.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Emotionless academics...

There seems to be this perception that academics are tough, strong, resilient people who have no emotions.

I wonder how much of that stereotype makes it hard for us to show emotion in our labs.

Rejections seem to be part and parcel of academia. People even tell you if you can't take rejections, you should find another field.


For me, rejections from journals just makes me try harder. It helps me become a better scientist because it often comes with constructive criticism. Ideas and perspectives I never even thought of. There are exceptions: when the criticism is just an attack on the person doing the work (and there are some who use peer-reviews as a way to spew vitriol). 

But if the critiques are valid, I grieve for it for a bit, and then I get into my battle mode and take it head on. But does that mean I don't have emotions? 

Big, fat, no.

No emotions is when I completely stop caring. That's when it's emotionless.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

You must be very intelligent...

I recently spoke to some students in my (former) high school about what I do and saw the blank stares looking back at me.

Most of these students' lives revolve around school: wake up, go to school, stay for extracurricular activities, come home, go for extra tuition, do homework, sleep, and repeat.

That was me years ago.

When you are 17 and when so much emphasis is placed on academics and the need to get "straight As," it is hard to imagine life outside and after that. And then asking that same 17 year old to decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives seems to me like throwing someone into the ocean without a flotation device or navigation system and asking them to decide which country they want to go to and to swim there. That person likely has no clue which sea or ocean they are even in! They might not even have ever set foot into the sea or ocean or any body of water before either.

I came to doing my PhD by serendipity and mistake. A department chair had told me on the first day of university that I would be doing my undergraduate thesis. I didn't know she was the department chair when I first chatted with her but I did eventually find out halfway through the conversation. And when she told me I was to write my undergraduate thesis, I was too afraid to say no. And so I found myself years later writing that thesis.

And I couldn't have been more thankful that that younger me was too afraid to say no.

One of the most common thing I hear when people find out I'm working towards a Neuroscience PhD is: "You must be very intelligent."

I find that notion completely absurd. In high school, nobody called me "intelligent." 

"Above average," yes.

"Clever," yes.

"Could try harder," yes.

"Scattered," yes.

"Intelligent"...not so much.

School, as far as I was concerned, was a nightmare.

My 180° moment came when a psychologist in Canada noticed something was "very off" and got me tested.

It turns out, if you want me to read and comprehend, I do it at the speed of a tortoise.

So I now have an assigned specialist in university who advises my program chair and professors on how to help me. My grades jumped once they gave me the accommodations I needed.

The 17-year-old me would never have thought that I would one day do a PhD. The 17-year-old me couldn't even wrap my head around the idea of doing more education voluntarily!

And here we have, every year, 17-year-old students being asked to decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives.

I fully believe that people should take time off school to explore. Travel, volunteer, work with people different from you, and learn some life skills.

By the way, I learned in Canada that tortoises can do PhDs, too. They just need the right terrain and the right pair of shoes. You cannot expect the tortoise to fly to a destination like a bird, but you can expect the tortoise to get there if you let it walk with a good pair of shoes.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Very good things can come from tiny people

I remember a particular professor in my undergraduate years whom I had taken a class with and liked. So when I heard she was teaching statistics during the summer, I signed up.

First day of class:
Prof: Why so forlorn?
Me: I suck at math. So bad the entire Chinese community is ashamed of me.

*Prof walks away and comes back with a piece of paper and the garbage can*

Prof: Write down what you just said.

I wrote it down and she took the paper and shredded it before dumping it in the garbage can.

Prof: There. That's not your worry. It is MY job to make sure you come out not sucking.

After the finals, the prof came and said: "Remember, very good things can come from tiny people."

I got a 94.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Doctors heal; nurses comfort...

Yesterday, I had a procedure in the hospital scheduled. As luck would have it, Vancouver was hit by heavy and very wet snow (for Vancouver, that is, where the city is never prepared) the night before.

I had a miserable, terrible start to my day. I was 45 minutes late to my appointment even though I factored in an extra 75 minutes for travel (I did call ahead to apologise), every item of my clothing failed me, and by the time I reached the hospital, I was a soaking, dripping, shivering, miserable puppy.

I walked to the counter to register, bracing myself for a scolding. Instead, when the nurses saw me, they ushered me to a bed, practically stripped me off of my wet clothes and proceeded to wrap me up with layers of warm blankets from the oven. They even brought me two portable heaters that blew hot air, one to heat my feet and another to dry my clothes.

I apologised for being so late, but they all said, "it's OK, hon / Daphne." It was clear their only concern was to warm me up.

Thanks to them, I slept like a baby who had been fed and swaddled. 

My mum was right: if you want to heal people, be a doctor. But if you want to comfort people, be a nurse. They're both important in many different ways, but they complement each other, for neither can function without the other. 

Thursday, 16 November 2017

O' Canada...

I came to Canada about 9 years ago. 

My education, *not* counting admittedly very high cost of living, has been funded by scholarships, both federal and within the university, all the way. First as an international student, and now, as a permanent resident. An education I would never have received otherwise.

In terms of healthcare, I would imagine the families of babies in the Neonatal ICU, especially the multiples, have thanked their lucky stars their babies receive phenomenal hospital care for free, too. 

I am happy to pay taxes (and wait, when necessary) if it means these babies, my family, friends, and the millions of people I don't know don't have to worry about seeing a doctor, specialist, have imaging and surgery done, and hospitalisation in world-class facilities (yes, some need upgrading). 

Not to forget me. 

While wait-lists are a major complaint, I can tell you from experience that if it is urgent or sufficiently important, they find you a specialist or spot right away. I remember the doctor telling me, "There is a very long wait-list for the bone scan (for my ankle). Be prepared to wait." That very long wait-list was 1.5 business days, for the doctor asked them to schedule me as soon as possible.

In fact, breaking my ankle a single time alone (emergency care, sports physicians, ct scans, bone scans, x-rays, etc.) would have put me into debt. And I *cough, cough* broke it more than one. 

But, really, Canada, you got me at maple syrup.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Chicken Soup for the Flu-Season Soul...

Keeping healthy during the flu season is very challenging, especially if you work with young children (they're like very adorable petri dishes!), the elderly, and/or in crowded environments like schools and universities. As a graduate student who almost lives in the lab, has never-ending work, and is perpetually stressed, this is not a good time of year, health-wise.

I get the flu shot every year. I get it to protect myself and also to protect those who cannot / have trouble protect themselves (e.g., very young infants; immunocompromised patients). But flu shots are not foolproof. After all, it is impossible to predict with 100% certainty what flu viruses might be "coming." Read more here.

I am getting quite good at taking care of myself during the flu season. 

One of my lifesavers is the proverbial benefits of chicken soup. I honestly do not know who first thought of this, but everyone (doctors, nurses, family, friends) say "chicken soup" the minute you say you have the flu. 

Daphne's chicken soup

Once my appetite does come back, it is my go-to.

I am even getting good at making it!

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Cooking is like Science...

One of the things I realised when I started living on my own was that I loved to cook. I hate cleaning up the dishes and pots and pans, but I sure loved to cook.

It was quite similar to being a scientist. You see a recipe (protocol) and you follow the recipe. And when the recipe doesn't work well or if the outcome isn't great, you re-examine the recipe and tweak it. Sometimes, there are curve balls, but that's when life experiences and skill come in!

This is my version of the spaghetti meatball. I have since learned to add anchovies and blend onions, carrots, and celery into the sauce. Well worth it.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Power Rangers!

Realisations re-watching an episode of Power Rangers as an adult:

a) Those Angel Grove city builders seriously need to come to Vancouver as they take a week to rebuild after massive destruction. UBC wouldn't be constantly under construction and neither would the roads.
b) How much taxes must cost at Angel Grove to have to constantly rebuild.
c) Those minions of Rita Repulsa (RR) and Lord Zedd (LZ) should really have been fired a long time ago as they are really bad at their jobs.
d) Those bad monsters are equally incompetent because if they figured out that all they had to do was stomp on the zords before they became megazords, those Rangers would go bye-bye.
e) How is it RR and LZ never figured out that if they wanted to really destroy the universe, they should try attacking a place far away from Angel Grove, cause, dummy, that's where the rangers are. Two words: management problems.
f) There must be some serious nepotism going on that all rangers came from one school.
g) How is it RR and LZ never figured out they were in love with each other.
h) Well, at least Zordon and Alpha5 saw the importance of diversity in hiring (White, Black, Asian; male, female).

Adulthood: Ruins all childhood fun. Next stop: Barney, the Purple Dinosaur.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Of baking and chocolate cakes...

Flourless chocolate cake

I was never a baker. I grew up in a home without an oven--Malaysian homes at that time don't naturally come with ovens. We use standard gas stoves that aren't atop ovens. So unless you grew up with a parent (or parents) who loved to bake, chances are you won't have an oven. Things might be different now in new Malaysian homes, but I have no insight into that having lived abroad for 9 years.

Despite my limited insight into baking, I absolutely love to eat: chocolate cake, cookies, cupcakes, brownies, muffins. As long as there was chocolate and/or peanut butter in them, I'm game.

This flourless chocolate cake is perhaps the ONLY cake I can bake. I got it right the first time and have gone back to it repeatedly, changing it ever so slightly every now and then. I've tried adding bananas, I've tried adding more cocoa (to make them like brownies!), I've added mayonnaise, I've tried using different types of chocolate (e.g., half milk, half semi-sweet), and they work pretty well every time!

This is one of those times I wished my Malaysian home had an oven so I can make this when I go home. Cause nobody should go without this cake. 

Friday, 30 June 2017

Correlation does not imply causation...

I read popular media and news articles and often wonder how people who write these articles can get the information so wrong. Many of these articles are in science and healthcare.

One of the most common errors are when journalists and/or bloggers zero in on any relationship implied by the authors as causational, definitive, and is "proof" that X causes Y and/or that X or Y exists and is true. Students are often taught in first year about the mantra "Correlation does not imply causation."

And yet, we see news everywhere saying:
a) Scientists prove the cause for MS
b) This is evidence that the MMR vaccine causes autism
c) Cure for Alzheimer's Disease found
d) Musical training proven to make you smarter

The list goes on.

I sit and wonder.

Are these misrepresentations of the findings of the actual studies, blowing out of proportion of the data, and jumping to conclusions based on a pure misunderstanding of the data and studies?

Or are these ways to sell news, create hype, and further a cause / point of view?

If it is the former, scientists really need to work on making their work accessible. For starters, increasing readability of the text (use less jargon, write in lay language) would probably go a long way. The problem also probably lies with the lack of physical access to the papers, which hide behind "pay-to-view" journals. But then again, would anybody fully read them if they were accessible?

If it is the latter, well, it is hard to do something unless news channels and media (both online and print) say it is not acceptable and actually give training to their writers on how to report scientific studies.

Whatever the reason, I think scientists need to communicate more with journalists, and vice versa, in making news valid. We all have a responsibility to get this right.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Neurons that fire together, wire together

I have been following George Lakoff's work from the sidelines, and as a trainee neuroscientist, it fascinates me.

In essence, Hebb's law applies: Neurons that fire together, wire together.

The work is fascinating because I often wonder how so many people can continually ignore evidence when it is presented to them. I often wonder how is it that two people can read the exact piece of factual work and have such vastly different conclusions. This isn't a social situation where opinions are highly subjective.

Reading Lakoff's work gives me a little bit more perspective. It's hard to change your views because we're so entrenched. We move with people who are so much like us; we communicate (very often) with people who are like us; we essentially live in a bubble of similar, like-minded people. Our neuronal circuitry just keeps strengthening and the networks keep getting stronger. And when we see something that is different from that, it gets filtered out.

Does education change that? I really don't know, especially since we now have trigger warnings for so many things. 

I guess it is something to think about...

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Informed Consent: Version Marvel Comics

Popular media has a way of making scientists look either really, really good (we solve crimes, catch murderers, save the world all in one day) or look really, really, really bad (we single-handedly destroy the world, annihilate the universe, create zombies, completely disregard all ethics). There is no middle ground.

If informed consent forms were written for any of the experiments in the Marvel, DC comics enterprise, I can only imagine they would look something like this (this was obviously written retrospectively, tongue-in-cheek, and very, very facetiously):

Principal Investigator: Name, Ph.D.
Sponsor: Stark Industries

You are invited to participate in this study because you are desperately in need of validation from people around you, and are tired of being pushed around by the bullies in your life. Some of you also have a few million dollars to spare. Many of you also believe you can save the world better than entire countries combined. This makes you the ideal participant for this study.

Your participation in this study is voluntary. You have the right to refuse to participate. If you decide to participate, you may still choose to withdraw from the study at any time without any negative consequences to the medical care, education, or other services to which you are entitled or are presently receiving. Sometimes, however, accidents and unforeseen circumstances happen. In which case, governments will hunt you down and you will become a fugitive and every bad person will want to harm you indefinitely.

This study will change the world. We will cure every imaginable disease, every imaginable time-travel conundrum, build the world's most formidable army, and also, we will solve world peace.

The main purpose is to be the first person to cure every imaginable disease, every imaginable time-travel conundrum, build the world's most formidable army, and solve world peace. Oh, we won't tell you, but really, also be the richest on the planet.

You may participate in this study if you have nothing to lose. You should be American, or residing in America, or related to Americans in some way, because 99.99% of threats are centred on the United States, New York, and the White House, and all superheroes are based in the United States (even if they previously were born elsewhere).

We can't think of anyone, really. For more details, see Who Can Participate.

With great power, comes great responsibility. You are the only one who can keep the world and the universe safe. Most threats to the world will be centred on the United States, New York, and the White House.

You should be aware this study has not been tested to any real standards. We have a hypothesis that defies all real scientific reality, but we can do anything we want. Therefore, there is a possibility you might turn green when your heart rate increases, and/ or grow a tail, and / or have sudden abilities such as scaling walls, moving very quickly, shooting laser beams, and other unpredictable mutant powers. You will also find that if you develop these powers, there will inevitably follow an enemy that you didn't know existed until you developed your powers (but correlation doesn't equal causation). Governments may or may not have a sudden interest in your movement. You may or may not become a fugitive. You may or may not suddenly find an improvement in your physique: if you see a deterioration, they include turning green or blue, growing bigger, boulders and / or rocks attaching to you, elongation of limbs, hirsutism (growing hair in places you don't normally have hair), growing a tail and /or talons. This list is not exhaustive You may or may not also have a sudden need to wear a ridiculously tight costume, and be known by a very cheesy name. All costs associated with destruction of city landscape will be borne by someone other than you. You should be aware we really have no idea what we are doing.

You may or may not suddenly find an improvement in your physique. If you do, they most likely include improvements in musculature, build, senses, and having perfect makeup in all conditions and terrain (snow, rain, sleet, mudslide, earthquake, thunder, explosions, after waking up, post-crying, in outer space, zombie apocalypse, after fighting, etc.). You may or may not also develop a sudden ability to wield various weapons, and be suddenly extraordinarily skilled in various forms of martial arts. You may or may not also find that you will suddenly develop a love interest.

We really just need you to trust that everything can and will go wrong, but sign up for this study anyway, because you will become a hero. And heroes always win in the end. They will suffer throughout, but they will win in the end.

You will become a hero.

We have no idea what we are doing, so you can withdraw consent, but if you already grew a tail, sorry. Whoops!

That's why you have a mask! Wear it! Sometimes, just wearing glasses will suffice. We assure you people aren't very bright and do not recognize voices, even those in your family and office. We don't guarantee confidentiality from governments, however. They are extremely smart, and can figure out who you are.

Friday, 31 March 2017


We were learning about stress the other day in class. To put it simply, "stress" is when our coping mechanisms are maladaptive or have failed altogether.

I seem to have hit a perfect storm when it comes to stress these last few weeks.

I have a final exam, a mock grant for a topic I have never worked on due, another assignment due, a presentation related to my dissertation, a revision for a paper we submitted a few months ago, a revision for a chapter that has come back from the editors, a student-friend who is visiting for a few days, and just about everything seems to need my attention yesterday.

But the thing that really stresses me out is not really that I have all this work to do. The hardest thing is that every time I think I can finally sleep, the kids who live upstairs are either playing very loudly (running circuits, rolling the cars and trucks, banging, screaming, pounding on the wooden floor above me that vibrates) or having a meltdown. I startle out of my sleep virtually every morning, especially on the weekends. I work late as those are my most productive hours, but sleeping late just doesn't happen because I will be startled awake when morning comes. 

"They will grow up," I tell myself.

"The parents must have it worse," I tell myself.

"Turn on the TV and let the white noise drown them out," I tell myself.

And then, I come to work, and hug the lab dog, and thank the stars that when I have a massive deadline, I have a couch in the lab I can crash on so I don't have to deal with the noise.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Non-traditional Students in Graduate School...

I co-presented a seminar with a professor on preparing for graduate school yesterday at Langara College, and about 25 people showed up. These were mostly made up of non-traditional students: mature students, first generation students attending college, students raising families, students who have gone out into the working world and then returned to school, students working while studying, and also first- and second- year students.
We chatted about what graduate admissions was like, scholarships available to students pursuing a masters/PhD, the kind of experiences needed to apply for graduate programs, and the typical components of a graduate application (e.g., reference letters, GRE).

I really enjoyed the conversations. I think I especially enjoyed that people were thinking how their life experiences were informing the choices they were making inside the classroom and within higher education. It reminded me again why I especially enjoy working with non-traditional students: there are such a myriad of experiences that they bring into the mixing bowl that make us just the better for having learned from them. 

Monday, 9 January 2017

Academia in a World of Scarcity...

Academia is an increasingly stressful world to be in. The pressure to publish and to win grants often begins in the undergraduate days now, which is quite ridiculous. Students are expected to have great grades, a publication record, scholarships, presentations, leadership, and still maintain a work - life balance. 

When I look at the CVs of my (tenured) mentors and professor's, some of them didn't even start publishing until they were more senior doctorate students. So, why the shift in expectations? I feel, in part, this is due to the increasing number of people enrolled in PhDs and the very perilous job market my generation of peers are in. (Seriously, stop over-admitting so many PhD students just to boost enrollment, and offer better support to the ones you do take in)

But, it is a stupid way to maintain science and academia.

There has been so much research showing that when people live below the poverty line, something happens with their ability to make decisions involving their lives, especially in terms of long-term planning. Take the example many people who don’t live below the poverty line take for granted: going to the grocery store. If you are not poor, you probably waltz into the grocery store and buy things for the week or more. Things like milk, and eggs, and flour, and oil, and toilet paper. You probably also might buy yourself a treat, something you don't need but want anyway, like chocolate or cake or ice cream or organic fruit instead of "normal" fruit. You might buy something you don't need right away but it is on sale, like laundry detergent or your favourite brand of tea or an extra box of tampons.

But if you are poor, whatever money you have you think VERY carefully and you then go into survival mode: what can you buy to keep yourself full with the least amount of money for the longest length of time. Basically, you are so focused on the immediate future (i.e., survival), you really have no opportunity to do any strategic long-term planning (Oxford University report with the Rowntree Foundation, 2015).

I want to be clear this is *not* a post blaming the poor.  

I wonder why nobody can see that academics who live in that same position (i.e., constantly looking for funds for the immediately upcoming term) cannot possibly do any good science for the long-run. The body is tired, the mind is tired, the soul is tired; if everything is tired, the science, the arts, the humanities, the knowledge-translation, and discoveries…well, they cannot happen. 

How do we plan for the future in a sustainable way when we are so focused on the present?

Thursday, 1 December 2016

The Lab that Comes with a Lab(radoodle)...

So, my lab has a labradoodle that comes to work every day. This pup has been coming to work every day since she was 10 weeks old. It is definitely one of the best things about coming to work.

You walk in, and there is a pattering of paws flying out to say hello to you and to rub noses with you. It could be raining, snowing, or hailing outside, and old furry face would just be as happy to see you.

Being a graduate student and a researcher are both very stressful. There's always a grant or paper or person or experiment that needs your attention, and things always seem to be due right now. You can be completely on top of your workload, but that usually just means that another one will creep onto your pile of things-to-do.

More and more people in academia are finding themselves struggling with mental illness and/or stress. I wonder how different a culture academia would be if animals were a part of that culture? What if labs had the *option* to come with labs? (take this with a big pinch of salt--wet labs, for example, may not find this possible or feasible for safety issues)

Might productivity go up?

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Writing a Review Paper...

One of the research skills I have been learning in these last couple of years is the ability to synthesize other people's research into a review paper. In many ways, a review paper is like a very big term paper.

The Boss and I worked on a massive review paper for a couple of years. It was a monumental effort that required months and months of reading, synthesizing, corrections, and correspondence.

The effort paid off, though.

Here is the final product.

And here is a write up on it on ResearchFeatures.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

How much does a Calvin cost?

From here and here

I love Calvin and Hobbes. Love them so much it is disgustipating. (Ok, so I love Popeye, too)

The chart had me wide-eyed because I realized that if this was a real kid, we would be shaking our heads. Having children are expensive. Forget damage. Just diapering and feeding them cost money. Our lab spends a shameful amount of money buying Pepperidge Farm Fish because the children eat them by the handful; some kids even stuff them in their pockets, shoes, and bags. I see these fish in my nightmares. I see the crumbs and empty bags in my nightmares. And these are just goldfish. Just fish. Don't get me started on juice boxes.

You haven't seen the stuff that I have to explain to my PI (principal investigator, i.e., The Boss). Like when a kid decides our bookshelves are for doing gymnastics from, or that their kid brother is for bouncing things off and, of course, the thing ricochets off their brother and breaks something.

But I take Watterson's piece with a grain of salt. Children are expensive. They break things. They get dirty. But they're loads of fun. And they're worth it. Wouldn't trade my job!