How “Smart” Do You Have To Be To Do Science?

When I listen to noted scientists Steven Hawkings and Neil deGrasse Tyson, or try to comprehend the immense impact of the recently discovered gravitational waves, I quickly get overwhelmed by both the subject matter and its preceptors. I am in awe of the intense genius that came up with these ideas in the first place, the brilliance of those who disseminate it, and grapple with how far short my above-average mind falls. Scientists must be really, really smart, I think to myself. And if I’m thinking it, you can bet my students are too.

“I’m just not good at math,” they explain.

In the classroom, math mistakes result in low grades. At NASA, math mistakes such as not converting between English and metric units cost the loss of a $125 million dollar Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft. For both students with high aspirations and scientists alike, neither of these consequences is acceptable.

So, just how smart do you have to be to become a scientist?

The better question is, “How hard am I willing to work to become good at science and math?

There’s a belief in the United States that there are two types of people – those who are good at math, and those who aren’t. And yet, studies have shown very few, if any, genetic differences between a strong mathematician and someone “not good at math.” The reason is clear. Everyone has the capacity to be successful at math. However, by labeling ourselves from an early age as either “good at math” or “bad at math,” these labels become self-fulfilling prophecies. Sure, on occasion, there have been extreme math geniuses in our midst, but for the most part, math skills are the direct effect of two things – diligence and confidence.

I used to teach in a rural largely Hispanic high school. Halfway through the year, a new student from China joined our Physics class. My students teased the class’s top student that he would now be relegated to second place. Clearly, they were invested in the Asian stereotype, even if they had never met an Asian person before. Joining a new school in the middle of the school year is difficult for any student, especially one with a poor command of the language. I sent everyone home with a new assignment that day, that built on a previous lesson. The new Chinese student asked me questions after class about the homework assignment, making it apparent that he had very limited prior content knowledge. Imagine my surprise when he returned the next day with the completed assignment in hand. It was all the more surprising when only one other student in the class completed the assignment, the “formerly” top student. To my students, the Asian myth was perpetuated, commenting in awe about the new genius in their midst.

From my vantage point, I saw something totally different. I saw a student, unfamiliar with the subject matter or the previous lesson, who did what was necessary to learn the new material and return to school prepared.

In the book Intelligence and How to Get It, Richard E. Nisbett writes about how Chinese, Japanese and Korean educational systems focus more on hard work than on natural abilities. Here are some of Nisbett’s findings.

Children in Japan go to school 240 days a year, as opposed to the 180 days our American students attend. Further, Japanese high school students in the 1980s studied at least 3 and a half hours a day, which is likely to have increased over time. American students, on the other hand, spend more of that time online, using social media and chatting with friends.

Asian students see intelligence as malleable, meaning that it can be acquired. American students see intelligence and aptitude as something you’re born with.

When Asian students perform poorly, they work harder at it. When American students perform poorly, they often blame the test, the teacher, or their own inabilities. Rarely do they attribute poor performance on lack of effort.

Finally, Asian culture values persistence in the face of failure, and criticism as a guiding force toward self-improvement. American students, especially the most privileged, are rarely allowed to fail, thereby lacking the valuable lessons that failure teaches, and ward off criticism as attacks on their fragile self-esteem.

The truth is, assuming you are not good at science or math is a much easier path than the alternative one of hard work. So, how smart do you have to be? Smart enough to know that the only way to get there from here is through hard work, persistence and the ability to pick yourself up after you fail, which is all but guaranteed.

My Son’s New Pokemon Obsession

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Electronics

My son just turned 9-years-old this month and has become recently obsessed with Pokemon. His activity-of-choice at any given time is to play Pokemon on his new Nintendo 3DS. His friend selection is based on a mutual reverence for these Japanese avatars. He recites litanies of evolved forms of Pokemon characters with the same reverence that he used to shower on baseball players, mathematics, Edvard Grieg and the Periodic Table. Somehow, I not only entertained these earlier obsessions, but I encouraged them. I believed fully in their power to develop the precocious young scientist I hoped he would turn out to be. And, until now, I was a strong proponent of electronics. My son has owned a tablet since he was 5-years-old, an iPad since he was 6. I let him take ownership of his tablet, to find and remove apps at will, unless they cost money — then we would weigh the costs and benefits of such a purchase -- and unless it was the “Find My iPhone” app which he deleted more frequently than I would have liked, as misplacing my own device was almost a daily occurrence, explaining that he “needed the space” for some cool new app. None of this concerned me as his favorite apps were most often math apps, board game apps and an app that brought life to the Periodic Table of the elements.

But now, his iPad has been relegated to a depository of YouTube videos on strategies to master certain Pokemon levels and and their opponents. He apparently “fights” in battles — as a single mom, I have protected him from the idea of “fighting,” not allowing even the most-unaggregious nerf gun into the house. He doesn’t want to go anywhere without his Nintendo 3DS, whether it be the grocery store, a birthday party or synagogue. Of course, the response to the latter two is a resounding “no,” but that doesn’t mean he won’t put up a good albeit exhausting fight. He was thrilled to return to his Pokemon after a short excursion to learn how to ride a bike, which naturally resulted in a short-term “fail” first time around, and doesn’t want to go out for Little League Baseball this year because the balls are getting harder to hit. His resiliency and perseverance are waning — in all areas except for Pokemon.

As an educator I have been a huge proponent of using technology in the classroom, but, as I confiscate more and more misused cell phones, and Madden-Football-playing iPads, I wonder if I am on the wrong side of history. Are these devices, with their abundance of educational apps, videos and individualized learning tools still the positive resource I believed them to be, or merely another distraction we as parents and educators need to battle in raising well-adjusted and curious children?

Our Ephemeral Periodic Table

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, better known by its acronym IUPAC, has announced that four new elements 113, 115, 117 and 118 will receive their permanent seats at the Periodic Table, thereby completing the heretofore incomplete seventh row. Things have sure changed since Dmitri Mendeleev and his contemporaries developed the Periodic Table with only a mere handful of 60 elements. Of course, those elements had names. These four new elements, on the other hand, have temporary placeholder names: "Baby Boy" 113 is named "Ununtrium," pronounced "un-un-trium" for its atomic number 113. "Ununpentium" is likewise the temporary name for 115, 117 is "Ununseptium," and element 118, well, you get the picture (HINT: it has an "oct-" in its name).

Before the other elements welcome them in with a slap on the back and a slew of "what took you so long?" queries, let's understand how the scientific process goes from no element to new element to named element. First off, these four elements were synthesized in large particle accelerators, which means that they were made by smashing and fusing smaller atoms together. Scientists don't actually "see" these new elements, but extrapolate their fleeting existence from their decay products. These elements are so "superheavy," that they decay within thousandths of a second after they are formed into smaller, more stable elements.

But before a particle physicist can run half-naked through the streets yelling "Eureka!" at his or her monumental discovery, the scientific machine has to kick in high gear, because an element's existence must be confirmed by two other laboratories before being recognized and placed on the Periodic Table. This process gives us a tangible glimpse into the nature of scientific discovery.

Most significantly, science is much more a process that results in a body of knowledge, rather than the body of knowledge itself, though the size of many science textbooks may attest to the contrary. Scientific knowledge, rather, is acquired through consistent and incremental observation and testing. "Eureka!" moments are far and few between, arrived at, if ever, by decades of tedious and persistent tinkering. Further, as scientific hypotheses are by their very nature falsifiable, it is hubris to think that what we know now to be true will forever remain so. Rather, scientific knowledge as evidenced in the changing face of the Periodic Table is fluid and is unfolding before our very own eyes.

Second, much different than in the days of Mendeleev when scientists worked alone and came to certain conclusions in parallel, twenty-first-century science is necessarily from the very get-go a collaborative endeavor. After all, not everyone has a particle accelerator in the backyard. Case in point, these four new elements emerge at the apex of an international collaboration among Russia, the United States and Japan.

And then there's the business of science. Now that these four elements have earned their keep, they need permanent names. Naming rights go to the discoverer and his funders under certain guidelines -- new elements can be named only after a "mythological concept, a mineral, a place or country, a property or a scientist." But given the new collaborative paradigm, there may be many backroom battles and bruised egos before the new names emerge.

"To scientists," The Guardian quoted former Riken president and Nobel laureateRyoji Noyori as saying, "this [discovery] is of greater value than an Olympic gold." Perhaps because "Nobel" gold is at stake. Or perhaps far more, because science has done what science does best -- ventured out a femtometer further into the final frontier of the unknown.

As a high school chemistry teacher, my students sometimes ask me fearfully if I will expect them to memorize the Periodic Table. Science, however, is not about memorizing the past. It's about standing on the shoulders of scientists before us to peer into the unknown. No, don't memorize the elements of the Periodic Table. Rather, go out and discover new ones. Which is just what Kosuke Morita, the leader of the Japanese team that discovered element 113, announced his team would do -- "look to the uncharted territory of element 119 and beyond."

Originally Published on the Huffington Post January 6, 2016

More Women Earning Science Degrees

As a high school chemistry and physics teacher, I devote my very being to ensuring that every young woman with the desire and talent has the opportunity to pursue her scientific career of choice. So, when the results of a study coauthored by Erica Blom, Brian Cadena and Benjamin Keys last month tout that every 1% rise in unemployment causes a 2% increase in the number of women pursuing science degrees, I should be ecstatic. But I'm not. On the contrary, I'm concerned. Yes, ostensibly it's good that more women are entering a very male-dominated scientific world. My question is, though, what happens to these women when they finish their degrees and enter the workforce? Do they become the living embodiment of the American dream, or do they soon discover that the American dream is just as elusive as ever?

Case in point. Approximately 50% of all life science majors are women, yet only about 28% of all life science jobs are filled by women, according to statistics given me by Janet Koster, executive director and CEO of American Women in Science (AWIS). Though in the past this drop-off may have been attributed to women leaving the workforce to start families, there is very little evidence that women today are choosing to do so. The exponential growth in the childcare industry alone attests to the fact that mothers today are remaining in the workforce after pregnancy. Further, academia, a traditional career path for those with doctoral degrees, "is not hiring tenure-type professors the way they used to," explains Koster. "Those jobs are a few and far between, and so now you have somebody that's coming out on the other end [and] their education post-docs are getting longer -- some have done a second post-doc -- [and she's] in her late thirties and can't find a job."

And, even when women do get jobs in their chosen scientific fields, research suggests that they do not get paid what their male counterparts do. One reason for this is the gender gap in the scientific fields women and men choose to pursue. Women are still severely underrepresented in the engineering fields, which on average require fewer years of education and oftentimes no more than a bachelor's degree to procure a high-paying job right out of college. This implicit bias that "girls don't do engineering" which we teach our girls at every juncture, coupled with the fact that women tend to pursue socially conscious scientific fields such as public health and environmental science, results in women occupying a far smaller percentage of the private workplace, and a much greater percentage of lower-paying state and local government jobs.

But, before arguing that this is comparing apples to oranges, when we compare apples to apples, a female engineer to a male engineer performing the same job responsibilities, female engineers tend to make from 87 cents for every dollar that their male counterparts do, according to data from a 1995 National Science Foundation survey.

Further, if and when female scientists do find jobs, albeit at slightly lower salaries, the oppressive culture in male-dominated scientific workplaces oftentimes leads female scientists to leave their fields for rosier pastures. "What we see at AWIS is a growing portion of our membership moving off the bench and into a whole host of jobs that aren't necessarily doing science specific to their science. So we see women moving into public policy. We see women moving into communications. We see women moving into patent law. That's a hot new space for a lot of folks. Again, I think it's kind of smart really because, you need to have a degree in biology but then you go on [and get] a law degree and you're making a heck of a lot more money than you are as a biologist," Janet Koster continues.

All things being equal, as mentor to many promising young students at the beginning of their scientific career trajectory, I would much rather have women earning science degrees because that's where their passion and talent lie, rather than it being economically advantageous. Unfortunately, with the implicit bias coursing through our families, our televisions, and in the very words with which our earliest math teachers praise and guide us, far fewer women have the genuine opportunity to discover these passions, let alone pursue them. So, in the meantime, if it's a recession that closes the gender gap, I'll take it. But we've only just begun.

Originally Published on the Huffington Post August 12, 2015

‘Don’t Know Much About Science’

It was difficult to miss all the hype regarding last week's release of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) 2012 study on public attitudes toward and understanding of science and technology. Most cited the fact that one in four Americans believes that the Sun revolves around the Earth. But then again, our American narcissism may be as much to blame for our scientific illiteracy as our education system is -- doesn't everything revolve around us? What hasn't been discussed as much are the seemingly positive and actionable outcomes of the study, such as the encouraging way Americans view science, both as a field of study and as a career; the role education plays in fostering scientific interest; and the disconnect between our interest in and our lack of knowledge of science, scientists and what it is that they do.

One aspect of this study is a survey consisting of nine science questions, such as:

"True or false: The center of the Earth is very hot."

And:

"Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?"

Americans answered 5.8 out of these nine questions correctly, putting the United States on par with other countries, though comparison is limited, as not all questions are asked worldwide. What is noticeable is that other countries are trending upward in the acquisition of scientific knowledge, but the United States has remained more or less at a standstill. And in response to scientific questions that contradict established doctrine, Americans performed markedly worse, unless a qualifying preface such as "according to scientists" was appended to the questions. For example, whereas 48 percent of Americans affirmed that "human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals," 72 percent answered "true" when the question was prefaced with, "According to the theory of evolution...." Similar results were obtained when surveyed about the veracity of the statement that "the universe began with a big explosion." As expected, Americans with higher levels of education performed better on these nine questions. And, yet again, men performed better than women on the physical science questions (only).

And even though we "don't know much about a science book," the study suggests that Americans value science as a career and the scientific community very highly. We don't know what scientists do -- 65 percent claimed they didn't know -- but 80 percent of parents surveyed would be "happy" if their child pursued a career in science. Furthermore, according to the 2009 Harris Poll quoted in this study, being a scientist was ranked as the second most prestigious occupation, second only to firefighters, and ahead of doctors, nurses and teachers.

"Though we don't know what they do, we'd sure love to have one in the family!"

In short, though we don't possess a lot of scientific knowledge, and though few of us know what scientists do, we think very highly of them and want our children to become scientists. This is great news for a country that seemingly wants to continue being the world leader in scientific and technological advancement. We must bridge the gap between the science we value and where we are now. But we still don't know how to get from here to there. We know that education is the starting place -- improving science education in the schools, and improving access to higher education for all. It's not enough, however.

In the underserved, overwhelmingly Hispanic high school in which I teach chemistry and physics, I reach two to three students a year who have what it takes to become great scientists -- the appropriate combination of desire and capacity -- but I know they will not all maneuver the roadblocks.

The NSF study confirms that the media's coverage and portrayal of science does not mirror the value we place on it. Less than 2 percent of traditional news coverage is related to science and technology, with coverage of Steve Jobs' passing, the end of the Space Shuttle program, Facebook's IPO and the Mars Curiosity rover taking the lion's share.

As far as entertainment television is concerned, between 2000 and 2008, only 1 percent of characters on primetime television were scientists. Of these, 70 percent were men, and almost 90 percent were Caucasian. Just watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory confirms this -- scientists are portrayed as white, male, "smart-as-heck" geeks, and we root for them in spite of their idiosyncrasies, if not because of them.

Young women scientists are still underrepresented in the workforce and the media. I remember how easy it was as a freshman at Cornell to walk away from the all-male physics honors class in which I was enrolled. No one told me I could do it -- definitely not the professor -- and there was no female role model to show me it was possible. It is exponentially more challenging for our Hispanic youngsters to envision such a future for themselves. It's not so much that we don't have youngsters in our schools who are are making the grade, but without role models in which to see themselves, how are they going to navigate the difficult academic and financial terrain of a science degree when the going gets tough?

Until we are willing to promote and portray non-male and non-white scientists, the scientific field will continue to appeal to a diminishing fraction of our demographic. At least two or three students a year have what it takes -- in every public high school in America. If we want to raise a nation of scientists and the scientifically literate, the least we could do is make sure those two or three get to the finish line.

Originally Published on The Huffington Post February 28, 2014

In Search of Science Role Models

When six of the United States' top scientists, garbed in white ties and tails, dined on Guinea hen and lobster tartlets as honored guests of King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden last month, we were holding our own little ceremony on this side of the Atlantic. The attire was individualistic, Hollywood and Silicon Valley luminaries were the royalty of choice, and dinner was catered by Napa Valley's famed Chef Thomas Keller and The French Laundry.

Mark Zuckerberg, Yuri Milner and friends were awarding six Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences and two Fundamental Physics Prizes to top American scientists -- with a $3 million prize, tripling the traditional Nobel award.

As an American, I am proud of this great step toward honoring the crucial contributions of science and scientists. But as a public high school science teacher, addressing our country's poor math and science scores on a daily basis, I can tell you that it's not enough.

By the time American students reach high school, the majority have had their curiosity crushed and are struggling with inadequate math skills. But we also have a role model deficiency. Kids may be able to list the starting lineup of the Boston Red Sox, but probably can't name even one contemporary scientist. Some 75 percent of the 2013 Nobel prize winning scientists are United States citizens, and yet they live in virtual anonymity among the general American public.

Compare this to Sweden. During Nobel Week, the recipients are regarded as celebrities. "The closest analogy we would have here would be Super Bowl weekend, only it would have to be Super Bowl week," recalls Dr. Richard Lefkowitz, 2012 Nobel laureate in Chemistry.

"Our pictures are on the front page of the newspaper every day. We are recognized in the street. People seek our autograph. They can't get enough of us. We're on prime time TV every night." On the night of the Nobel banquet, all five or six hours are televised live. "We have Super Bowl parties, they have Nobel parties. People come to each other's houses. They dine. They dress up in black tie and white tie, some of them to mimic what's going on at the banquet, which they're watching on TV, and they watch the whole thing."

At home in North Carolina, Lefkowitz adds, it's not quite the same thing. "On the boulevard where I turn to come into the campus, there's a huge sign that says 'Welcome to Duke University, home of the 2013 Men's Lacrosse National Champion.' You would never have a banner saying 'Welcome to the home of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.'"
As children and adults we feed on the fruits of technology's labors. Keep a student from learning about the electronic substructure of binary code, and you get a sigh of relief. Keep a student from her smartphone, a product of the electronic substructure of binary code, and you've cut off her very life-sustaining breath. So it isn't that science lacks relevance.

But science is often complicated, or as my students say regularly, "too much work." Most of our media can't understand science well enough to explain it, either -- and unlike, say, the mating habits of reality TV stars, scientific discovery by its nature rarely provides an EZ-pass story line.

"It is always piecewise knowledge, hard-won," says Dr. Roald Hoffman, 1981 Nobel laureate in Chemistry. "There are often not single 'Aha!' or 'Eureka!' moments. There are little pieces of understanding that slowly fall into place." The collaborative nature of research also makes it challenging to attribute a "Eureka!" moment to just one scientist. Consider the thousands of scientists who worked toward discovering the Higgs-Boson particle. The Nobel Prize was awarded to the first two who published about it in 1964, but thousands of other unsung heroes who have worked on it in the past forty years. "I don't know how they could ever award a Nobel Prize for the experimental work," says Dr. Paul Padley, a physicist at Rice University who was also involved in isolating the particle.

A scientific theory can also never be "proved." It can only be "disproved" by experimental evidence. (A statement that cannot be disproved by experiment may be reputable but it's not science.) Hence, the great Eureka! moment of 2013, the discovery and confirmation of the Higgs-Boson, is a big fat "maybe" with a whole lot of evidence behind it. Gravity is a theory. So is evolution. Reporting on scientific discovery, in other words, unfortunately goes against the journalistic creed of "Just the facts."

But the fault lies not just with the media. We need scientists to do a better job communicating to us about what it is they do. We need them to occasionally step outside of the laboratory and engage with us. And when they do, we need to listen, read and learn. The ever-growing complexity of our world demands our daily occupation in understanding it.

Every now and then, a legend does appear out of the sea of numbers and test tubes, giving us proof that it can be done. Consider Nate Silver, the mathematics genius who, with an overwhelming degree of accuracy, predicted the 2008 and 2012 state-by-state presidential returns, and who continues to apply his statistical chops to Major League Baseball, among other popular genres. We revel in Nate Silver, not because we understand what he does, but because he plays out what he does in arenas that we do understand.

Are there scientists who can successfully crossover into popular culture with comparable success? I am optimistic, because we need them to, if our students are ever going to marvel at their "slam dunks" and "Oscars."

Published on The Huffington Post January 13, 2014