What kind of scientist do I want to be?

Rhianne Curley is a first year student in Biotechnology and the post below is based on an assignment given to the class following a lecture I (GF) gave them on the ten types of scientist.

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When I was in my Transition Year in secondary school I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to work in one of the labs in Bristol-Myers Squibb. I felt really comfortable in the lab environment and this is when my interest in working in the science industry really began.

I was up early every morning anticipating an interesting new day while I was there. Working in the labs, developing and analysing products is my idea of the perfect job. What excites me most is the fact that people working in the drug development industry have to be adaptable due to the fact that new drugs are needed in order to combat new strains of existing diseases and also to treat and prevent new diseases.

As the world faces increasing life expectancies and a growing elderly population the pharmaceutical and medical device industries will be a sector full of opportunity. The thrill of discovery and the possibility of making an impact in the world is what attracts me to this type of work most. I imagine with a job like this I would wake up almost every morning with a feeling of excitement for a new day of work. I understand that it is not a typical 9 to 5 job but I believe that I have the patience, commitment and the right attitude required to succeed in the competitive development industry.

I have a desire to make a contribution to science and believe this will be possible if I have the privilege to work in this industry. My absolute dream job would be to work as a drug developer in the chemical and pharmaceutical industry. I’d love to be able to be a part of a team attempting to come up with products that could potentially benefit millions of people in years to come. I imagine myself using sophisticated computers and equipment, working with microscopic compounds and conducting experiments in order to aid the development of pharmaceuticals.

The ideal company that I’d like to work for would be a multinational company like Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pfizer, or other similar companies. I would look forward to having the opportunity to travel to another country to work with like-minded people and to develop my own skills. I admire the dedication the employees at these companies have, discovering medicine and treatments that can help people all over the world. I know I have just begun my journey into the world of science but I am really excited about the next four years studying areas that I really have an interest in.

More tales from the LIYSF

Kashif Ali is a second year student in biotechnology

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LIYSF, I wonder what these five letters mean to a non LIYSFer. I imagine they assume that it is just five randomly scattered letters; well that is what I assumed it was before participating in LIYSF 2016.

LIYSF stands for London International Youth Science Forum, which takes place over two weeks in the heart of London in Imperial College London. For these two weeks the forum each year welcomes the brightest minds from all four corners of the globe (I mean this literally!!) because at LIYSF 2016, the 59th edition of the forum there were 75 different countries represented by around 580 students. The theme of LIYSF 2016 was Great Scientific Discoveries. I along with a fellow science student in DCU were lucky enough to have been selected as Ireland’s delegates in the forum.

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The Forum kicked off with the opening ceremony on the 28th of July, where I was privileged enough to carry the Irish flag, without a doubt the proudest moment of my life. In the opening ceremony the key note address was given by Professor Romain Murenzi from UNESCO and the President’s note by Professor Richard O’Kennedy of DCU.

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The forum schedule was filled with amazing Principal Lectures and demonstrations, which truly achieved the theme of LIYSF 2016 as these lectures seek to dissect the process of scientific discovery from the eureka moment through to the widest, successful scientific developments. Also in the schedule at LIYSF are specialist lectures, which were an amazing opportunity for majority of students at LYISF to experience their chosen lectures in different fields of sciences, sciences in which they may wish to purse their further education. Most of the delegates were pre-college (High school) age and therefore the specialist lectures helped them find an area of science that they found most intriguing before choosing a course in university. For me, however, the situation was a little bit different. The specialist lectures allowed me to see the great research that is being conducting in the Biotech industry currently and the kind of research work I may be conducting in future and so these specialist lectures definitely reassured me that the field of science that I am pursuing my future in is one for me.

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It is not only the full, rich and varied programme with incredible lectures, speakers and visits to incredible lecture departments around the UK that made LIYSF great but rather the great diversity and engaging social programme. The diversity at LIYSF was evident to me when somewhere in the middle of the fortnight I found myself having lunch at a table with a Mexican girl, a Spanish boy, a Kuwaiti boy and a Cypriot girl. That’s the beauty of LIYSF: interacting with as many different cultural backgrounds as there are people around you. Everyone I met at the forum had a completely different view on current global issues, while at the same time, sharing the same love for science as I do. That made me acknowledge how important it is to accept and embrace the baffling diversity our planet possesses, because it is only by welcoming everyone’s point of view that we can evolve as species.

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My personal favourite moment of the forum came when I was asked by the Pakistani delegates to perform a traditional dance with them in the International Cabaret, which was a cultural showcase performance evening. It is these kind of moments that only LIYSF can offer that will live forever live in my memory. LIYSF changed my point of view because it is not about seeing who’s the best scientist but rather sharing our love for science and spreading our culture with people from all corners of the world. LIYSF is about communication as much as it is about science. By attending the Forum my views on matters of the world have changed in a way I would’ve never imagined but I guess that’s the beauty of this forum. LIYSF only outlined how important international collaborations are in this day and age. As Henry Ford once said ‘’Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success,’’ LIYSF brought us together now it’s our responsibility to stay together and work together to change the science of tomorrow. The only dull moment over the fortnight came when the plane’s wheels lifted from the ground and the feeling that LIYSF 2016 was over struck me with the power of a boron-enhanced fuel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tales from the London International Youth Science Forum

Paulina Kordyl is about to start her 2nd year in Genetics and Cell Biology

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Attending the 2016 London International Youth Science Forum at Imperial College London has been a fantastic experience which has undoubtedly left a long-lasting impact on me. It’s been an absolute privilege attending specialist lectures from the world’s leading scientists, witnessing first hand as yet unpublished research and even meeting Nobel prize laureates. The theme of this year’s Forum was ‘Great Scientific Discoveries’ and upon reflection I feel that my time there achieved just that – it allowed me to discover great things which I could not have imagined before.

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Possibly the most exciting part of the trip for me was the endless sightseeing opportunities presented to us. It was a dream come true getting to visit Stonehenge, the quaint medieval town of Salisbury and see Rebel Wilson in a high-end theatre production. The rest of my time between lectures and visits was spent rushing between museums and trying (and failing) to understand the fast-paced labyrinth that is the London Underground.

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LIYSF has been a fantastic opportunity to network and make friends from different countries, different cultures and different ways of life. Never before did I imagine that I would end up on the news in Pakistan, or help my new Omani friends make a presentation video for their college. With over 500 delegates from countries all across the globe scattered around Imperial College London, making friends quickly became second nature to even the most introverted people, and after just a few days there were familiar faces to be seen everywhere. There was always someone new to talk to, new perspectives to discover. Although each culture was different to the others in some ways, it was really interesting to see the ways in which we were all the same (like the ubiquitous hatred for the soggy sandwiches in our packed lunches!)

Of course the most fascinating aspect of the Forum was the academic research that we had all come to see. It was an amazing privilege witnessing top-of-the-field research which had yet been unpublished and not released to the public explained to us by leading scientists worldwide. Many of the delegates were pre-college age and therefore the varied talks and demonstrations helped them to choose a university course. For me this only reinforced my view that I had chosen the right course, and seeing genetics laboratories and research facilities provided a much appreciated insight into the kind of working conditions I could expect in the future after graduation. These visits also made me aware of the different internship options that were available to apply for in the summers.

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Each day was action-packed and full of adventure. Between the excitement of exploring London’s Chinatown after a trip to the Tower of London with my new multicultural friend group; peering into a microscope in a world-acclaimed research lab to see cardiac tissue beating steadily; and rushing between lectures, social events and activities organised by LIYSF, I can honestly say there was never a dull moment during my visit to the London International Youth Science Forum.

Some thoughts on the Leaving Cert

Greg Foley, School of Biotechnology

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What exactly is second level education for? In my view, secondary education must do two things. Firstly it must educate young people in the traditional sense by providing them with the opportunity to acquire a wide body of knowledge that will ultimately enhance their lives. I’m thinking about things like the great events of history, the wonders of the natural world, literature, poetry, foreign languages, science and even mathematics in its purest form. Secondly, it must prepare them for higher and further education. Second level is not the place for obsessing about “real world problems” (whatever they are) for the simple reason that the vast majority of school-leavers will go on to further or higher education. The classic example of this fallacy is the Project Maths initiative in which students supposedly tackle “real world” maths problems at secondary school but end up being unable to cope with third level mathematics.

Every year there is a barrage of comment and opinion in which the basic message, repeated over and over, is that the Leaving Certificate is not fit for purpose. My own experience of teaching university students is that the Leaving is a good measure of overall intelligence and, crucially, work ethic. Performance in the Leaving is not a particularly good predictor of individual performance at third level but ask any lecturer which they would prefer: a class full of 500-pointers or a class full of 350-pointers and I am quite confident that they will go for the former. Group dynamics play a very important role at any level of education and it is easy and highly rewarding to teach a class full of hardworking, enthusiastic 500-pointers. When the entry points drop to the 350 mark, the job becomes much more difficult and maintaining standards is a challenge.

Finally, it is worth commenting on a commonly held belief among those who deride the use of end-of-year exams. There seems to be a view that there are significant numbers of “brilliant young people” who just cannot perform in exams and these people are being disadvantaged by a system that does not make use of alternative forms of assessment. Thirty years of lecturing at third level tells me that such people, brilliant rather than having some very specific talent that is not tested in exams, are very rare indeed.

The Dangers of Feedback

Greg Foley is a lecturer in the School of Biotechnology.

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Feedback is one of those things in education that is always seen as a ‘Good Thing’. (An excellent paper on feedback by John Hattie can be found here.) But providing feedback also has its dangers. To explain, I need to divert. A few years ago I did a bit of research on artificial neural networks for data analysis in chemical engineering. Artificial networks are essentially a fancy form of non-linear regression and while they are very powerful, they can be misused. One of the dangers of ANNs is that that if you don’t know what you are doing you can design networks that are ‘over-trained.’ To illustrate what over-training is, considering the two curve fits shown below. The first fit, a simple linear regression, would seem to have captured the essence of the relationship between the dependent variable and the independent variable. On the other hand, the second fit which actually matches the data exactly, is probably ‘over-trained’. It is seeing patterns where it is likely that none really exist. This fit cannot ‘see the wood for the trees’.

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So what has this got to do with feedback? Often, when I am giving oral feedback to students (in a lab for example) I am struck by the fact that students tend to want a sort of recipe for success. They want to be told precisely what they need to do to score a high mark. They don’t like generalities like being told that their graphs and tables should be presented in a ‘logical order’ or that they need to improve their attention to detail. Indeed, it is often the best and most ambitious students who desire this level of precision in the feedback they receive. It’s as if students want to be ‘over-trained’ so that their work matches exactly the ‘perfect’ lab report where ‘perfect’ is defined by the lecturer’s marking scheme.

Getting the balance right between providing students with useful guidance and facilitating them to jump through hoops can be tricky.

Twitter for learning: does it work for you?

Muireann O Keefe works in the Teaching Enhancement Unit in DCU. She is an academic developer – a role that assists those working in higher education to critically think about their practices as lecturers, and to make  research-informed changes to practice. See https://iad4learnteach.wordpress.com/2015/11/18/what-do-academic-developers-do/

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According to learning consultants like Jane Hart and other educators out there, Twitter is a top tool for learning. In fact Jane Hart’s annual poll of learning tools  among professionals has voted Twitter as a top tool for learning 7 years in a row!

I can’t calculate accurately how many people use social networking tools for learning in higher education but I do know that growing numbers of academics and professional in higher education are logging on and signing up to services such as Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube to learn from others, to keep up-to-date, and share practice with other interested professionals.

Researchers in this area (Martin Weller, Cristina Costa and George Veletsianos) describe how academics share knowledge and scholarship with one another via Twitter. For these researchers the web is an open participatory place where sharing and connecting with others is useful for disseminating research and creating networks of people around topics of special interest.

I am an academic developer and in my job I have been helping and coaching academics on enhancing teaching practices for a number of years. Back in 2009 I began to encourage staff to use Twitter as a means of keeping up-to-date with the latest research and information regarding practice. I gave people introductory workshops on using Twitter and social networking tools. Many staff who adopted Twitter perceived it as a learning tool.

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When I started my EdD studies I chose to explore Twitter as a learning tool and this exploratory research has given me in depth qualitative insight into how Twitter has been used for learning by teaching faculty in higher education.

Research Findings

So what did I find in my research? I discovered that all of my participants perceived Twitter as a tool for learning resonating with claims from educational consultants about Twitter as a learning tool for professionals.

On further analysis…

However when I looked more closely at the Twitter data, I noticed that participants of the study demonstrated different  levels of social engagement on Twitter, the majority of my participants were not sharing practice or having conversations with other tweeters online.  In fact the majority of my participants were listening in and lurking on the Twittersphere gathering information disseminated by others but not having conversations or sharing their own practice online.

This finding jarred with me because of my social constructivist belief about learning. I consider that learning happens socially among people, we learn from one another, from our experiences and our cultural contexts. But the participants within my study who used Twitter (a platform built for social networking) did not engage in social networking activities with other tweeters.

I followed up with interviews, which revealed some very interesting data – not all of these participants experienced a sense of belonging to networks on Twitter. They were “not ready” to be part of conversations online and they gave reasons of perceiving others to be more knowledgeable than they were and feelings of vulnerability.

In contrast the minority of research participants who were highly active in social network activities said that their confidence from grounding in education enabled them to share practice and have conversations about professional educational practices on Twitter.

Lack of professional confidence is an issue

So it seems that while Twitter is perceived as a useful tool for learning, some participants did not have the courage or confidence within their professional selves to use it as tool for learning. They did not identify or feel a sense of belonging with other similar professionals online and this was a barrier to the social engagement and display of voice online.

So how can these findings be used?

This research is useful to my work as an academic developer because it has taught me that purely technical support with tools such as Twitter is inadequate, development of professional identity needs to be factored into the process.

Other issues have also come to light in my practice: If I was advocating the use of online social tools was I potentially placing people in vulnerable situations online? Safety and vulnerability are real risk factors online, which need mindful and critical discussion if advocating open online tools for learning. Certainly going forward I will be facilitating deeper discussion with learners (academics, undergrads or whoever) about how they use open online tools and about development of identity as part of their online learning process.

 

 

The spacing effect and semesterisation

Greg Foley, Lecturer in Bioprocess Engineering, School of Biotechnology

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There is a well-established phenomenon in learning science and it is known as the spacing effect. This effect is illustrated schematically in the figure below. Basically, it is something we all intuitively know, namely the more times we revise material the more it sticks in our memory. Our instinctive awareness for the spacing effect is the reason why we advise our students not to cram for exams but to study continuously through the year.

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Ideally, a student should study regularly and often (but not too often because it turns out that it’s good to forget and re-learn), but in each study session he/she should not only cover the most recent material; on the contrary, parts or all of the accumulated material up to that point should be revisited. In reality, this means that study sessions should get longer and longer as exam time approaches. It goes without saying that it is challenging to study like this because it demands a lot of commitment and sacrifice especially in the smartphone age.

The question is, therefore: does our current, very condensed semesterised system make it more difficult for students to study effectively? It is interesting that in the US where the semester system has long been the natural order of things, good learning and study practice is more or less enforced through the use of homeworks, quizzes, mid-terms and finals. Testing is frequent and because there is so much of it, the stakes in any given test are not so high as to be overly stress-inducing. Crucially, this means that you can set assignments/ problems that really test the student’s ability to think critically and creatively without severely penalising weaker students.

For sure we have continuous assessment components in many modules and this does help to reduce failure rates, but paradoxically this might be part of the problem. Suppose you have a CA component that accounts for 20% of the final module mark and it involves a couple of undemanding in-class tests covering small chunks of material, material that in many cases is re-examined in the final exam. Now suppose a student gets 70% on that test, a common occurrence in my experience. (CA marks tend to be much higher than exam marks.) Then the student only has to get 33% in the end-of-semester exam to pass the module. That’s quite a low bar and an average student will be able to get over it with little more than a short period of cramming.

Even without a CA component,  the chunks of material that students have to revise in a semesterised system are relatively small anyway. Now combine this with the fact that most lecturers provide  online notes, thus encouraging low attendance rates, and you get a ‘perfect storm’ in which students are almost incentivised to learn ineffectively.

The really worrying thing about all of this is that if students put their faith in cramming, much of what they will have learned will be rapidly forgotten, maybe even before the start of the next semester. The knock-on effects are both serious and obvious.

Of course, the horse has bolted and there is no going back to non-semesterised ways but we may perhaps need to do some hard thinking about the very nature of third level education here in Ireland. We seem to have put a lot of our eggs in the ‘independent learning’ basket but it is hard not to think that we have adopted a system that encourages study habits that are inconsistent with effective independent learning.

Having studied in the US, I think the US approach might suit the Irish student of 2016. However, that would be problematic for a number of reasons, not least the fact that the American system is underwritten by cheap labour in the form of teaching assistants.