Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Why I like working in science

I've always wanted to be a scientist - well since grade 4 when I wanted to be an astronaut. Then I wanted to be a marine biologist. Then I lost momentum. My dad wanted me to be a doctor so I went into medical imaging. After sometime out of school I went back, did chemical technology then did my undergrad degree by correspondence thru U Waterloo. Zuska had a post on women choosing science as a career path. What is so great about working in science and would I do it again?

I have to say absolutely I would do it again and if anything I would have switched to chemistry after one year of medical imaging so I could get into a field I enjoy faster. Would I encourage others to choose the same path? Not if they are looking for fame and/or fortune.

I've found working in a lab to be a good mix of working with people and working alone. I've met some really great coworkers and mentors while having the usual mix of bosses. I've had opportunities to take leadership roles myself. I like learning new stuff and continue to do so after all this time but there's routine as well. While I'm disappointed (yet lucky since I get motion sick at the drop of a hat) at not going into space, I did get to analyse data for the Canadian Space Agency. And now I'm in the corporate world, the money is pretty good especially compared to traditional fields.

There has been concern about tempting women into science and engineering as well as much (legitimate) handwringing over the loss of women at the graduate level. Certainly when I was at the Uni stage we had Women in Science and Engineering groups that focused on mentoring undergraduates to at least stay in science/eng and perhaps consider grad school. Twenty years on, I think things have gotten more difficult for young women thinking of the sciences. Society is on an anti-intellectual, conservative swing where fitting in by being womanly is more valued than anything else one could contribute. Some women seem to think we're in a post-feminist age where women have gained equality so it's time to choose to focus on family and creating the perfect home complete with scrapbooking. Other successful women seem to think of themselves like Queen Victoria - she could be queen but mere women had to be protected from themselves.

In some ways we are lucky. With more learning options you can indulge your interest in science without becoming a scientist - just use google scholar instead of in your quest for science knowledge.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Love, marriage and relationships

I was in the US this week for work and got to speak with many different people than I usually do while travelling: a Canadian sales rep (Sean who looked at my Cook Islands holiday snaps), an American sales rep (Dave) and a female high school student. Relationships came up in all conversations and really stuck in my head - probably because we just celebrated our 24 wedding anniversary and it was mentioned that same sex marriage is 5 years old in Canada.

I've never understood why people are against same sex marriage and got an opportunity to talk briefly about it with a conservative colleague for CA and in turn think about it some more. He took the stand that same sex marriage opens the door to so much other behaviour and asked if I had thought about the implications of my stand ... duh duh duhnnn. I asked if he meant cross species since that seems to be a talking point and I said our human rights legislation applies to just humans not animals. He came out with the statement that there should be marriage and civil unions and I agree - just not the way he's thinking.

I think traditional description of marriage is the perfect term currently in use in Canada. It's the blending of kin and assets into a discrete recognizable social and legal unit. Since it is an open ended contract, I agree there should be some age limits to make sure partners are aware of the responsibilities. Great step forward is that the partners are the people in the marriage instead of a patriarch/matriarch and an outsider. Since it's a legal entity, there should be a specified manner to recognize the partnership and there is, a marriage certificate has to be filed.

For the folk who are religious you can have the use of holy matrimony.  You can use that term to exclude whoever you want because it's applicable to only your religious silo (yes that is a new business term coming into common use). Most people who have been exposed to religious institutions will know what you mean. Still you have to file a marriage certificate for the union to be legally recognized.

But what about civil unions? Every once in awhile the idea of a "term marriage" comes up and I think this is a good use for civil unions. I don't think it would be used for romantic relationships because everyone likes to think their love will last forever. It could help people form non-sexual kin groups for social support and extension of benefits such as insurance and financial considerations (loans, mortgages). It would benefit people, including siblings, who find themselves in crisis at the same time whether due to finances, sudden relationship changes or immigration.

I really like this idea of civil unions because it helps people form a social unit. I know it would be hard/impossible to monitor without a lot of intrusion into peoples personal lives. It would never fly in a country that has strong individualist tendencies but in a kinder gentler society perhaps it would.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Where I disagree with ... Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an USian astrophysicist and well knows as a popularizer of science. I get to disagree with him because it's about the "two cultures" idea that was popularized by C.P. Snow (not astrophysics) and for this I am as qualified as he is to comment. A recent post at Uncertain Principles reminded me how much I disagree that with his statement "...that the scientists, by and large, know more liberal arts than the science that is known by liberal artists..". That is a pretty divisive statement designed to make science students feel exceptional.

It's easy to denigrate liberal arts and non-physical sciences. Most people can read/write a sentence and did at least finger painting in primary school. And it's easy to expect more from people in terms of science knowledge since, at least in a G8 country, we live in a technical world using computers, using science based medicine and ... well electricity. But how much does a science major really know about arts? Can they discuss artistic styles or do they just know what they like? Is baroque music the same as medieval music? What about stages of childhood development? Here's an easy one, what are the visual cues for a successful font - after all we all use computers.

There is a possibility that most US university students would be able to answer of these questions but I doubt it is true in Canada. Not because Canadian students are lacking but because universities have become more concerned with ensuring graduates are "job ready". Most undergraduates with a major in science, minor in science or math because they already know the language - like the difference between theory and Theory.

Science and art have more commonalities than differences. Exceptional art and innovative science rely on people making a creative jump to the next idea. Both use the past practices to build new concepts. As our society becomes more technical, knowledge of each will become more important. We will need to visit the sociological effect of changes, the ethics of innovation and how to communicate to laypeople. Different does not need to create a dicotomy. I worry more about the loss of legacy skills than the two cultures idea.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Radio in the background

I grew up listening to AM radio, specifically CKLG in Vancouver, BC. It was the time of innovative morning shows – how else could you describe the fish heads ditty – and if you didn’t get happy soon after the clock radio went off you were clearly on the wrong station.

Radio has expanded to internet and satellite but I’m still listening to traditional radio except now it’s FM. We have a few choices around here; 2 stations with some guy’s name (in this case Wayne and Lloyd) and station named after an animal (The Goat – which came first the lack of animal choice or the GTO?). I listen to The Goat because the Wayne doesn’t come in at work and the DJs are better on The Goat anyway. Lloyd plays country.

The Goat’s Morning Breath is a guy/gal team of Chad and Erin. They chit chat, do intros and highlight weird news and it’s the way weird news it discussed that catches my attention because it may reflect how people think around here – although I’m not sure Chad is representative because he doesn’t seem conservative enough.

Two news stories pop to mind.

One is the story about a person infecting himself with a computer virus. Erin was incredulous saying she didn’t think a person could get a computer virus and I hadn’t read the story because the headline put me off since I know a person can’t get a computer virus. Chad *had* read the story and it turned out to be interesting enough that I waiting in the car to listen to the conversation. In case you didn’t read the research, someone injected a chip with a transmitter and a virus into his body then walked by wireless machines. He found he could spread the computer virus from his chip to another device; an interesting and scary result. I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t heard it on the radio.

The other was the woman in New York who was suing an employer. She felt she was fired for refusing to wear different clothing at work that minimized her figure. Erin’s first comment was about the size of the woman’s ego and dismissed the possibility of there being a legitimate complaint. Chad looked at her picture, said she did have a good body and could see how she would be distracting. I thought she most likely has a case if a dress code specific to her is being implemented. Erin’s response put me off to the point that I didn’t bother to listen to the rest of the segment so I’ll never know.

I like the Morning Breath because I get a different spin on interesting articles I’ve frequently already read. I find it depressing that Erin’s role seems to be “Really? Wow!” since she is the only female DJ at the station.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Out of Office – Jealous I have a life?

I read about an article in the Financial Times via Mike the Mad Biologist. These articles are written from two totally different viewpoints – the financial industry and academia. I seem to be lower management and I wanted to read the article in FT because I use OOORs whenever I am unlikely to answer email whether it’s because I’m out of office or just busy away from a computer. Oh my dog I even set messages in MS/Communicator to let people know that I’m not around and I use vm if I don't feel like being interrupted at a task. According to the FT I'm not focused - I'm a slacker!

I suppose if you need to be available so people know how much they need to have you around you could feel compelled to connected at all time – like being the only doctor in an isolated community. I don’t have that kind of role so I take the attitude that at any moment something could happen and I just would not be available – perhaps not ever again. As such, shouldn't I try to make sure that people can pick up my strings with minimal effort? I consider what I do at work to be necessary – although I could be mistaken – so why waste someone else’s time by having him/her re-invent the job instead of building and improving on what’s there?

As a matter of fact wouldn’t training the people I supervise make them feel more valued and more likely to be do their work ethically while building their self-esteem and making them more likely to take leadership roles if I’m not available. Wouldn’t this cut down on the pile of work waiting for me when I get back from holidays or conferences? Wouldn’t this be a win all around?

Gosh I almost decided to work part time!

I admit that most of the time I’ve just gone to another building and want to concentrate of one task. To me it’s a courtesy to let others know it may be more helpful for them to phone and in a way inform them that when I do talk with them they will have my full attention.

Any day I expect Lancet or some peer reviewed journal to publish a study showing that people who can’t set limits on their work life suffer from increased stress, poor self-esteem and unsatisfying relationships. Meanwhile I have a life away from work to enjoy.