Commander Chris Hadfield captured the world’s imagination last year, when, from 13 March to 13 May 2013, he was the first Canadian Commander of the International Space Station. While aboard the ISS, Commander Hadfield did a series of “experiments,” both for scientists, but, perhaps most importantly, for youth. This included genuinely interesting questions like “How do you cry in space? (video above)” and “How do you cut your nails?” and the always important “How do you go to the bathroom?” His amicable nature and genuinely infectious enthusiasm brought science to the masses, and helped inspire thousands of youth.
Recently, Chris Hadfield released his book – “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.” My sister waited in line for 3 hours at our local Costco to get me a signed copy for my birthday, and I finally got around to reading it for this review. The book follows the life of Chris Hadfield as he becomes the commander of Expedition 35, detailing his attitude and the path he took to become the first Canadian Commander of the ISS. The book is split into three broad sections leading up to Expedition 35 titled “Pre-Launch,” “Liftoff” and “Coming Down to Earth,” with several chapters within each section.
I’ll be chairing a session titled “Youth Injury Prevention in Canada – Where should we direct our intervention resources.” It promises to be an interesting presentation, where we’ll be discussing injury in Canada, and where to start tackling the problem of injury. This session is scheduled for Wednesday, May 28th from 1:30pm – 3:00pm.
Injury represents one of the most important negative health outcomes experienced by young people in Canada today. Injuries inflict a large burden on children and adolescents and their
families and communities. Injury events are costly in so many ways, whether measured in premature mortality, or the pain, disability, lost productivity and emotional consequence of non-fatal events.
This panel will be made up of child injury researchers and advocates who will make their case for different forms of injury prevention intervention. At the end of this panel, delegates will: understand more about the burden of youth injury in Canada; be aware of at least four different avenues for injury prevention intervention (primordial intervention, context-level interventions, safe sport and peer-influence interventions); have identified the rationale, strengths and limitations of each intervention approach; and have learned more about ways to undertake and gain support for youth injury prevention (from the CPHA conference program).
My second presentation is one of the studies from my PhD, titled “The influence of location of birth and ethnicity on BMI among Canadian youth.” This is a study that’s in press (woo!), and represents my own research focus. This one will be in the Kenora Room, on Thursday May 29th 2014, from 11:00am to 12:30pm.
Body mass indices (BMI) of youth change when they immigrate to a new country. This occurs by the adoption of new behaviors and skills, a process called acculturation.
We investigated whether differences existed in BMI by location of birth (Canadian vs foreign born) across 7 ethnic groups, both individually and together. We also examined whether time since immigration and health behaviors explained any observed BMI differences.
Methods: Data sources were the Canadian Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children Study and the Canada Census of Population. Participants were youth in grades 6-10 (weighted n = 19,272). Sociodemographic characteristics, height, weight, and health behaviors were assessed by questionnaire. WHO growth references were used to determine BMI percentiles.
Results: Foreign-born youth had lower BMI than peers born in Canada, a relationship that did not decrease with increased time since immigration. Similarly, East and South East Asian youth had lower BMI than Canadian host culture peers. Finally, Arab/West Asian and East Indian/South Asian youth born abroad had lower BMI than peers of the same ethnicity born in Canada. These differences remained after controlling for eating and physical activity behaviors.
Conclusions: Location of birth and ethnicity were associated with BMI among Canadian youth both independently and together.
Implications: Our findings stress the importance of considering both ethnicity and location of birth when designing and implementing interventions. While currently either one or the other is addressed, our study shows there is heterogeneity in BMI by specific ethnic groups depending on whether they were born in Canada or not.
As always I’ll be trying to livetweet the conference. I’ll be using the #CPHA2014 hashtag, so feel free to follow along online! As always, there are a wide range of presentations and workshops, so I’m excited to attend.
If you’re attending the conference, leave a comment with details of your own presentation so that other readers can attend your talks. And if you see me at the conference, be sure to say hi!
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
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.
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.
Let me tell you a story about William Sealy Gosset. William was a Chemistry and Math grad from Oxford University in the class of 1899 (they were partying like it was 1899 back then). After graduating, he took a job with the brewery of Arthur Guinness and Son, where he worked as a mathematician, trying to find the best yields of barley.
But this is where he ran into problems.
One of the most important assumptions in (most) statistical tests is that you have a large enough sample size to create inferences about your data. You can’t make many comments if you only have 1 data point. 3? Maybe. 5? Possibly. Ideally, we want at least 20-30 observations, if not more. It’s why when a goalie in hockey, or a batter in baseball, has a great game, you chalk it up to being a fluke, rather than indicative of their skill. Small sample sizes are much more likely to be affected by chance and thus may not be accurate of the underlying phenomena you’re trying to measure. Gosset, on the other hand, couldn’t create 30+ batches of Guinness in order to do the statistics on them. He had a much smaller sample size, and thus “normal” statistical methods wouldn’t work.
Gosset wouldn’t take this for an answer. He started writing up his thoughts, and examining the error associated with his estimates. However, he ran into problems. His mentor, Karl Pearson, of Pearson Product Moment Correlation Coefficient fame, while supportive, didn’t really appreciate how important the findings were. In addition, Guiness had very strict policies on what their employees could publish, as they were worried about their competitors discovering their trade secrets. So Gosset did what any normal mathematician would.
He published under a pseudonym. In a startlingly rebellious gesture, Gosset published his work in Biometrika titled “The Probable Error of a Mean.” (See, statisticians can be badasses too). The name he used? Student. His paper for the Guinness company became one of the most important statistical discoveries of the day, and the Student’s T-distribution is now an essential part of any introductory statistics course.
Last time I spoke about how to deal with negative feedback, and how you can cope with it. However, as you transition from undergrad, to graduate student, to senior graduate student (to life afterwards), you’ll be placed more and more into positions of responsibility. When that happens, it will be your responsibility to give feedback, and at this point, you realize that it’s really difficult to give good, constructive feedback that doesn’t come off as harsh.
Depending on the person, this feedback could be to a student, a colleague, or even a senior student. My research group has had a lot of success with practice run-throughs of presentations for conferences and defences, and once the person has presented, giving them useful and constructive comments is something we strive for. The easy route out is to give them “soft” feedback and avoid major problems. However, that doesn’t help them as, if you don’t point out major points they can work on, someone else will. The goal of this post is to help you frame that feedback.
And, in honour of Thor: The Dark World, coming out this week, I’ll be recruiting my good friend and gym buddy Chris Hemsworth* to help me with this post.
1. Real life or email? The first question is how to give feedback – face to face, or via e-mail. As we move more towards an electronic presence, sometimes it’s not only easier to give feedback electronically (such as when you’re in different cities), sometimes you have to (such as when you’re using track changes in word). People disagree over which is best, with this article falling on the email side, and this article falling on the face to face side. Frankly, I think both can be done well, and both can be done poorly. Finally, if you do choose to provide feedback in real life, keep it respectful, and, if necessary, private. Do not publicly shame someone.
2. Follow up This relates to the point above, as one of the major benefits of face-to-face feedback is that you can provide instant feedback and clarify concerns on the spot. Email does not allow for quick clarification the way a face to face meeting does. One option is to send the email and then follow up on the phone or in-person soon afterwards, or meet first, and then provide written feedback. Similarly, once the feedback has been given, that’s not the end of the process. Improving oneself and developing skills takes time and effort, and small “course corrections” may be required, especially if the person has a hard time interpreting what you’re asking them to do. If they want more help or clarification later on, that should be available to them.
3. Be specific If you have an issue with something, say that. Don’t be vague as that can lead to further confusion. For example, some people when they present, never make eye contact. So when providing feedback, say “you need to make more eye contact.” Don’t say “you need to engage the audience.” The latter is not helpful, and can mean a number of different things, ranging from more eye contact, to more audience participation, to revamping your slide deck. Providing specific comments bypasses this concern.
4. Present facts, not opinions Avoid subjective words and emotional descriptions of events. Rather than saying “you didn’t care about this project” you want to focus on the specifics “your introduction needed more detail about X.” Continuing in the same vein, remove emotion and wait if things are too charged. Waiting for people to process their own feelings following an experience allows for everyone to think logically and productively, and at that point, feedback (may) be welcomed. This is as much for you as it is for them:
“The exception to this is if the situation involved is highly emotional. Here, wait until everyone has calmed down before you engage in feedback. You can’t risk letting yourself get worked up and risk saying something you will regret later.”
5. Positivity! We often dwell on the negative, and only provide feedback about areas of improvement. However, also consider providing positive feedback! If someone does a really good job of explaining a concept, or writes a very clear article, then tell them that! One of the tricks is learning not only what you need to improve, but capitalizing on what you do well and putting that front and centre, and stating that can help boost a person’s morale, confidence and make the whole process a lot more enjoyable and positive for all involved.
A quick update for all our readers – Cristina and I (Atif) will be in beautiful Gainesville, Florida this week for the National Association of Science Writers/Council for the Advancement of Science Writers annual conference!
Scientists know science. And they’re good at getting science news. Know who’s not? Non-scientists. Yet non-scientists outnumber scientists, and their attitudes, believes, intellects (or not) and their votes help determine science policies, from funding for stem cells to what’s taught in school. The near-extinction of science reporters at local news outlets has created a gap in a steady stream of legitimate, dependable science news. Yet today there are more ways than ever to reach the general public. This session is about expanding your audience beyond the science in crowd. We’ll talk with two young scientists who are passionate about finding new ways to reach new audiences and we’ll explore ideas for how PIOs, freelancers, staff reporters and even scientists themselves can take a lesson from the universe and expand.
If you see either of us around, be sure to say hi! We’ll be at most of the events, and would love to meet you!
Do those words scare you? If they do, you’re in good company. Mathematical anxiety is a well studied phenomenon that manifests for a number of different reasons. It’s an issue I’ve talked about before at length, and something that frustrates me no end. In my opinion though, one of the biggest culprits behind this is how math alienates people. Lets try an example:
If the average of three distinct positive integers is 22, what is the largest possible value of these three integers?
Too easy? How about this one:
The average of the integers 24, 6, 12, x and y is 11. What is the value of the sum x + y?
I do statistics regularly, and I find these tricky. Not because the underlying math is hard, or that they’re fundamentally “difficult,” but because you have to read the question 3 or 4 times just to figure out what they’re asking. This is exacerbated at higher levels, where you need to first understand the problem, and then understand the math.*
One of my main objectives as a statistics instructor is to take “fear” out of the equation (math joke!), and make my students comfortable with the underlying mathematical concepts. I’m not looking for everyone to become a statistician, but I do want them to be able to understand statistics in everyday life. Once they have mastered the underlying concepts, we can then apply them to new and novel situations. Given most of my students are athletically minded or have a basic understanding of sports, this is a logical and reasonable place to start.
Anyone who has been following my posts knows that I have a huge weakness for sci-fi and science, and if someone was to marry the two of those together, I’d be there immediately. Especially if it involved Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars or Middle Earth.
Well, it happened.
The Canada Aviation and Space Museum is currently hosting Star Wars: Identities. Star Wars: Identities is a travelling exhibit that highlights human development using the mythos of the Star Wars universe. I had been keeping an eye on this exhibit as a few years ago I had been to the Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology exhibit in Montreal, which was excellent, and the same organization (X3 Productions) was responsible for this one. And when I found out they were using Star Wars to teach people about psychology, I knew I had to go.
You see, we all have questions about how and why people turn out the way they do. Even people raised under the same roof can have wildly disparate personalities, and can view the world through very different lenses. The exhibit highlights the difference between Anakin and Luke Skywalker, and how, despite coming from the same planet and having (similar) genetic makeup, their lives take two very different trajectories based on their experiences and the environments they are exposed to.