Monday, 17 July 2017

Review: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

I don't buy many of my books -- I get lots for review, have plenty hanging around the house waiting to be read, and my college has a huge library. So when I buy a book I want it to be special. And I thought this one was going to be, seeing the many rave reviews it received. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
★★☆☆☆
I started to get suspicious shortly before reading. I was reading (and hating) The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks, and that's when I realised that "does for botany what Oliver Sacks did for neurology", which I think is on the cover, might not be such a good sign. 

Nevertheless, I began reading. It was not an auspicious start, since she started by talking about her early childhood, when her dad would let her play around in his lab and she would, I don't know, play around in the winter snow. She made Minnesota sound like an Arctic hellscape, which is actually true apparently, so at least I learned something -- according to Wikipedia (best source ever, I know), the ten coldest counties in the US are all in Minnesota, and a place in Minnesota goes below -18 degrees Celsius an average of 71 days per year. 

So I guess the weather facts were interesting, but unfortunately (a) I really really don't like stories that start by looking back on the author's childhood (b) it just made it seem like she got a hand up into science from her dad, which wasn't particularly endearing, although that might just be me and my complete lack of relatives in relevant fields.

She then went chronologically through her life, pretty much, with occasional interludes for very vague botanical information. 

That's the crux of my problem with this book, really, that and the fact that it didn't grip me or make me want to keep reading despite my expectation of loving it. The crux is that there was so little science in it. I did quite a lot of research on the book before I bought it online, and it all seemed to say that the book interwove science and memoir, with chapters on each alternating. That is ... not true. 

It is true that the memoir chapters alternated with chapters involving trees. The issue is that the trees were being used as a vehicle for her memoir. She'd spend a chapter waxing lyrical about how hard trees must try to survive, and segue into how hard she had to try. She'd talk about how trees reproduce (without using any actual scientific terminology or mechanisms or studies or, well, specifics) and segue into her own experience of giving birth. For someone who talks so much about how much she loves botany, she wrote almost none of it. There were only about three actual studies cited, and those were very interesting -- I just wish they'd been half the book like I was expecting, and I could've actually learned a significant amount about the science of plants. She led in well, made it sound so interesting, how plants give the whole biological world its energy, but then didn't deliver the goods on how that happens. The intro tells the reader that if they ask questions of a leaf, they're being a scientist, and invites them on a journey of science with her, and given that she covers little actual science, that seems awfully patronizing. 

Given that she seems to love botany so much, maybe the publisher insisted she not include anything technical so as to boost sales? 

I also didn't love her much-praised story of her friendship with Bill, who she seems to have kept as a homeless pet/colleague for years. There's stuff about him sleeping in a van frequently, about him leaving his hair in a tree, about all this hardship, about them pulling all-nighters at the lab most of the week, all this horrible stuff that just seemed a bit ... ridiculous. Like, nobody was making you do that. I'm a workaholic myself (and it's not really a good thing after a point), but that just seemed like being gluttons for punishment. She also talks about crashing two cars and not caring (aged, like, 40, not 15), one even rolling over a bank. Triumphing against adversity is super cool, but it's much less cool when you bring it on yourself. 

She talks briefly about her experience with manic depressive disorder, which was quite interesting, but doesn't spend much time with it. 

I could feel the stress permeating the book as she talked about the constant struggle for funding in science. It definitely was not encouraging.  Common theme with Henry Marsh talking about the NHS in Do No Harm, funny enough. 

I did enjoy some parts. The aforementioned actual science bits were cool, as were some of the procedural "how I do the science bits". I enjoyed the chapter she spent describing her undergraduate job working in a hospital mixing drugs. The writing is pretty. 

Overall, I found there was too much drama and grandiosity and not enough science for me. I know I might not be the typical reader of pop science books since I'm actually studying science and I can't expect authors to cater to my exact demographic, but still. She's apparently an extremely accomplished scientist with many prestigious prizes -- why not talk about that stuff, instead of just struggles? I'm sad not to have liked this book, and wish I'd known it was more a memoir than anything else before I bought it. 

Saturday, 8 July 2017

(A Bit of) Inspirefest 2017

I finished work as a Teaching Assistant at CTYI at 12 pm yesterday and rushed off to catch the last quarter of Inspirefest, the conference I always tell people is the best I've been to for its selection of unusual speakers, smooth running, treatment of speakers and overall amazing vibes.

This year, I had to miss most of it because I had an actual job, but here are some snippets of what I did see. 

HeroRATs/APOPO (Bart Weetjens)

Bart Weetjens blew my mind, and was to me the best talk of the conference. I'll get to the point: he successfully trains rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis. Wat. 

He said as a kid he used to breed rats and sell them to pet shops, and later when he came to Africa (he's Dutch) and saw farmers who'd had to abandon their land because of land mines and live in refugee camps, he had an idea to fix it. 

He trained giant African pouched rats to detect landmines using Pavlovian conditioning, and since they're so light they can safely detect the mines (humans die doing it). Rats can also do it much faster. The rats have found and destroyed 105,971 landmines and unexploded weapons and freed up over 21 million metres squared of land that people can now live and work on. 

As if that weren't cool enough, he's also trained rats to detect tuberculosis, which can act as an opportunistic infection on people with AIDS and is the world's leading cause of death from infectious disease (according to the APOPO website). The rats can, he said, screen up to 40 samples in seven minutes, and have led to the diagnosis of thousands of additional cases that previously were not caught in hospitals.


via GIPHY

And it's just so unique and original -- so many people think rats are gross and useless, but look at this amazing use they're being put to! I just think this guy is incredible. I'd read about HeroRATs before but never had any idea they were this cool. Dayum. Especially for a girl mad into public health, it was ... quite the experience. And to make me even happier, they've published a bunch of scientific papers about it that I can now go read!

Here's a quote from one (Ellis, Mulder, Valverde, Poling, Edwards (2017) Reproducibility of African giant pouched rats detecting Mycobacterium tuberculosis, BMC Infectious Diseases): "A trained rat can evaluate as many samples in 20 min as a lab technician using convention light microscopy can do in four days", and I also like the conservatism immediately following it: "and the rats are more sensitive, although their specificity is somewhat lower", with both sensitive and specificity linking to references. That particular study does have a small sample size (22 rats), so it's good they mention that, but damn this is so cool. Also, each rat checked each sample. 


via GIPHY

(Okay, so maybe I'm fangirling a little...)

Sugru (Jane Ní Dulchaointigh)

I'd seen Sugru, the mouldable glue for fixers, sold in the Science Gallery and knew it was invented by an Irish person, but had no idea how long and difficult the process had been or how popular Sugru had become. 

Jane started working on Sugru in 2003 while doing an MA in Product Design. Over the next fourteen years, she brought on silicone scientists and patent lawyers and experimented a lot to get the right material. They got a grant to start and scraped by until they got a little investment and could sell their first product. 

They spent a month making a thousand packs of silicone and then they sold out online in six hours, which definitely attracted the interest of investors. Another 2000 sold out in ten hours of preorders, and now they had a huge backlog to make thanks to a feature in Wired after the Daily Telegraph reviewer she sent it to wrote a 2010 article titled "Sugru: Is this the best thing since Sellotape?". Sugru has done pretty well from there -- as the Sugru website story says, it appeared alongside the iPad in Time magazine's list of the 50 Best Inventions of 2010, and Jane told us at Inspirefest that it now has 2 million users and a very enthusiastic and creative fanbase.

Izzy Wheels

I'd been quite looking forward to the talk by Izzy and Ailbhe, founders of Izzy Wheels, who won Accenture's Leaders of Tomorrow award as well as a host of other things, and whom I constantly see mentioned on Twitter. The talk (well, investment pitch is what it literally was) was very good, and their achievements are impressive (like being featured on Instagram's official story and exposed to 250 million users), but I was dismayed to see that it was more Ailbhe's than Izzy's. 


Izzy has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair and I'd thought it was really cool that she used her experience of disability to design these decorative wheels for wheelchairs. Unfortunately, Ailbhe did the entire 10-20 minute talk and Izzy only spoke for less than a minute after the official talk. As well as that, on their Team page they had four people and Ailbhe was listed as Founder while Izzy was Co-Founder and Brand Ambassador, showing it's more Ailbhe's project. Seeing Ailbhe talk while Izzy spun around in her wheelchair just was not an empowering experience, especially when she said things like disabled people want to be fashionable too. I think that would have been a lot more powerful coming from an actual disabled person. 

AIlbhe seems cool too and is a very good speaker and of course she has the right to start a company like this and talk about it, but it just would have been nice to see the two sisters who were on stage together share the time equally.

So, good talk, it's a cool company that seems to be doing really well, but more #ownvoices please! 

Soapbox Labs

Soapbox Labs develops voice technology for third-party apps and devices of all kinds that actually work for kids' voices in noisy, realistic environments. There's science behind it. It's cool. 

Pals

I got to meet some of my pals from Inspirefest last year and other events, like Vanessa:






I met Kelly Hoey again and she signed one of her books for me then gave me six of them and told me to give them away to any college student that found me:


CTYI saw and Tweeted Kelly's tweet about me which was kinda weird...good thing I wasn't skiving off work to go to Inspirefest ...



Other cool people I bumped into again included Monica Parker from Hatch Analytics, Elaine Burke from Silicon Republic, blogger and advocate Sinéad Burke, Gizmodo CEO Raju Narisetti, Nilofer Merchant (very cool name and glittery skirt, also apparently the "Jane Bond of Innovation" and photographer Darragh Doyle. I saw returning speakers Anne Ravanona (CEO, Global InvestHer) and Shelly Porges (many things but coolest to me, once Senior Advisor to Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State).

I was sad to miss so many amazing people like Marcus Weldon (President of Bell Labs, Nokia corporate CTO), Dr France A Cordova (Director of National Science Foundation and former Chief Scientist @ NASA), Matt Flannery (co-founder of microlending giant Kiva), Brenda Romero (games developer and incredible speaker) and .... (look, just read the Inspirefest speakers page, they have a lot of amazing speakers) because of work -- hopefully some of them will come back again next year so I can ambush them in the VIP lounge watch their talks.

In the end, I saw very little of Inspirefest because I had to go to work, but what I did see was pretty amazing.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Review: The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

★☆☆☆☆


What an awful book. 

I have seen many rave reviews for Oliver Sacks -- the New York Times calls him "one of the great clinical writers of the twentieth century". I've seen a book I bought a while back acclaimed for doing for botany what Oliver Sacks did for neurology. I've seen this book in particular called his best work. 

So what on earth did I just read?

This book presents ~24 case studies of patients with interesting neurological disorders, from amnesia to Tourette's to an inability to recognise anything in a concrete sense (i.e. abstract recognition maintained for maths, but couldn't recognise faces/familiar objects). 

Some of the stories are interesting. I'm sure many of them could be if told by a better writer. But that's about the only redeeming quality this book has. Let's see:

First and foremost, it's extremely insulting, diminishing and offensive, especially for a book that's supposed to be about humanising people with these disorders and finding their strengths -- it just becomes incredibly condescending. I can somewhat understand him referring to patients as "retardates" and "morons" if those were the terms at the time (1985), but then you get him introducing characters as "hopelessly retarded", and seeing a diagnosed autistic boy capable of drawing a rudimentary picture and saying "Autism? No", or saying "imagination, playfulness, art, are precisely what one does not expect in idiots, or idiots savants, or in the autistic either" (although he does say "Such at least is the prevailing opinion" afterwards, but really?). 

Oh, and "he was returned permanently to his family as a 'fulltime" epileptic, autistic, perhaps aphasic, retarded child", "The abstract, the categorical, has no interest for the autistic person -- the concrete, the particular, the singular is all. Whether this is a question of capacity or disposition, it is strikingly the case. Lacking, or indisposed to, the general, the autistic seem to compose their world entirely of particulars. Thus they live, not in a universe, but in what William James called a 'multiverse', of innumerable, exact, and passionately intense particulars. it is a mode of mind at the opposite extreme from the generalizing, the scientific". Well Mr Sacks, as an autistic scientist I think your mind is at the opposite extreme from the scientific.

He portrays himself as a compassionate doctor but spends the book wondering whether his patients are people at all, since they've lost some faculty or other. 

The book is filled with unnecessary academic jargon and obscure references -- obviously I like scientific terminology but this wasn't that, he just kept referring to Luria's work as if we all knew what Luria did and liked him. Obviously Sacks admires Luria very much, but frankly I couldn't give a crap about him and it doesn't add to the book at all, this fanboying of Luria. 

 I will admit I don't know much about neurology, but wow the way he writes sure makes it seem like pseudoscience, like some mystical thing that he as grand practitioner can make sense of.

He also fills the book with purple prose -- gratuitous, self-satisfied writing. I couldn't stand it -- I just wanted the information, nicely presented, and he gave interesting information but infused with a lot of his own opinion and commentary that I really didn't agree with. 

I especially didn't agree with his whole thing about the "right brain" and his diminishing of the importance of abstract and analytical skills. He wanted something romantic and mystical out of neurology, and actively made the field less scientific, from what I can see.

I was very very tempted not to finish the book but pushed through for this review and yup, no good cohesive story or common thread appeared. Don't waste your time or money on it. 

REVIEW: DO NO HARM BY HENRY MARSH

In June, I read Do No Harm by Henry Marsh and The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks. I technically read Oasis by Éilis Barrett on the last day of May but sure here we are, let's have some reviews It was a mixed bag: one book was awesome, one was awful, and one was decent. Let's start with the best one. 


★★★★

I loved this book! It's the second neurosurgeon memoir I've read in the last two months #noregrets. This book is quite different, in that the whole thing is about his career, whereas When Breath Becomes Air is half about the author's death from lung cancer. 

Each chapter is named after a condition e.g. hemangioma or aneurysm or glioblastoma, and the chapter is mainly about that condition, while at the same time telling the story of his long training and career. The book is apparently based on a lecture he gave about his very worst mistakes -- messing up operations, misdiagnosing, deciding to operate when it was in the patient's best interest to let them die with dignity. 

“The operating is the easy part, you know,’ he said. ‘By my age you realize that the difficulties are all to do with the decision-making.” 

“But death is not always a bad outcome, you know, and a quick death can be better than a slow one.”

It's very gripping, which is impressive considering dozens of stories are told. Young fathers with brain tumours, whom he could treat the first time the tumour appeared but whose case became less and less hopeful with more relapses. Incorrect aneurysm repair causing fatal haemorrhage. A trainee cutting a spinal nerve, transforming a competitive cyclist's minor back problem into an injury that will prevent them ever walking on uneven ground again. But also recovering the sight of a heavily pregnant mother with a brain tumour. 

Once, when he was a trainee, it was late and an old man called him over on the ward complaining about chest pain. He looked at his heartbeat, saw nothing unusual, told the man there was nothing to worry about and turned away. And the man died, alone, disbelieved. 

"It used to be called angor animi – the anguish of the soul – the feeling that some people have, when they are having a heart attack, that they are about to die. Even now, more than thirty years later, I can see very clearly the dying man’s despairing expression as he looked at me as I turned away."

Something he seems to consider his main mistake is when he leaves patients in a fate worse than death, 'a grey man curled up on the bed' to paraphrase: PVS. PVS means Persistent Vegetative State, and a surgical slip can cut nerves that take away a patient's humanity, leaving them physically healthy but mentally empty, so that their family cannot say goodbye but must pay to look after them for decades, this empty shell of a relative. 

There are stories of depressing days -- one particularly depressing day:

"None of us felt able to make our usual sardonic jokes at the morning meeting. The first case was a man who had died as a result of an entirely avoidable delay in his being transferred to our unit; another was a young woman who had become brain dead after a haemorrhage. We looked glumly at her brain scan.

'That's a dead brain,' one of my colleagues explained to the juniors. 'Brain looks like ground glass'

The last case was an eight-year-old who had tried to hang himself and had suffered hypoxic brain damage.

'Can we have some rather less depressing cases please?' someone asked, but there were none and the meeting came to an end."


He also spends a lot of time giving out about the struggling NHS and the damage it does to doctors and patients -- never enough beds so patients have to have their surgeries cancelled, for example, and an organisation so bureaucratic that he has to delay an appointment to run up and down through the hospital to find the new password to access scans, which it turns out has been set to Fuck Off 47 because you have to change the password every month and it's been 47 months since the policy was implemented. He talked about lots of personal experiences too, from participating in a group to decide whether the NHS should fund a drug for a rare disease (using quality-adjusted years of life added) to his mother's death to his child's benign brain condition. 

He said a lot of anatomical terminology and it was cool -- I liked the precision of it. Henry Marsh himself seems like an unpleasant colleague to be around, but he's had an interesting life and writes it well. 

Something that really struck me was how often he considered something a hopeless case, even if he didn't say it. He describes a glioblastoma, which is the aggressive brain tumour I made the sensor to detect (I was proud when he described the scan in two lines and I guessed correctly that it was a glioblastoma, although (a) this could've been in the other book (b) I probably would've guessed glioblastoma no matter what it was), and says it's highly unlikely to be cured by surgery, though he'll treat it with surgery to give them some extra life. He says it's sad how many of the brain tumours happen to young, otherwise healthy people who've just started families, how there's just so much death and so many diseases with poor prognoses. Again, I cried and thought fuck diseases it is not fair that a disease can just sneak up on you through no fault of your own I have to do something ... maybe I should do Molecular Medicine for my degree. 

______________________________________________________________________________

In short: a very good book full of interesting stories well woven together into a cohesive narrative -- and personally enjoyable too, because of my interest in medicine. 

T20 Summit: Global Solutions for G20

The G20, for those who haven't heard of it, is a gathering of the leaders of the world's twenty biggest economies. What I didn't know until recently is that the G20 has a bunch of sister events, like W20 (Women 20), B20 (Business 20) and T20 (Think 20). 




T20 is a gathering of the world's leading economists including Nobel Laureates, finance ministers, UN and EU people and more that comes up with policy proposals for the G20 leaders, and a few months ago the German G20 and T20 Presidency and Global Solutions sent out a call for Young Global Changers between 18 and 40 to represent their country and pitch solutions to global problems to these people.

Probably needless to say, because I wouldn't be blogging about this otherwise, I applied and was accepted out of 1400 applicants. I got to represent Ireland, be profiled in Berlin's main newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, watch and learn from an impressive summit and pitch to very cool people, but I think the most amazing thing was meeting young (well, 18 to 40) people from all around the world and learning so much about their societies that I'd never have learned from reading a book about it. 



We were there for four days. On the first day, we had talks from a Nobel Laureate and representatives from PwC, got to know each other and started working in teams on our pitches (I was in the Climate Policy and Finance task force). 




The middle two days held the actual T20 Summit: Global Solutions for G20. It was very fancy and very impressive, held in the old seat of the East Berlin government. We saw some very cool people -- highlights included:

  • Ylva Johansson (Minister for Employment and Integration, Sweden) -- "We don't protect jobs, we protect workers"
  • Gabriela Ramos (Special Counsellor to the Secretary-General, Chief of Staff and OECD Sherpa)
  • Nicholas Stern (Lord Stern of Brentford, IG Patel Professor of Economics and Government, LSE) - carbon pricing
  • Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel Laureate in Economics) - carbon pricing
  • Peter Altmaier (Head of German Federal Chancellery)
  • all the speakers at the Evidence-Based Policy Design session
  • Jeffrey Sachs (involved in everything in the world, very passionate -- watch his speech here)
There were loads of other cool speakers, including a bunch of Nobel Laureates like George Akerlof. There were also some panels that became actual heated debates between panellists, which was cool, although I don't know how many solutions were reached. 


I remember thinking this is cool, it would be incredible if there was something like this but for public health and thinking there must be and then going to the session on Evidence-Based Policy Design and finding out the World Health Summit exists! I read the speaker list and geeked out, a lot. I'll have to find some way to be able to go. 

I am not actually in this photo because I didn't check the right schedule. But here are some YGCs with our cool lanyards.


On the final day, we prepared and presented our pitches to a bunch of impressive people having used design thinking. I really don't like the hype around it but seems reasonably helpful, just not something worthy of cult-like adoration -- but then few things are. 

The best part of the scholarship was meeting so many people from so many different places. There were 100 YGCs chosen, 90-something of whom could attend because of visa difficulties, and they were from all over the world. I'm used to "international" events just being Ireland, the UK and maybe a bit of the US and Europe, but this had dozens of people from each of Africa, South America and Asia, plus a few from Europe and North America. I learned so much about people's cultures and societies that I would never have known otherwise -- I'd been reading about Saudi Arabia's treatment of women the week before, for example, and then got to quiz a guy from Saudi Arabia about it and learn lots. 

I've met a good few people from various places, but these people actually live there day-to-day. My roommate is from the Philippines, and the people I hung out with most there are from Vietnam, Sri Lanka, India, Fiji, Uzbekistan, El Salvador, Venezuela, Israel, Afghanistan, Namibia, Iceland and Ethiopia (I'm sure there are some I'm forgetting). This is a photo of five of us hanging out, and there happen to be five people from five continents. How cool is that?




  • Europe (Ireland) 
  • Africa (Ethiopia) 
  • Asia (Vietnam) 
  • South America (Venezuela) 
  • Oceania (Fiji) 
My team members were from Italy, Peru, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Cameroon, and I talked to cool people from Syria, Tunisia and Myanmar. 

I could read books and books about these countries and have no real idea about how people live there, and even though I only met one from each I still learned so much! Most of the YGCs were doing really cool projects as well, and it was nice to see that there are the same ambitious, driven people in every country. Also, a lot of people were surprised that I've done things by age 18, which I found weird because it's quite common in Ireland (at least, I keep meeting these people). 

Also, Berlin was HOT. In a 24-hour period, the lowest temperature was 18 C at 6 am, which is heatwave temperature in Ireland. On the first day, I came from the airport and no one could understand my accent when I said I was looking for the Hampton by Hilton Hotel Alexanderplatz so I spent an hour wanderingly being directed towards the Hilton, the other Hilton, and oh man I died. It was really nice in the evenings though because I could just walk around perfectly warm in my dress -- especially the evening PwC threw us the best reception ever. 

Lots of inspiration, lots of information, lots of admirable people, lots of work to do. Seeya soon Berlin.

____________________________________________________________________________

Thank you to Bernadett, Anya, Dennis Snower, Dirk Messner and all my fellow YGCs for a great event! :) 

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Review: June 2017

I feel like I did nothing in June, but Leon tells me I say this every month and then by the end of the blog post realise oh yeah maybe I did some things. But this month definitely didn't have many big things. Which is okay, I suppose.

EMPLOYMENT (CTYI)

I have a job now! And I really like it! I'm working as a Teaching Assistant at CTYI, TAing Session 1 CAT Biotech and Session 2 CAT Medicine. It's funny -- at the time I submitted my application I wanted to do astrophysics, but by the time I started working I've started feeling Molecular Medicine, so it's pretty cool that they assigned me Biotech and Medicine. I'm responsible for lots of admin tasks like calling roll and taking lunch money, for supervising lunch and study and explaining things at said study, for helping the students with lab work and also occasionally for lecturing, which is cool! Here's a picture of me doing that last thing:

I love the casual stance.

I lectured on my Young Scientist research projects (which had lots of the students coming up to me for advice on theirs, which I absolutely encourage because BTYS is cool, yo) and then on antibiotic resistance, which was very relevant to our course.

SPOTLIGHT ABR -- ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE TALKS

I held workshops on antibiotic resistance with, if I recall correctly, 170 students (excluding the CTYI ones in the picture above) in nine classes in primary schools in Louth and north Dublin. Something really cool happened after the Blanchardstown one -- a 4th class girl who goes by "Fox" came up to me and hugged me as I was leaving the school, saying she was super interested and "finally got to learn about bacteria". Very cute.

LABLINN 

Lablinn is expanding! We now have a team full of cool people who want to help promote public involvement in science and public health, plus a bunch of ambassadors. People are gradually being added to the page and you can see the team here! We'll be working on some interesting initiatives over the summer so stay tuned. 

BLOG MILESTONES

I actually updated the blog a reasonable amount in June, with seven posts! I reviewed When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanathi (review here) and Code: the Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software by Charles Petzold (review here), talked about Spotlight ABR, working with The Walton Club and studying Harvard Business School's HBX Core and stressed about subject choices for my degree.

It was also my five-year blogging anniversary. I started darquessedreams.blogspot.com in June 2012 and have been blogging continuously ever since, although darquessedreams has been abandoned as I've started putting my book reviews here.

This blog also passed 100,000 visitors! *trumpet sounds* 

I've been itching to redesign it with a much cleaner layout although this busy one is kinda charming, maybe port it over to Wordpress depending how much hassle that is. I was also gripped by the urge to start a book blog again after reading Cait's blog over at Paper Fury but you have a blog Elle, damnit, are you not busy enough? I suppose the worry is people like to read blogs about just one thing. 

SUBJECT CHOICES

I've spent quite a bit of time in June thinking about what degree I want to come out with -- you can read a whole post about the dilemma between Astrophysics and Molecular Medicine here. I'm thinking Molecular Medicine but haven't 10000% decided. 

BOOK

My non-fiction book proposal about citizen science has been sent to the publisher. Also, I wrote an awesome intro chapter for it which I love because it's much more personal and less academic than the rest of the book -- I didn't realise how important it was to have that intro into who I am and why I care about this until I wrote it. 

HBX CORE

This is that business course I'm doing with Harvard Business School thanks to the Naughton Foundation. I like it! I'm 42% through the Business Analytics course (glorious stats), 45% through Accounting and 22% through Economics for Managers (look, it's just how the module deadlines are laid out...) and I'm getting 90%+ in the module quizzes despite my constant low expectations. Seriously, every question I do (and there are money) I think oh there's no way this is right and I keep getting them right, so maybe I know something? Or am extremely lucky? We'll see in the final exam in September. 

READING

I need to read more! I started Cosmos by Carl Sagan this month but didn't really enjoy it (also, the font really bothered me), so hopefully I'll go back to that and get more into it. I read Do No Harm by Henry Marsh, a neurosurgeon's memoirs, and loved it (review soon). I'm almost finished The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver Sacks and I'm disappointed because I've heard great things about him but the book is awful, some interesting stories but I really disagree with his way of interpreting things -- review soon for that one too. I'm starting Lab Girl by Hope Jahren soon, which is exciting! Have I ever mentioned I adore Book Depository? It delivers cheap books for free! 


MOVING OUT

I moved out of my awesome digs with a great reference from my lovely landlady aka digs mom Viv. It was sad. i still need to go back and pick up some of my stuff. I'll be writing a blog post soon on what the digs experience is like for anyone considering staying in them. I moved out theoretically to stay at Dad's for the summer while searching for an apartment for next year but have essentially just moved in with Leon instead oops. Speaking of Leon, we saw A Dog's Purpose together and I only went because I thought he'd cry during and it would be funny, but in the end it was I who cried. Damnit.

____________________________________________________________________________

So that was my month. Pretty good, got to relax a bit. 





Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Degree Dilemma: Astrophysics vs Molecular Medicine

I've spent the last few days thinking about what degree I want to come out with. 

I went into college thinking I wanted to study Physics because I loved it at school, but wasn't sure so I signed up for a general science course, TR071 Science at Trinity, and did the first year credits required for Physics (40 credits of Physics and Maths) plus 20 credits of Chemistry. 

There are 15 possible degrees from Science, plus possible transfers into the Nanoscience course if you do certain modules. The degrees, aka moderatorships, are: Biochemistry, Chemistry, Environmental Sciences, Genetics, Geography, Geology, Immunology, Microbiology, Molecular Medicine, Neuroscience, Physics, Physics & Astrophysics, Physiology, Plant Sciences and Zoology. 

Because I didn't study Biology, Geology or Geography in first year and the moderatorships have prerequisites in first and second year, I'm eligible for these moderatorships: 

  • Biochemistry
  • Chemistry
  • Immunology
  • Molecular Medicine
  • Neuroscience
  • Physics
  • Physics & Astrophysics
  • Physiology
I hate organic Chemistry and Anatomy, so Biochemistry, Chemistry, Neuroscience and Physiology are out, leaving us with:


  • Biochemistry
  • Chemistry
  • Immunology
  • Molecular Medicine
  • Neuroscience
  • Physics
  • Physics & Astrophysics
  • Physiology
Interestingly, my score in Physical Chemistry was 20 percentage points higher than my overall score for the year (my results came out a few days ago), but organic chemistry in college, unlike at Leaving Cert, is the spawn of the devil and I'm not subjecting myself to more of that. 

This year, I didn't like Mechanics or Electromagnetism and wasn't particularly fond of Quantum Physics or Waves either -- the only subjects I liked in Physics were Astronomy and Statistics. So let's take out Physics too. An unfortunate truth is that I studied far too little this year, not realising how much work college requires, so struggled with tutorials and exams etc -- so I don't know if the reason I found Physics difficult was because it's not for me or because I didn't study, or both. 

  • Biochemistry
  • Chemistry
  • Immunology
  • Molecular Medicine
  • Neuroscience
  • Physics
  • Physics & Astrophysics
  • Physiology
Okay so with all that negativity out of the way, I've narrowed it down to three moderatorships: Immunology, Molecular Medicine and Physics & Astrophysics. Let's put down some things I like/care about:
  • Research
  • Astronomy
  • Statistics
  • Programming
  • Medical diagnostics
  • Curing/treating diseases
  • Helping people
  • Antibiotic resistance
  • Vaccination
  • Understanding rather than memorizing
So they look fairly even from that. But there are some other factors: (a) how much of the degree is actually the thing I'm interested in? (b) what do I want to do after college? (c) How much do I care about the subject? 

For part (a), I analysed the modules and estimated how enjoyable they looked. A big worry is that I haven't studied Biology since Junior Cert aged 14, so I don't really know what it's like, but I've read as much as I can find about it, down to the content of individual lectures that are helpfully online. 

I've been really biased against biology for ages because it's a softer science, and because of this whole "have to do the hardest possible thing to show I can" thing, and also because there are so few women in physics I feel pressured to be in it. I'm not even saying molecular medicine would be easier, but that perception has caused a lot of bias against biology that I've absorbed. I also know I can much more easily pick up Biology than I can pick up Physics, and if I do Biology I'm unlikely to ever go and learn the complicated maths, and I'm kinda jealous of other people knowing it if I don't. 

I didn't do the analysis for immunology for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it has the same prerequisites as Molecular Medicine, so I don't have to decide on that until next year. Secondly, it doesn't look as interesting as MolMed -- it's much more about the immune system (duh) than about diseases, which is what I'm more interested in. So it's just between Physics & Astrophysics and Molecular Medicine.

So here's that. The colour code: brown means awful (like organic chemistry), pink means yuck, white means eh fine, blue means looks reasonably interesting/looks tough but cool, and green means awesome/excited to study it.

JF means Junior Freshman aka first year, SF means second year and so on, so SS is Senior Sophister or fourth year. S1 means semester one. Click the image to enlarge it. 



As you may be able to see from the chart, the Astrophysics degree is only actually about 30% Astrophysics through the whole degree -- I'd have to do a LOT of the Physics I don't like, because the degree is normal physics plus astrophysics. In second year, for example, I'd have to do 40 credits of physics and maths for the prerequisite and only about 3 credits of that is Astrophysics. 

As for part (b): the sad thing about astrophysics is that it's not an experimental science, so most of the work is either observation, spectroscopy, computer simulation or instrumentation. I'm also thinking about my research and how my two big ones were both health-related. And if I want to cure diseases or do something epidemiology-related, molecular medicine seems like a good bet. 

FInally, part (c): how much do I care about the subject? Well, like I said, I don't know what biology is like, and I still need to find out how much is memorization (hopefully not much as I hate memorization), and it bothers me that I'd end up with much weaker mathematical skills than my friends who do Physics, and I worry about doing a course with "molecular" in the title since I hate organic chemistry, but something I realised in the last few days is this.

I like astronomy, I think cosmology is cool, but thinking about fighting disease has made me realise what a calling is. Astro might be fun once I got past all the horrible maths, but working on things like my antibiotic resistance project and my medical diagnostics project makes me feel fulfilled, because it feels like I can help people and change the world that way. Molecular medicine is a weird degree, because a lot of it is about how you treat diseases, but it doesn't make you a doctor -- but it does seem like a great place to start for researching and curing disease. And even if I ended up hating a lot of the biology, at least I'd have that calling, the knowledge that I could help people, to pull me through. 

In the words of one of my best friends, Will (Leon has also been not-so-subtly pushing me towards biology having seen how my projects are based around it), "Elle, astrophysics wouldn't fulfil you as much as molecular medicine, I think. Molecular medicine allows you to work on something that can and will yield results. Astrophysics...you can observe, and maybe come up with a model of some sort. You are an absolute go-getter, and it's why I think mol-med would suit you better."

So I have a few choices. 

  • Commit to Physics with Astrophysics: do 40 credits of Physics and Maths in second year and use my remaining 20 credits to do the bits of Biology that look fun but don't get me the prerequisites for a Bio moderatorship
  • Hedge: do the 40 credits of Physics and Maths required for Physics, and the 20 credits required for Immunology/Molecular Medicine, which would involve doing all the Biology modules that look horrible plus a lot of horrible physics, but would keep all my options open and bring me back to this dilemma again next year. 
  • Commit to Biology: drop Physics, do the Bio prerequisites plus a bunch of bio modules that look really fun, like Infection, and Behaviour, and Microbiology, with three or four maths modules (say Fourier Analysis, Multivariable Calculus, Data Analysis) to fill out my credits since I don't want Organic Chemistry and Physics has too many coreqs to fit in with all that Bio. 
I haven't fully decided yet, but the whole calling thing is making me lean heavily towards Molecular Medicine, which would have shocked the me of a week ago. I have all summer to decide on my modules for next year, but I'd like to get it out of the way fast, so I'd love any advice you guys have. If you've done Bio or Physics in college or have any advice, hit me up on Twitter @frizzyroselle or by email at izzyroselle@gmail.com.