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Judging science fairs: 10/10 Privilege, 0/10 Ability

Every year, I make a point of rounding up students in my department and encouraging them to volunteer one evening judging our local science fair. This year, the fair was held at the start of April, and featured over 200 judges and hundreds of projects from young scientists in grades 5 through to 12, with the winners going on to the National Championships.

President Obama welcomes some young scientists to the White House | Photo via USDAGov President Obama welcomes some young scientists to the White House | Photo via USDAGov

Perhaps the most rewarding part of volunteering your time, and the reason why I encourage colleagues to participate is when you see just how excited the youth are for their projects. It doesn’t matter what the project is, most of the students are thrilled to be there. Add to that how A Real Life Scientist (TM) wants to talk to them about their project? It’s a highlight for many of the students. As a graduate student, the desire to do science for science’s sake is something that gets drilled out of you quickly as you follow the Williams Sonoma/Jamie Oliver Chemistry 101 Cookbook, where you add 50 g Chemical A to 50 of Chemical B and record what colour the mixture turns. Being around  excitement based purely on the pursuit of science is refreshing.

However, the aspect of judging science fairs that I struggle most with is how to deal with the wide range of projects. How do you judge two projects on the same criteria where one used university resources (labs, mass spectrometers, centrifuges etc) and the other looked at how high balls bounce when you drop them. It becomes incredibly difficult as a judge to remain objective when one project is closer in scope to an undergraduate research project and the other is more your typical kitchen cabinet/garage equipment project. Even within two students who do the same project, there is variability depending on whether or not they have someone who can help them at home, or access to facilities through their school or parents social network.

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Thinspo, eating disorders and the seedy underbelly of The Internet

Trigger warning: I’m going to avoid triggering language as much as possible, but I will be discussing eating disorders and body image in this post.

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We’ve all seen those photos. The inspirational quote, set to a background of a sunset, or a “One More Rep” picture with airbrushed model standing there, glistening ever so slightly while doing squats/deadlifts that is supposed to give us the motivation to push through. If we do that one extra rep, or run that one extra mile, maybe we too can look like that person. We all have that model in us, we just need to push through the pain to get there. However, what happens when this mentality goes too far?

The internet, like all tools, can be used for good and for evil, especially when it comes to exercise. Perhaps the biggest strength is the ability to get really good information from people you otherwise wouldn’t. Eric Cressey, Kelly Starrett and others give you access to information and videos based on sound science. They can push you to be stronger, workout smarter, and live the healthiest life you can. And sometimes, you can use those pictures of people being physically active as inspiration, a trend the kids these days call “fitspo,” a portmanteau for fit-inspiration. This can motivate you and gives you a goal to strive towards. Indeed, it’s a trope that has been used in movies ad nauseum. Who can forget the montage in Rocky IV where Rocky keeps looking at the picture of Ivan Drago in the mirror through his montage, eventually crumpling it in a most dramatic fashion (with heavy metal guitars playing in the background). The two ads featured here use the same idea to try and capitalize on this sense of greatness that we all hope is within all of us. However, like all behaviours, this is a balancing act, and can have devastating consequences.

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Life in Grad School: A day in the life of Atif

The editorial staff at Gradifying decided that this month we would describe our experience in graduate school, especially given how different our experiences are. Last week, Amanda discussed her experiences as a graduate student, describing her “field season” and “the outdoors” and “early mornings.” My life is completely different. While Amanda spends her days knee deep in mud, I spend mine exploring databases. While Amanda is taking an ATV through abadoned fields and forests, I’m traversing the internet for PDFs and programming code. While Amanda is worried about mosquitos and horseflies, my biggest health concern is bad posture from being hunched over a keyboard all day.

My desk: Where the science happens!

My desk: Where the science happens!

So lets talk about a regular day for me. Three of my projects use data housed at KGH that I can access 24/7, and so my schedule is completely up to me. There are no external forces at work – I can work all day and all night if I want to, or I can leave for weeks at a time. The only limitation is that I can’t take my data off site, and so I need to work in my office. As you can imagine, this means I have to be SUPER DISCIPLINED. When nothing mandates I be in the office, I have to be that force. While many people would hate working with data all day every day, I love it. Trance/techno/dubstep (courtesy di.fm), a large double-double and a database? That’s a pretty awesome day in my books.

In addition to my main database, this year I started working with another database housed at the Research Data Centre (RDC) at Stauffer Library. The RDC is an excellent resource for those interested in using Statistics Canada data, and provides you access to very detailed data about the health and behaviours of the Canadian population. However, this level of information comes with serious security. Since the data available have individually identifying information available, you need Government of Canada Security Clearances to access these data. The Centre is not connected to the outside world through the internet, so if you don’t know something, you have to leave the facility to check or Google it. Finally, no electronics are allowed inside the RDC, which includes MP3 players. So if you’re one of those people who likes to listen to music while they work (see trance music comment above), you can’t unless you can get your hands on a Walkman or Discman somehow. In addition to these levels of security, the Centre is only open from 10am to 4:45pm Tuesday through Thursday. So when it’s open, you need to maximise your time there.

Simba and the Happy Hack(ey sack) give me company while I'm analyzing data.

Simba and the Happy Hack(ey sack) give me company while I’m working.

One thing I decided when I started my PhD was that I never wanted to bring work home. I’ll work late in the office, but, to paraphrase the great urban poet Kei$ha, once “I leave for the night, I ain’t coming back.” So I settled into a pattern of working from 9am to 5/6pm in the office every day, then hitting the gym and heading home, thus leaving my evening free for writing, watching sports (Go Sens! Go Texans!), whatever I want. I’m fortunate in that I can treat my PhD like a job, and can work those hours. The only time I’ll bring work home is if I have a presentation, and then it’ll just be practising it once or twice in the evening in my living room to see how it flows. One suggestion for those who need motivation to go to the gym: Purchase “greys” from the ARC. For around $18 /month, you get your own locker, as well as clean socks, shorts, t-shirt and a towel from the gym every time you go. If you leave shoes there, then there’s really no excuse to not go to the gym. You just show up and it’s all there. I highly recommend it.

Lego Batman reminds me that EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!

Lego Batman reminds me that EVERYTHING IS AWESOME! (except for the angle of this photo, which I can’t figure out how to rotate) (Thanks Kim!)

Outside of grad school, I keep myself busy with various other activities. As you know, I write for Gradifying, but I also am the Editor for PLOS Blogs Public Health Perspectives as well as a Science Writer for PLOS Blogs Sci-Ed. The former focuses on Public Health and issues related to the health of societies, while the latter is focused mainly on science communication – how do we, as scientists, communicate to the public and explain complex ideas in ways that resonate with them. When I’m not writing, I’m usually playing ultimate frisbee through Kingston Ultimate, which takes up most of my free time through the spring/summer, between practice, training and games. If you’re ever walking through City Park on a Sunday morning and see a bunch of people doing laps, wind sprints and various other crosstraining activities, that would be us.

If you have any questions, let me know!

 

This piece was originally published on Gradifying!

Childhood obesity drops 40% in the last decade. Or not really, but who’s checking?

“A lie that is half-truth is the darkest of all lies.”
― Alfred Tennyson

Last week, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at the prevalence of childhood obesity over the last 10 years. The study, performed by Cynthia Ogden and colleagues at the CDC, aimed to describe the prevalence of obesity in the US and look at changes between 2003 and 2012. The study itself had several interesting findings, not least among them that the prevalence of obesity seems to have stabilized in many segments of the US population. However, they made one observation that caught the media’s attention:

“There was a significant decrease in obesity among 2- to 5-year-old children (from 13.9% to 8.4%; P = .03)”

This is where things get interesting, as the focus was not on the 5.5 percentage points difference. Instead of reporting the absolute difference, i.e. how much something changed, news outlets focused on the relative difference, i.e. how much they changed compared to each other. In that case, it would be (5.5/13.9 =) 40%. Which is much more impressive than the 5.5% change reported in the study. So you can guess what the headlines loudly proclaimed.

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Planning for the summer

This post may sounds a little premature to some of you. After all, it’s only March, we *just* changed the clocks and there’s still snow on the ground. However, before you know it summer will be on us and things will be happening! Things! Exciting things! But in order to ensure you get said “things” done, you need to take a critical look at your life and prepare.

“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Gandalf is right!

To start, get a calendar. I’m a big fan of Google Calendar because I use multiple devices – my phone, desktop(s), a laptop and an iPad, and this automagically sync’s everything between them. As a result no matter what I’m using, I can check my schedule. However, I know others prefer a planner or agenda made of dead trees. Each their own. I find the latter too easy to lose. I’m assuming most of you have some sort of time management system, but if not, there’s no time like the present to start.

After this, start planning our your summer. Think of conferences you’re going to, events you know you have to attend (weddings, parties, concerts, whatever), and write all of those down. If there was one thing that changed between undergrad and graduate school for me, it’s that everyone got married and started having kids. Suddenly, hanging out with people became scheduled between naptime and bathtime. Granted, that sounds a lot like first year, but lets stay on track here.

Now the tricky part. Start thinking about how long everything will take to prepare. Say you’ve got a conference starting Monday May 26th where you’re presenting a poster? Great. First off, you want to make sure your poster is printed by the Friday beforehand – May 23rd. In order to ensure this happens, you want to give the print shop at least 3 days, to account for any unforseen delays on their end. This brings you back to May 20th. Now, you want to make sure your supervisors have approved the poster. Lets assume it’ll take them a week to do that – May 13th. Great. So you need a (close to) final copy of your poster sent to your supervisors by May 13th. But you have to do some analysis before then, and then create the poster. That can take another 2 weeks or so, which means you have to start this process on April 29th, in order to be able to present on May 26th.

Ah! But if you have a plan Bilbo, you can run off off into the blue!

So that example is an “ideal” case, where you have lots of time to prepare, and things go off without a hitch. Many of you might be reading this and thinking that there’s no way you’d spend that much time on a poster. But very rarely will things occur in isolation – while you’re working on that poster, you’ll also be writing up manuscripts, collecting data and possibly teaching or supervising summer students. In that case, you want to make sure that you know what is due when, and that you don’t miss important milestones to avoid last minute panic.

But what if it’s not a poster? What if it is your thesis defence? If your supervisor is away for the entire month of August, then you either defend in July, or September. You need to plan for that. This becomes exponentially more difficult if you have multiple supervisors (especially if they travel a lot in the summer), and at the PhD level is a nightmare because you are at the mercy of your supervisor, your secondary supervisor, your examining committee and anyone else who has to be there. As a result, you have to start planning this well in advance if you hope to defend by a certain date.

The advantages of planning your summer now are numerous. For one, you can start looking into flights, transportation and accommodation for any conferences you’re going to. In addition, it can give you a concrete idea of what you need to do, and when you need to do it. As a result, you set a series of “microgoals” that you can use to gauge your progress through your project(s), which has the dual benefit of keeping you on track and keeping you motivated through small victories.

In addition, being on top of tasks will mean you can deal with things as they come up both good and bad. If the weather is nice and people want to go to Sandbanks for the day? Sure! Go for it! You know you have time.

I’M GOING ON AN ADVENTURE!

Have a great rest of the semester, and happy Spring!

This was also published on Gradifying

Where I politely explain to a politician that they’re wrong

Last week, I was forwarded an opinion piece written by the Honorable Leo Glavine for the King’s County News. Now, if there’s one thing that I hate, it’s when people who are in positions of power, wealth and/or privilege tell “the others” how to live their lives – whether that be “work harder,” or “be healthier,” with absolutely no idea or acknowledgement about their own privilege.

In short, the road to health that many prescribe to the unhealthy is a two step model:

1) Be healthy
2) Don’t be not healthy

Which is why, when I read pieces that blame the poor or unhealthy for their situation, it makes me very angry. And you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.

The Joggins Fossil Cliffs UNESCO World Heritage Site | Photo via NovaScotia.com

The Joggins Fossil Cliffs UNESCO World Heritage Site | Photo via NovaScotia.com

But lets get back to Mr Glavine’s commentary. In case you didn’t know, Mr Glavine is the Minister of Health and Wellness for the Province of Nova Scotia, and has been in politics since 2003. Prior to that, he was a school teacher. By all metrics, he’s very popular in his riding – winning the last election with a whopping 74% of the votes.

Mr Glavine starts off his piece rather innocuously, stating that the objectives of government are to represent the people, to provide services, and to take care of their health. We’re in agreement there. He also points out that they have to do more with less funding, and that will require creative and innovative thinking to continue to provide services for the populace. So far, we’re on the same page, and I don’t envy how difficult it is to balance all those demands.

And then things take a wild left turn.

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Creation vs Evolution: Why science communication is doomed

Last Tuesday night, Bill Nye the Science Guy had a debate with Ken Ham over creationism vs evolution. I watched part of the debate, and have conflicted feelings on it. I’m going to start by saying I think it was a brilliant marketing move. For one, it suddenly brought the Creation Museum into the forefront of society for next to nothing. While before only a handful had heard of it, now it has risen to national prominence, and I’m sure the number of visits they have will reflect that in the near future.

As for the substance itself, I don’t think this is a very good topic for a debate. Any time you bring religion into a discussion, it turns into an “us vs them” argument where neither party is willing to change their view. Even the advertising and marketing billed it as a debate of “creationism vs evolution” – effectively presupposing the view that one can believe in both (which I’ll come back to). At best, it’s snarky and offhanded, and at worst, antagonistic and ad hominem. I should point out though that this is on both sides – neither side is willing to reconcile.

And why should they? Both view their side as being right, and weigh the information they have differently. So all that this accomplishes is that both sides become further polarized and further entrenched, and any chance of meaningful dialogue between both sides becomes less and less likely with every angry jab back and forth. It turns into a 21st century war of angry op-eds, vindictive tweets and increasingly hostile and belligerent Facebook posts shared back and forth. This isn’t just limited to religion though – many discussions end this way with people being forced to take sides in an issue that is more complicated than simply being black/white. Rather than discuss the details and come to an understanding of what we agree and disagree on, we’re immediately placed into teams that are at loggerheads with each other.

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