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Mr Epidemiology

No, I'm not a skin doctor

Month

April 2014

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!

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