Monday, 7 August 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

INVITATION
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 IS VOLUNTARY
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.

BACKGROUND
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.

PURPOSE
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.

WHO CAN PARTICIPATE
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).

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

WHAT ARE MY RESPONSIBILITIES?
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.

RISKS:
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.

BENEFITS
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.

WHAT DOES THE STUDY INVOLVE
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.

COMPENSATION
You will become a hero.

WHAT HAPPENS IF I DECIDE TO WITHDRAW CONSENT?
We have no idea what we are doing, so you can withdraw consent, but if you already grew a tail, sorry. Whoops!

HOW WILL MY TAKING PART IN THIS STUDY BE KEPT CONFIDENTIAL?
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

Stress...

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?