Random Musings

I just moved to a new town and started a new job. I don’t really know anyone yet so I’ve had a lot of time to myself just for thinking. Lately I’ve been watching House of Cards which has me thinking about power dynamics among people.

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We just spent part of the morning out at one of our teachers properties working with his horses. He wrote his dissertation on power structures within horse herds and how it relates to the classroom. It’s an interesting task, trying to help students develop into individuals who aren’t interested in using power for only their own betterment, as Kevin Spacey ‘ s character in House of Cards is, but to show them that it’s important to empower others as well.

That’s all I’ve got. Short post. Back to work!

 

That The Powerful Play Goes On

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So, Robin Williams died on Monday (8/11/2014).

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He had a long history of battling depression (as well as difficulties with substance abuse). Ultimately, he committed suicide. Initially, I was sad but not extremely sad; he was a celebrity I’d never met. But then I began to see all the different tributes and comments people made about him. And I began to think about how he was a star in many of my favorite movies, especially ones from my childhood – Jumanji, Flubber, Aladdin, Patch Adams (a movie that made me want to become a doctor – turns out I’m not one yet [and likely won’t ever be]), and Good Will Hunting to name a few. It slowly dawned on me over the course of the evening that I was actually very sad – sorry, morose – about his death. Sad enough to shed a few tears as I began to read about all the times he had made someone laugh or think or feel a little bit better, how he was the kindest, nicest, most sincere man people had the honor to meet or work with. How he gave people hope. (For a particularly good article on this, pop over to Dan Fincke’s blog and read this).

I watched Dead Poets Society for the first time today. It had been on my list for a while but I just never got around to viewing it. Then I kept seeing all these images with quotes from it and decided it was about time. I really enjoyed it – especially the cheesy, late 80’s feel it had at times. It reminded me of my love for the written word (admittedly, I’ve never been a huge poetry fan but I do have a good appreciation for a well-written sentence) and that once upon a time, I aspired to be a writer (maybe I should retitle this blog “Exploring My Past Career Paths”). Alas, I doubt I’ll ever be able to capture emotion or the human condition as well as many famous writers, or even as well as I’d like to. Anyways, I’ve digressed. For those of you who don’t know, the movie is set in the late 1950s at some kind of prep school for boys. Robin Williams is a new English teacher at the school and does his best to inspire his students to be free-thinking young men, to help them find their own voices. He discards the overly objective, markedly boring introduction to their poetry books and how to analyze poetry in favor of a more personal, awe-inspiring approach. One that emphasizes finding the hope, wonder, and/or strength in the writer’s words rather than seeking some abstract value of the poetry’s greatness and impact. The hope part – hope for a fulfilling life doing what you want, rather than what others want for you – seems to resonate particularly with one of the main characters, a young Robert Sean Leonard (who I will [unfortunately?] always associate with his character of James Wilson on House).

I think the movie has been out long enough that I can safely spoil it without fear of repercussions. Wilson’s [Leonard’s] character has a passion for acting but his father (Foreman’s father from That 70’s Show) threatens to put his foot up his son’s ass anytime he tries to stray from the path of becoming a for-serials doctorman. Eventually, the conflict comes to a head and Old-Man Foreman says he’s removing Wilson [Leonard] from the school and sending him to military school. Wilson [Leonard] decides to kill himself. Robin Williams character essentially gets blamed for inciting the misbehavior/tom-foolery/hijincks of the Dead Poets Society that eventually lead Wilson [Leonard] to his suicide. But the movie ends on a high note, showing the still living members/students standing on desks and saying “Oh Captain, my Captain” in a show of solidarity with Robin Williams and defiance against the wrinkly old asshole of a dean? principal? headmaster? that takes over the English class after they fire Williams.

Despite the sad ending for Wilson [Leonard], the movie did well, as many Robin Williams movies do, at instilling an overall feeling and sense of hope. Which brings me to the point of this post: creating/building/instilling hope as a goal of education. Hope, as defined by much of the education literature, is the combination of the drive to achieve goals and the ability to visualize pathways towards those goals (the will and the way). More broadly, it is often taken to mean a feeling that what is desired is what will be achieved (or will be the outcome) but I find the former definition to be more useful, as it revolves less around wishful thinking and more around individual self-efficacy. A hopeful individual is one who feels a sense of purpose and a sense of I-can-do-this or I-can-make-a-difference.There is a movement among some circles of educators and schools to foster the development of hope in students. Hope has been shown to be a solid predictor of GPA, graduation rates, and overall feeling of success and accomplishment by those that measure high on various scales of hopefulness (Snyder et. al, Journal of Ed. Psych 2002).

Robin Williams character hits on how poetry can contribute to this sense of hope in the following clip (text following for those of you that don’t want to watch the video)

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

This scene seems to be asking “what good is poetry” to a bunch of students that have had it instilled in them that poetry is a useless pursuit but I think it hints at a larger question: what is the purpose of life? He goes on to quote Whitman to answer these questions – we read and write poetry because as human beings we need something to be passionate about; we exist to strive towards something greater than ourselves, to contribute a verse to the play of life. This is what hope is – a drive to participate and the knowledge that we can make a difference. Too often the education system leaves students feeling hopeless. Their education is too impersonal, too abstract, feels like busy work or just another chore they have to do.

Students are often left asking “why should I learn this? why do I need to do this?” They’re feeling like their education is out of their control. They can’t visualize how what they’re learning is supposed to help them achieve future goals; the way is not apparent. You may be familiar with the saying “where there’s a will, there’s a way” but that is markedly untrue for a majority of the population. Some people may be able to get by with just a drive to succeed. Many people(students included), however, are demoralized by a lack of the way or are unable to focus the will when the way isn’t apparent. And we need to do a better job of helping them find the way. Teachers can and should and need to be there to help guide them at the start, to inspire them, to help them feel hopeful and passionate. But our grindstone, faceless, No Child Left Behind education system doesn’t serve them in this endeavor. We can start by giving students more autonomy in their education and by getting rid of our ridiculous sets of content standards. Not every student needs to have the process of cell division memorized or how to do long division with polynomials but they do need to understand the nature of science and how to problem solve. These skills can be taught in more meaningful ways.

I may look like I’m doing nothing…

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But at the cellular level I’m quite busy.

I thought I might say a few words about the title I chose for this site. Cellula e cellula comes from a longer Latin phrase coined by Francois-Vincent Raspail, “Omnis cellula e cellula.” (Systems Biology: Philosophical Foundations, JHS Hofmeyr, pg 223) This translates to “all cells from cells” and is a central tenant of the cell theory of life. I’ll be honest, part of the reason I chose this for the title is because I love Latin phrases. There is something about a sentence in Latin that gets my brain-loins a tinglin’.

Another reason though is that this particular phrase corresponds to one of my favorite parts of the cell theory – that all cells come from previously existing cells. Now this immediately draws my mind to a question that many people have: if all cells must come from other cells, where did the first cells come from? Cue evolution. Evolutionary biology is one of my favorite fields of biology; I once had dreams of attending graduate school and eventually becoming an evolutionary biologist. (Maybe I still will someday, the night is young.) I’ll be honest and say that I’m not even super familiar with what current science has to say about this question other than what is in my general biology textbook. But! The important part is that this key piece of cell theory very succinctly links all life together and I find this very powerful.

I have always been in love with the natural world, particularly the living critters that inhabit it. Natural places have always held a special place in my heart, even before I knew anything about the evolution of life on Earth. And when I finally did learn about it and really began to consider it’s implications, it began to make sense why I enjoyed being outdoors so much and why I cared so much about the fate of our natural treasures. We’re all connected, going back to the  very first primordial life. Ultimately, at the molecular level I am not that much different from my cat. And I find that beautiful.

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Measure Twice Cut Once

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One of the more interesting parts of any science endeavor is determining what you need to measure to answer a question and how you’ll know whether or not your measurements support your hypothesis. Consider this bit of discussion around cancer I recently read about in The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. On page 230, he discusses the problems with assessing cancer treatments based on survival-rate. Survival-rate measurements are based on the fraction of surviving patients after diagnosis at a set time interval. So the five year survival-rate is a measure of how many patients are still alive 5 years after diagnosis. Mukherjee goes on to point out that if you develop a new diagnostic test that catches the cancer earlier but do not develop any effective way to treat it, you may increase the survival rate but the same number of people are  still dying around the same time. They just know what will kill them for a longer time. He discusses using overall mortality as an alternative but this runs into it’s own problems. In most first world countries, the overall population is aging – that is to say, that people are living longer than the generation before them. Cancer is a disease of time – my genetics professor in college was fond of saying that as long as we have DNA in our cells, we’ll have to deal with cancer. The older a population gets, the more likely it is cancer will be the thing that kills them. So when comparing mortality over time, you can produce a skewed picture looking at overall mortality. Other methods he mentions include a sort of time-gained-after-diagnosis-and-treatment – does a treatment add useful years to a person’s lifespan? Are they able to live more productively for a longer period of time? Also, prevalence of cancer. How common are various types of cancer and how does that compare to time-gained/mortality for these cancers.

The book is superb (I think I might write a review of it later) but these bits got me thinking about education. There is such a push for standardized assessments and measuring student achievement. But I get the impression that the people pushing for these assessments don’t actually know what they’re interested in measuring, how they’re going to measure it accurately and precisely, and when they finally do get data, what they should be doing with it. And I think a lot of this stems from the fact that we don’t have a cohesive view of what purpose education serves for our country and our society. 

I joined a research project in college when it was in it’s second year; it was my intention to work on it as a summer job and be done with it. Then it morphed into my senior project and after I’d graduated and then decided to go back to school part time, I went back and worked on the project more.I even ended up with a publication out of the whole thing (first author, even!). But hell was it frustrating to work with our supervising professor. The project itself was a fairly well designed monitoring project but they had put 0 thought into how they would actually use the data once they collected it. It was easy enough to point out a few problems that the data highlighted to the farmer group we worked with. But when it came time to consider publication, the reviewers wanted hard statistics. And it fell to me to come up with those. I did (and still do) not have a strong statistical background, having taken only a biostatistics course (although I admittedly did quite well in it). I did what I could with the data but it was not an experimental design that lent itself to the simple analysis I was familiar with. It did not help that my PI had no experience with statistics so I had to teach her what every test I ran was and had to explain to her why we could or couldn’t do different tests. Fortunately, unlike the education system, we had a cohesive vision of what our project’s purpose was. But we still didn’t know what to do with our data once we had it and I have to say, I am neither super proud nor super confident in the statistical analysis I worked up with what we had because of it.

I think we need to have a strong dialogue about what the purpose of education is in this country and if we can agree on a set of goals, move from there to deciding how and what to measure that we are making progress towards these goals. Rather than just collecting data and trying to make it fit whatever framework we desire, post-hoc.

Greetings and Salutations

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Welcome to my newly reincarnated blog. I started this blog with the best of intentions three years and one day ago. After a series of 4 insubstantial posts, it fell into disuse. This is my new start.

You can call me Mayflower Watson. I’ve recently begun feeling a tad morose and without direction. Over the past few weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to make some changes in my day to day living. My vision for the future has always shown me as someone with a keen intellectual prowess. I used to find great pleasure in engaging in thoughtful endeavors; activities that involved learning or thoughtful reflection. In recent times, these activities have  been absent from my life. I’ve been consumed by, what feels to me to be, lesser pursuits. This blog is my new intentional effort to reintroduce intelligent living back into my life.

This newly resurrected blog has parallels to life changes I tried to bring about during summer three years ago when it had its first life. At the time, I was rather out of shape and it was beginning to wear on me. Throughout college I’d made attempts to stay physically active, but between having no real dedication and essentially unlimited food, I began to pile on the pounds. Around July 2011 I made the conscious decision to change that and have kept it up ever since. It’s become part of my daily routine and an integral part of how I define myself. I suppose at the time I tried to bite off more than I could chew and ended up trying to engage in too many activities – this blog became a victim of that and fell by the wayside. This time around, I hope to have an easier go of it. I do start a brand spankin’ new job in about 2 weeks but it’s in a new, small town away from friends and distractions so as long as the work load is reasonable, I should find time to commit to this. Only time will tell.

Regardless, this will be a place for me to write about those things that I have passion for. I’m a science-ophile (I bet there’s a better word for that) with an interest in education, philosophy, and super heroes. I don’t know where these interests or my writing will take me, but I suppose that will help satisfy my interest in exploring the unknown.

Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee