Saturday, December 01, 2018

On their way to becoming scientists, students can have fun with science theories

It is certainly a good idea to expose students to the principles, concepts, and challenges of science theories before they ente the world of independent research during their first job or PhD thesis. Unfortunately, this is a rather hard, dry topic. Science theories stem from philosophy, which is in my point of view primarily one thing: incomprehensibly complicated, while offering some of the best solutions to the worlds biggest problems - quite useless, when a negligible part of society understands them.

And so are science theories. They all deliver some really good thoughts, buried in a pile of endless sentences filled with all kind of technical terms in a usage of language that is definitely not meant for non-philosophers. When in addition science theories are not part of the curriculum (bad enough), and hence a class on these concepts is voluntary for the students, you end up with the only option: to offer an evening course.

Science theories for interested students after regular classes, after an already exhausting eight-hour-day in lectures, seminars, practicals?! Can this attract, let alone excite students? Well, seems I found a way in my new skill course „Students Running Scientific“.

In this advanced skill course running every summer semester science theories are the background of everything. We start with an introduction, a bit of recap of the winter course "Students Going Scientific", and some additional thoughts on the M√ľnchhausen trilemma. This enters already the world of scientific theories, since this thought experiment is about proving the final truth. The trilemma knows three possible ways how to eventually fail - and one will always fail:

  1. infinite regress
  2. circular argument
  3. termination.

To illustrate the infinite regress I use an "infinite painting" (guy holds a painting of a guy holding a painting of a guy...). This helps to understand the fact that there's no final proof in science - only 99.9+ empircal evidence. To depict the circular argument the "Hole in the bucket" by Harry Belafonte (actually, it originates from a German folk song) is really helpful. Henry had it all thought through already, when his lady still believes the problem could be solved. This eventually leads to the termination, which is nicely represented by M.C. Escher's painting "Ascending and Descending".

At the end of this first unit the students get to pick their topic for the next two units from a wide range of different scientific theories, where these theories are introduced and explained in 10-minute presentations. However, there's a catch: everyone will give the presentation of someone else, which is known as "PowerPoint karaoke". The students are challenged to prepare their slides in a way that any other course member would be able to present and thus understand them. This way preparing, giving and hearing presentations on scientific theories is not only great fun, but tremendously helps the students to experience what the audience would be able to catch from their presentation. It is a means to step outside their own head and take a look at their topic from an external perspective. Long texts are definitely not working well, but meaningful images with few words do a pretty good job. Rings a bell? This is a key concept in "presentationzen", which I introduce in the other skill course. And here we learn why presentations with too much text greatly fail.

In unit 3 we have the presentations again, but this time each student gives their own one. Only, every thirty seconds someone in the audience shows a sign with an emotion on it, like "aggressive", "happy", "sad". Presenters have to continue their talk for the next thirty seconds with expressing that emotion. The emotion changes every minute, so there's always thirty seconds inbetween without any imposed emotion. This is a nice exercise to be more expressive in presentations. People really need to start acting. They would never do that (well, most wouldn't) without being "forced" to, but it gains them a great deal of very valuable experience. It can also help to manage spontaneous emotions when giving a talk. I coined this approach "sudden mood swings".

By surviving these two units students have withstand their ordeal by fire: giving a presentation they never saw before on a topic they don't know in an uncontrollable state of mind. Anything thereafter in their career is easier than this. And what should I say: so far all of them were doing great. It certainly is the challenge they face, which takes them to new levels.

For the next unit, each student has to prepare a role in the science communcation chain. They get randomly assigned one of these: Journalist, Newspaper Editor, Press Officer, News Agency Editor, Tabloid Editor, Blogger. The students should have an idea about the specific language their role uses, the aims and goals in communication, the target audience, typical desires, interests, concerns and maybe fears.

The unit starts with an insight into the most relevant concepts of scientific writing. We practice "one sentence, one fact", "implicit wording", and "active language" by optimising short key statements on a selection of science theories. Thereafter, we feed short news pieces on another selection of science theories into certain communication chains. Such a chain can, e.g., start with a press release from a press officer, picked up by a journalist, and finaly edited and published by a newspaper editor. Or a blogger writes about something interesting, this is picked up by a newspaper editor and finally covered by a tabloid editor. After running several news through a large variety of communication chains we read out the different steps and results and discuss what happened - and why. In this unit we learn how news from science can be altered, generalised, and also misused based on the specific culture in different news outlets. It is hands-on experience, and also some fun.

Finally, in the last unit I present the students my own good and bad examples of poster design, in chronological order, to show them how I developed over the years. We intensely discuss the do's and don'ts, the continuous improvement, and further ideas for a really good poster. Then, the students are tasked in several groups to design their own poster based on what they just worked out as best practice. The topics are one last time science theories. Each group can pick the topic they want to present. It is maybe astonishing: they all can do really nice posters (far better than my first tries) in less than three hours.

Students leave the course with a deep understanding of the basic concepts of science theories, a good idea about slides design that takes the audience into account, the confidence that they can master any situation when giving a talk, some basic knowledge in scientific writing and poster design, and a fundamental understanding of the difficulties to get ones key message through a given communication chain. And once more they took a step towards becoming scientists.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Scientists should defend democracy...and aren't we all scientists?

I am not going to make a political statement here. Democracy in general, the principles behind, the benefits and difficulties of having a majority-driven decision process, and the sacrifices we all have to accept to make democracy a working concept, are beyond politics. They are beyond beliefs and opinions, beyond political directions and parties...and ideologies.

However, for democracy to work that way and being able to resist attacks from undemocratic sources (whatever they are and whereever they come from), everyone participating in democratic processes needs be able to make well-informed decisions. It's not what we believe that should lead us in democracy, its the facts. Its not our opinions that should steer us towards a certain decision, its the facts. It's not our political home or party that should motivate us to have our say on a given topic, it's the facts. And it's by far not ideology that should control how we shape the future of our societies - but the facts.

Facts are what we initially perceive as the truth after stripping off all misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Facts is what remains after we took a scientific look at what we first saw, heard, felt, and thus, believed. A scientific look. A look that questions what we perceive, that takes different perspectives and includes views from different angles. A look that challenges our intial, shallow treatment of what we readily understand as the truth. A look that provides enough scepticism to let common sense shine through and help avoiding traps.

This is how scientists work. They have a hypothesis, a certain belief. Then they design experiments to test that hypothesis. Of course, since it is their belief in the first place, the experimental design is biased. You cannot design an experiment without an expected outcome. By means of the experiments scientists generate data. And these they interprete. They ask the data against the background of all the knowledge available so far: what are you telling me? Their interpretation has to stand against everything that is known about the specific topic, and it has to fit in this knowledge to advance it. Or it has to disprove the current knowledge with sufficient evidence, which is - of course - also backed by a body of other knowledge where the findings fit into.

Working scientifically means to not take a first impression as the truth, but to dig deep into any issue, until finding the core of it. This core is the fact to build an opinion that leads to a belief. While scientists are rather good at this exercise in the laboratory or whereever they work, today's world could use quite a bit scientific thinking outside the ivory tower.

Currently, nearly any political debate in any country seems loaded with more non-scientific or even pseudo-scientific reasoning then maybe ever before in history. Statements and claims are just made, with no evidence given, no proof provided, no proper arguments presented.

When the president of the United States tweets that everybody thinks he is doing a great job and that no president before him accomplished as much as he did so far, where's the scientists asking who "everybody" is, whether he refers to the world, the USA, Washington, the White House? Where's the scientists demanding proof in the form of polls, quotes - facts? People might see this as trivial, believing that everybody should know it is nonsense. But a significant fraction of the American people believe this. If it remains unchallenged, it seems sort of proven. Otherwise people who know better would speak out, wouldn't they?!

When in Chemnitz, Germany, thousands of extrem right-wing, antimuslimic, racist and neo-Nazi people together with the AfD party protest against a homicide allegedly committed by refugees, because the victim was - at least partly - German, and the state premier of Saxony, Michael Kretschmer, downplays this as only a harmless commemoration march, where's the scientists pointing out that in 2017 405 persons were murdered, without thousands of people taking to the streets? Where's the scientists challenging Kretschmer in asking what he believes why strangers from all over the republic suddenly feel compelled to mourn about this dead young man? Where's the scientists asking why the extrem right-wing care about a German-Cuban? That person wouldn't be at all Aryan in their perfect world.

We scientists were trained to think in a particular way and the taxpayer mostly covered the costs for this training. We are meant to form the intellectual spearhead of society, finding and presenting the truth about any scientific question. But we should also find, present and ultimatively protect any truth; by providing the facts, collected through scientific thinking. We are the "elite" that the society has to rely on. If we scientists do not reveal the facts behind any political statement, development or initiative, who does?!

Democracy only works if people can make well-informed decisions. We scientists can make sure that the facts become clearly visible. However, it's then on the people to look at the facts, understand them and draw their conclusion. This requires also the ability for scientific thinking. Only when people understand, why a given fact is the truth, and not so what they initially perceived, they can also accept the fact as the basis of their decision making.

Scientific thinking is not a superpower. It is a specific strategy for looking at putative knowledge and find the shortcomings of the first impression of it - in case there are any. It requires training, because people need to get used to it. Besides this it relies mainly on an open mind, a good portion of scepticism and self-awarenss, and common sense. Hence, we need scientific education already at the early ages.

Consequently, everybody can be a scientist - or better - a scientific thinker. And everybody should be. Not only to be able to better understand and rate the facts scientists had hopefully dug out, but to be able by themselves to strip off all misleading information from the "truth" they get presented. To get to the facts, make well-informed decisions, and make democracy work.

Friday, March 02, 2018

All the honour money can‘t buy

At our university we have an award for exceptional engagement in teaching and education. This is good, and shows how RWTH values teaching as an essential task for a university.

Last year I applied for this award, called „RWTH Lecturer“. It is endowed with 7.500 Euro. The title „RWTH Lecturer“ also permits to officially supervise BSc and MSc thesis. And most importantly, it recognises the quality of the teaching the laureates do. It shows appreciation by the university for the job one does as a lecturer. 

The reviewers had the following to say about my work:
  • High to exceptionally high personal engagement and autonomy in teaching with diverse independent teaching concepts.
  • Broad experience and high diversity in teaching, highly motivated in education, exceptional university teaching, with very good evaluation by the students.
  • High publication record.
  • High acquisition of third party funding.
They came to the conclusion that my performance is just not enough for the award. And the reason seems to be that the budget for the award is too limited to recognise me. They had to decide about funding. 

Now, that‘s interesting! I get no recognition for my teaching activities, because of a lack of money?! In reverse, is good education only possible with additional costs?

The „Students going/running scientific“ courses cost only one thing: my free time, since I give them in the evening, clearly after my working day, and I cannot compensate for overtime. I and my family pay for this teaching. No prize money could change that.

The lecture I give on the bioavailability and bioaccumulation of contaminants with the example of chocolate during Christmas time only requires a bag of chocolate sweets. I am happy to pay this privately. Besides this, all it takes is a strong dedication to a teaching that helps the students better anchoring knowledge to memorable examples.

The time I spent to advise students in terms of mobility, going abroad, studying a semester in a foreign country, and the time it costs to coordinate the various mobility programmes, cannot be reimbursed using money. We also couldn't purchase anything that would reduce effort in this regards.

The dedication to quality teaching in lectures, seminars, and practicals, is nothing that one could buy. It also wouldn‘t help to involve a student asssistant from some prize money in whatever tasks, to free up time for improving my teaching material. All I do on a daily basis can be done only be me. We have our resources optimised in this way.

By the way, in terms of improvement, didn‘t some important people say that my teaching is already exceptional? I do not blame the reviewers. They were urged to take a decision. I blame the idea behind attaching funding to a recognition of exceptional teaching.

Telling someone they are doing a good job costs nothing but some kind words. It became so rare in our world. Everything has to be connected to money. But on the contrary, showing appreciation for personal engagement and dedication satisfies and motivates, thus increasing productivity. If you like you can put a price tag on that.

I will apply for the RWTH Lecturer again this year, if allowed. And I might be awarded, if only few candidates are better rated, albeit nothing significant has changed since 2017. It would be only because there‘s funding available. This is the part that really demotivates me. 

Saturday, November 04, 2017

This is a story about success, and what it can do with you

If things go better than expected, plans might have to be changed. In this particular case it was my idea of a relaxed and productive summer time.

As long as the kids are not in school we spend our holidays outside the main summer season. This makes me one of the few lonely workers in the institute during summer break. It is a very relaxed and productive time, since daily disturbances and ad-hoc issues to deal with are reduced to an absolute minimum. The promise is an empty or at least significantly shortened todo list.

In the past years, summer time was always my opportunity to catch up with the fast-paced year and get well prepared for the second half. And so I expected it to be also in 2017. However, it came differently.

End of July, just after having finished our four-weeks master‘s practical, we were contacted by the coordinator of the project Dream Resource, where we are participating for Green Toxicology. Other than expected the project partners already successfully synthesised a set of promising substances. And they planned to disseminate their results at a conference mid October. However, the concept behind this synthesis is unique and very innovative. It should be patented, and the application had to be filed before the idea got shared with the community. What they were lacking, however, was proof of ready biodegradability. Deadline 28 September.

It was our task to do these experiments, and we knew this of course. But we weren't prepared to start the investigation in that very moment or even the next two weeks. We first had to buy the equipment and material. Now, for this scale of a biodegradability study we required purchase of equipment worth several thousands of Euros. And here the difficulties started.

As a university scientist you cannot just go to a retail store or on amazon and get whatever you like. There are certain rules attached to procurement. And in Germany they are especially strict if the amount of money to be spend exceeds EUR 5000. But procurement is not a fast process, it involves asking for competing quotes and ordering via central procurement of the university. These guys have way more to handle than that one application you are handing in. It ends up in a pile with the other applications, which is processed in order of receipt. Also, it doesn't help to label your application "urgent", since literally all of them are.

Now, the only way around this was to find a device for biodegradability studies that came at a price below this threshold. We luckily did so: two Hach BOD direct plus. And we could order them much faster than if going via central procurement. But then the supplier didn't have the devices on stock. So they organised that the next two units coming freshly out of manufacturing will immediately be delivered to them. They then processed our order with highest priority (in business this can be a working concept) and we received them just one day before we had to start the experiment to be able to run it for 28 days, as required by the OECD Guideline 301 Method F; which is one standardised procedure for such investigations.

The results we produced were what we hoped to see. Those novel substances are far better biodegradable than their conventional counterparts. The patent application got filed in time and the project partners could present their work at the conference without omitting central parts that might have otherwise harmed the patent.

So a full success! My summer time, however, was gone. Spent searching for suitable equipment, talking on the phone, comparing prices, writing emails, planning the experiment, and hoping that everything will work out in the one or the other way. It was an emotional rollercoaster, with one day good news, the other day bad news, one day hope and the other day resignation...and then hope again.

But we helped innovation, and since biodegradability of chemicals is an important aspect for the environment, we might have contributed to quality of life - if these substance are eventually substituting the conventional compounds. That's a good feeling, despite the lost summer time.

Friday, October 13, 2017

To be or not to be...a scientist

Studying at a university has a lot to do with acquiring knowledge. In numerous lectures, seminars, practicals, tutorials, excursions, and of courses oral and written exams students fill their brains with all kind of details on their study field and topics of interest. When finished, they know so much about all subjects they were studying that they can rightfully call themselves academics.

But does this make them into experts? And even more important, does this make them into scientists? What many students actually do not learn (so much) during their time at the university - or at least not through academic teaching - is what „science“ means in terms of a concept for doing research, what it means if something is labelled „scientific“, and how they can use not only their acquired knowledge but also their gained skills and experience to become a good scientist.

Already since summer 2008 we are offering an interactive seminar called „Students going scientific“. It features lecture elements with large room for questions and answers, student presentations with time for feedback and discsussion, group works, metaplan parts, computer exercises, career talk with my boss Prof. Hollert. Topics include statistics, experiment planning, the publishing process, presentation design according presentationzen, scientific bias with a focus on priming, literature search and management (with Endnote).

We tackle the key question: What is your vision of science? Every student is invited to develop their own idea of scientifically sound research. The course only provides them different perspectives to aid in this process. Also, students get a chance to decide for themselves, if they actually want to pursue a career in scientific research.

The course is a success since nearly 10 years now. Evaluations are always fantastic, and many students gave the feedback that it really helped them in their studies and career building. But although I spoke with many colleagues from different parts of the world about the course and the necessity to support students to become good scientists, I still hear very rarely that something like this is included in a curriculum. I can only hope that this will change in future.

In 2017 we then started with an advanced course, called "Students running scientific", which will be introduced in a separate blog post.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Green Toxicology for a clean environmental - challenging biosurfactants

Ever heard of rhamnolipids? Well, we didn't so much until we were approached by our colleagues from the Institute for Applied Microbiology (iAMB) at RWTH Aachen University. They were interested in an ecotoxicological assessment of those compounds, which they see as future candidate biosurfactants.

Of course, so were we, since this gave us a very nice opportunity to contribute to ensuring that novel compounds are tested well before they get introduced into the market and hence the aquatic environment by using the concept of Green Toxicology. This is the idea that chemicals should and could be thoroughly investigated by means of a set of different methods regarding their environmental impact already during development.

We tested the acute toxicity to the invertebrate Daphnia magna, and to zebrafish embryos (Danio rerio). Microbial and fungicidal effectiveness was also investigated. Furthermore, we determined a potential mutagenicity by means of the Ames fluctuation assay.

We found that mono-rhamnolipids exhibit toxicity to daphnids and zebrafish embryos comparable to or even lower than chemical surfactants. They showed very low toxicity to the germination of Aspergillus niger spores and the growth of Candida albicans. No mutagenicity was observed using the Ames fluctuation assay. Model simulations confirmed our findings regarding no mutagenic potential, and they also indicated that rhamnolipids have no estrogenicity.

Read the whole story about mono-rhamnolipids as an environmentally friendly alternative to chemical surfactants, from an ecotoxicological point of view. (fulltext only with a subscription to the journal, sorry...)

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Hopefully back for good

It's been a while since my last post. I probably have lost some of my readership. For the success of a blog, trust of the readers that a new article will appear on a regular basis is vital. Intervals between the updates can differ from blog to blog, but for each blog they should stay roughly the same. Otherwise, the blog might look like being abandoned and people rapidly lose interest. My blog started with the intention to publish new content once a week. Hence, from a communication-through-social-media point of view, I failed.

Here, I'll have a look at the reasons, and use this opportunity to give some insights into the work of a university-based environmental scientist. My case is certainly as unique as any other, but the general work load coming from different areas of activity should pertain to the majority of scientists in a similar position. What I describe in the following should therefore be sufficient as a principle example to understand the circumstances under which scientists at universities do their work.
To put it short: It is much more than just education and research.

For people outside my group or even outside scientific research at a university, it might appear rather feasible to write a half-pager every seven days. But when taking a closer look at a normal day at the office, and taking into account all my tasks and duties, it becomes very clear that 24 hours a day are simply not enough. Besides teaching and research, there are a whole lot of other activities that need regular attention and are also of high importance.

But before coming to these: teaching not only means giving lectures, holding seminars, leading practicals. It starts with the preparation of the material, which should always be up-to-date. Concepts and contents might need to be revised and improved based on the evaluation from last time. Moreover, some formats like practicals also need attention afterwards, when study reports or seminar papers have to be reviewed. And teaching also involves answering questions that appeared after a lecture or the like, either by email or personally during office hours.

Research starts with an idea, which first needs to be validated against the current knowledge. For this, scientists have to review the available literature, which means, they have to read loads of publications and text book content. Reading is one of the main requirements for scientific research, since we always should be up-to-date with the current state of background for a certain topic. Next comes, in the vast majority of cases, the proposal writing. Only a small part of scientific research is done completely independent of third-party funding. Most projects are based on a successful research proposal to a funding body, such as EU or national research foundations of ministries. Once the project is granted and the work started, PhD theses require supervision, including review of paper drafts, regular meetings, and also procurement - the latter of which can take up a lot of time. Finally, networking is crucial for successful research. As a consequence, scientists not only sit a significant amount on the phone of in online conference calls, but also travel a lot; and they have many conversations with colleagues all over the world.

This alone - teaching and research - consumes nearly all time in a typical week. But there is much more to do. I am for instance assistant coordinator for Erasmus and student mobility of the Aachen Biology and Biotechnology (ABBt) at RWTH Aachen University (the School of Biology, so to say). This means I am advising students regarding their opportunities to go abroad, and I am organising the Erasmus process for the ABBt. I am also co-leading the institute's IT team, thus regularly dealing with computer and network issues. Further on, I am managing our Students Lab "Fascinating Environment". This is a very successful academia-industry partnership and requires continuous maintenance, care and development. Since I am very interested in science communication I am also in charge of our public relations activities: website, news, press releases. There's a reason why we are still not active on facebook and twitter - limited time. Last not least, I am controlling most of our project finances. Did I forget something? Yes, I am also a work safety commissioner of the institute.

In addition to all those institute-related activities, I have large a number of tasks and duties outside my primary job description. During the last years I became increasingly involved in SETAC Europe, sitting on several committees and working in a couple of interest groups. This means, regular meetings, most of them online, and specific actions to fulfil. In particular the Science and Risk Communication Interest Group (SCIRIC) requires my continuous attention. As the SCIRIC chair a significant amount of time is dedicated to this interest group, especially in the current state, where we still grow and need to develop in a well-functioning group.
While the institute-related activities are primarily happening during the day, all the tasks more dependent on reading and writing I take on in my free time after kids are in bed. The Friday evening is a particularly productive period, since I can work until late at night. Unfortunately, this was originally meant to be the moment when I write for my blog.

Now, the core question that should come to one's mind is whether all this is necessary and worth it? Not an easy one. Teaching and research are not at issue. So how about the "side activities"?

  1. I could quit the mobility thing, but this is among the nicest parts of my job. I am at the university to educate students and help them develop.
  2. The simple reason why my colleague and I lead the IT team is because we are the two persons at the institute best suited for this. Someone has to do it, otherwise the institute as whole would not function properly - which would also impact my work.
  3. Our Students Lab needs managing. In my position, this is my job. We could of course end the partnership, but this would heavily impact our education and research.
  4. With public relations, things are clear: I wouldn't promote outreach through SCIRIC and many other activities if I didn't think it is absolutely worth it. Every single bit of more attention by the different target audiences can help us to improve environmental quality.
  5. Project finances have to be taken care of. This is a typical task for someone in my position. Larger institutes might have specific personnel for this, but we do not. And this would require additional resources, which would need to be acquired through more fundraising also from my side. So either way, the task eats up time.
  6. And the SETAC activities? Yes, this doesn't seem necessary in the first place. But our scientific community relies on personal involvement. We are environmental scientists, because we believe that our research can improve or at least maintain environmental quality and thus quality of life. From this idealistic point of view, being active in SETAC helps our mission and so is worth it.

Before one wonders: No, workload didn't significantly decrease. Rather the opposite. My to-do lists grow bigger and bigger; my high-priority tasks become more and more; deadlines haunt me all the time. But a key principle of time management is to take the time when you need it, instead of waiting to find it. And so I did for this post. Hopefully, it will also bring my blog back to life. Then it was definitely worth it.