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The post was triggered by reading about the concept put forward by AM Shneider proposing that the evolution of science depends on being driven by four main “flavors” of scientists  http://bit.ly/cBQoTV.

The first scientist personality style is very much the “big picture” type, someone able to see a pattern where others had not, seeking new concepts without much concern about clarifying all the details or being afraid to make mistakes. A very useful quality of such scientists is not being prone to giving up easily in face of regular criticism for their out-of-the-box ideas. The second scientist type, usually the closest collaborator of the first, is essential in “translating” the fuzzy-ness of the initial idea into doable experiments, many times spearheading the invention of new techniques that allow carrying out the first experiments needed to test a new hypothesis. The third type of scientist – usually associated with the next stage needed for the development of a new scientific area – is more methodical, going after the thorough testing of the initial hypothesis, then asking more questions and deriving follow-up hypotheses. Finally, the fourth, most methodical, type of scientists obtain a lot of data, many times have encyclopedic knowledge of previous research, like to chronicle discoveries, but rarely produce some themselves.

This scientist type classification might be an oversimplification, but I think serves the higher purpose to highlight that ALL these four types offering different abilities and using different styles have been needed to create scientific knowledge and to move any field forward. I.e., new concepts cannot see the light of the day without having scientists who challenge the status-quo and are persistent at it, neither could we have gotten it “right” unless other scientists did not challenge and find ways to test such early concepts.

I understand Shneider’s attempt at classification was found controversial by some. As a scientist, I like assessing new hypotheses in general and such I found his idea intriguing (apparently I’m not so much bothered about lack of details or potential specific exemptions!), which in turn triggered my thinking on how it may be tested, and I willing to immediately volunteer myself as a first test subject. I was even able to see where I might fit into his classification. Also, I could continue to “assign” types to many of the people I have worked with in various stages in my scientific life, although most of us likely display a combination of some of these four types. I could then extend the same paradigm to characterize the overall “personality” of a lab or an institution in which I had worked, and even was able to gauge how the group personality had evolved as a function of it ratio of scientists representing various types, due to the turn-over characteristic to most academic and scientific labs in general.

A main reason for which I found the article interesting is my increasing interest in understanding what the best ways are to foster professional interactions between people with different thinking/personality styles.  After being part of, and leading several different scientific and other professional teams, I believe the most productive – and the most fun! – are the ones combining various professional expertise, diverse thinking and work styles, such as those possibly described for scientists by Shneider. However, working with a very diverse team is not without challenges, thus it is very important to not only fully understand our own perspective, but gain insight also how we could better mesh it with others to leverage the overall team performance. While classifications may upset some people, I think there are many precedent systems, some widely used to help identify one’s work style, personality, aptitudes, etc. (e.g., Myers Briggs), see a description of some at http://bit.ly/AefdT I myself took a few of these, and while many “findings” were merely confirming my own impression of myself, I found the most useful insights were gained about how to best interact with others with very different style.

I currently suggest that there should be an active effort to share this type of “personal” information that could be used to put together and run highly functional professional teams that take advantage of diversity.

What do you think of such classifications, could you identify yourself with any of the styles? Could be this a way to optimize interactions with very different people?

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Personally I firmly believe that achieving creativity and innovation in science and beyond requires diversity… of thought! If you agree with this statement, let’s see if I can maintain your attention (I know, merely hearing – again – the ‘Diversity’ word might have turned you off!)

From my experience, most of us are not intentionally biased, yet in the same time not immune to the various cultural influences that have shaped our choices, including whom we feel “comfortable” associating with in our personal and professional relationships, or whom we might subconsciously stereotype or avoid. Also from experience, the best way to “cure” this is to have the opportunity to interact directly and learn first-hand from people who are different, then, by engaging in a more sustained and purposeful interactions with those with whom we discover common interests – which in my experience always had a positively innovative effect on what ever problem was at hand. To get started, one can always find at least one common denominator with almost anybody else on this planet: whether it is some of the shared personal or professional experiences or interests, stage in life or career, common acquaintances, hobbies, etc. I can always talk to other parents about our kids, other scientists about their own experiments, or anybody about countries they live(d) in and I might have been fortunate to visit, etc., etc.

Let’s try to define diversity. Statistics related to diversity usually capture data in terms of the “visible” (explicit) differences between people, e.g., gender, race, ethnic background, orientation, so this is what we have to rely on in terms of citing numbers. While these characteristics constitute a strong basis for diversity, i.e., people with different life and educational experiences may be likely to think, be motivated and act differently, I will however submit that these do not tell the whole story. Personality traits also play a major role, e.g., some of us are more creative or more analytical, “big picture” or micromanager type, while other are more directive or sensitive, direct or indirect, etc. So while we might look very different we might think alike, or might look very similar but have a very different perspective and approach to problem solving. These characteristics, I believe very important in shaping interactions and results, remain less acknowledged probably because they are more difficult to measure (assess and capture). However, making a conscious effort to engage people who represent several of these is important in creating a strong innovative team characterized by diversity of thought! My favorite kind of “constructive interference“…

Coming back to statistics, recent numbers provide evidence that while the situation might be slightly improving, gaps continue to exist between the demographics of talent diversity both in the USA and all over the world, and the higher in the hierarchy the less of it. These differences are true both in academia and in the industry (see list of references, incl. articles from “The New York Times” and “The Economist” and several statistics). One of the top reasons identified for the gap is the lack of role models, i.e. having in senior/high-profile positions people with whom various minorities could identify themselves. Seems to me this is a typical “chicken and the egg” type of problem: can’t attract/groom diverse people unless they can have access to role models, and you can’t have role models unless you had groomed or attracted them to join… How could this diversity ball get rolling???

Three main avenues could be explored for finding “cures” for this potential issue:

  1. Official/Institutional initiatives: aimed at designing programs and allocating funds for education and operational support
  2. Grass roots initiatives: creating “spontaneous” support networks, that provide a critical mass
  3. Personal initiatives: “upstart” individuals willing to get started “alone”, learn all the hard lessons and then pass on the learnings to willing newer recruits.

Diversity is a wast subject so I will try to focus on just one of the facets captured by statistics and recently highlighted in a few articles, likely because it is still March the “women’s history month”. Here are some published and personal experiences related to the situation of women in the work place.

  1. In the category of “official” initiatives,The New York Times” writes about the current status of women faculty at Harvard, which had attracted a lot of attention not too long ago due to the remarks of then president Larry Summers who said: “there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude,” which he said are reinforced by “lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.” By making this single comment, Summers helped with the status of women at Harvard more than could ever dreamed of! He single handedly brought so much public scrutiny that upon his resignation, Harvard appointed their first woman president (Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust) and instituted programs aimed at increasing representation of women faculty, specifically in previously seriously underrepresented scientific and engineering departments (for more details see original reference, below). The rest of academia and the private sector are not doing much better, especially in terms of women representation at the higher levels (see statistics for USA and Europe). In the USA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is prohibiting employment discrimination, however this is not universally applicable (see link for details). European countries have similar programs and have been passing additional related laws that aim at the next level of employment equity, including mandating that 40% of the corporate board membership be female. An article recently published in “The Economist” points out these measures would address the symptom but not the cause: not enough professional women to choose from for leadership positions! The article emphasizes that the best way to ensure an increase in the number of women on boards is to take steps to enable access of more women to the right experiences down on the corporate ladder. As with everything else, the human “talent pipeline” needs to be strong to generate a great output. My personal view on such initiatives is the while very useful to “keep us honest” and provide financial incentives and support, they are many times not very popular, especially with those who can not identify with the need and or the potential bias.
  2. The “grass roots” networks are by contrast those people choose to create and support. A truly great support system is created by people who are “like” and “unlike”, whether in terms of personal or professional characteristics (real diversity!) but are willing to understand, learn to appreciate differences and help widely. A person “like” me is able to share with me similar experiences, their “pain” and their tried strategies and successful solutions. “Unlike” people and professionals can help me understand the others’ perspectives and approaches. These represent a great opportunity for all of us to prove we are not biased. Such support networks can provide access to information via various sources (the best is directly from willing mentors!!) but also connect individuals with other education and work opportunities, including identification of collaborators. Also from personal experiences, the best mentors were those whom I had personally identified and approached for help, not the ones who have been “designated” to me via official programs.  In an effort to create support opportunities, I have startedMy Lab Your Lab” , a global online scientist professional community whose essential mission is to enable member-driven support. We encourage our members to reach out to seek and offer assistance from and to all.
  3. In the personal support category, I include individuals who have the courage to join work teams which are constituted from essentially different people to learn how to “survive” and actually thrive among them – diversity goes both ways! These individuals can become agents of change and the heart of the talent diversity snowball that allows it to form and get bigger… I think this works best when they voluntarily assume that role, because it is not an easy thing to do, requiring courage, extra time and effort, potentially at the expense of other professional goals. However, rewards could be great both for the person and the work place that facilitates such efforts. This is a very important point: the work environment needs to be supportive. No matter how accomplished and willing to help, such individual efforts will lead nowhere, just as the soil needs to be prepared, or else even the most exceptional seed will not survive.

One of my proudest contribution to diversity is related to my experience as a female and “biomedical” (medicine) faculty member joining a graduate program at the Georgia Institute of Technology: 100% male and 100% engineering. I think it helped that I am generally “gender blind” myself in work situations and I had been already operating for several years in another male dominated field, the world of academic cardiology. Yet, the first thing I thought of (because it was so obvious!!) and articulated to the people who had hired me was: “Next I will help you recruit some great female faculty”. Indeed they were on board with it, and together we proceeded to attract and hire two more women. Within a couple of years we became the “go to” place for female graduate biomedical engineering candidates, to the point where by the time I moved several years later, the student graduating class was 100 % (!) female. When asked why they chose Georgia Tech over other potentially more established programs, our graduate female students said that seeing several female faculty in the program helped them envision the possibility of academic success and increased their confidence that they would be able to relate if needed. Our ‘girls’ did not turn out to actually request or need much gender-specific help from us, the mere existence of female faculty had worked! My take home lesson was that it was worth taking the risk to be the first “one of a kind,” and getting involved in supporting efforts to attract and build a basis for more diversity which in turn engendered positive change and innovation.

So, several ways we can all get this ball rolling!

References:
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission http://www.eeoc.gov/employers/index.cfm
Lewin, T: “Women Making Gains on Faculty at Harvard”, The New Your times, March 13, 2010 http://nyti.ms/9QZyyX
Schumpeter: “Skirting the issue: Imposing quotas for women in boardrooms tackles a symptom of discrimination, not the cause” The Economist, March 11,m 2010 http://bit.ly/9rs8VA
EUR (2009) She figures 2009: Statistics and Indicators on Gender Equality in Science http://bit.ly/4QWnk5. EUR 23856 EN EUR 23856 EN (160 p.)
Leadley J (2009) Women in US academic medicine: Statistics and Benchmarking Report 2008-2009 http://bit.ly/8mB3e6. (34 p.)
AWIS (The Association of Women in Science) web page with links to various data sets http://bit.ly/97O2nF
“The Scientist” salary survey by gender and ethnicity http://bit.ly/d81RKP

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Great quality life sciences fuel medical innovation, but great science usually requires “happy scientists”. Where are they now, and what can we learn about that makes them happy? Are they different from other people?

From the beginning I need to say that I can’t claim to have the definitive answer to this question. However the subject has been interesting to me as an educator and manager of scientists, and here are some personal comments triggered by looking at the 2009 surveys published by ‘The Scientist’, a magazine specializing in the life sciences, as well as other independent studies I had found on the overall topic of work and personal happiness. In case you can’t tell, these contain information that pertains to the factors that make scientists (and other working people) happy…

In their 2009 annual survey of “Best places to work” in academia, they listed the ‘top ranked 40 places’ in US and the ‘top 10 ranked internationally’ (you can see their surveys and methodology here). As someone with a scientific background would instinctively do, as soon as I saw data, several potential explanations immediately came to my mind (as well as more questions, that generated hypotheses I think would be nice to test…) But let me start with the data collected and made widely available thanks to ‘The Scientist.’

What makes an institution a great place to do science?
Venture some guesses? I will make the assumption that overall the responders’ sense of satisfaction for their place of work is related to its listed strengths. Those most often cited by all top ranked 40 US academic institutions were: ‘Research resources’ and ‘Infrastructure and environment’ (17 times each), also ‘Job satisfaction’ (11 times) and ‘Teaching and mentoring’ (9 times).

At my very first inspection, as one would expect, what caught my eye were places I am very familiar with (two of my previous home institutions). More specifically, Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia made the list within the top 5 (at #5), while Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston, MA came in at #39. The strengths listed for Emory were ‘Peers’ and ‘Job Satisfaction’, while for Brigham and Women’s these were ‘Management and Policies’ and ‘Infrastructure and Environment’.

Interestingly (I think) the ‘Pay’ category is cited as a strength only for 10 out of the top 40 institutions, and only once in the top five (University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, OK). Furthermore, the specific example that struck me when looking at the other survey about salary levels, was the observation that the average pay in the state of Georgia is lower compared to other US states, with the sole exception of the state of Ohio. Of note, another Georgia institution, the Medical College of Georgia, Augusta, GA also made the top 40 list in 2009, at #14. Again, I’m making the assumption that the “happy customers” of the first survey were the same with those paid less than the average US academic pay (a ‘side thought’ that came to mind was: ‘they might become less happy after seeing this US salary survey!’). Thus, based both on overall weight and the specific case, the pay per se did not seem to dampen scientists’ enthusiasm (at least not for these two GA work places!) One factor that was important was “job satisfaction”, which might be harder to define, yet there is information available on what motivates people and makes them feel they had a “great work day” (including later in this post).

Also, worth noting are the specific reasons for which some institutions are top and/or climbed really fast in the ranking. The institution ranked as #1 in the US, is Princeton, very small with only 203 full-time life scientists, which helps foster – indeed forces! – interdisciplinary collaborations/relationships. Max Planck’s Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Germany which ranked as the top institution internationally, also encourages strong cross-field collaborations and social interactions between scientists, strongly supported by their unusually democratic leadership system. Interestingly a common theme that lifted the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in the US ranking from 30th to the #4 place and brought the University of Groningen (in the Netherlands) directly at #4 in the ‘top 10’ world-wide, was their focus on recruiting and supporting young talent.

Thus, the 2009 survey results seem to be consistent with the fact that scientists are happiest when they are able to do the best possible science. This requires not only passion, curiosity, resilience, dedication, hard work, from the researchers themselves, but also a supportive environment, specifically enabling interdisciplinary collaborations through appropriate institutional policies and infrastructure. Hopefully administrators, regulators, and others with the power to influence the enviroment (of universities and other science-driven institutions) are paying attention to this type of feedback.

Do these findings surprise you in general/ do you work in any of these places? Any additional insights?

What makes people happy with their work in general?
This refers to the ‘job satisfaction’ definition, but also to the question whether things that make scientists happy are any different from those important to other professions?

For instance, the results of these scientists’ surveys seem to challenge the conclusion that ultimately “work IS about money”, as Susan M. Heathfield had drawn from her own research about what motivates people at About.com Guide, yet they likely do not surprise many of us. We all know many great (even if not famous) scientists who think more about giving through their work, rather than obtaining something from it, unless one would say they obtain the satisfaction of being able to figure out things that will ultimately “save the world”? Ms. Heathfiled does indicate – seemingly in an effort to recognize that some people have different motivation that: ’Some people work for love; others work for personal fulfillment. Others like to accomplish goals and feel as if they are contributing to something larger than themselves, something important. Some people have personal missions they accomplish through meaningful work. Others truly love what they do or the clients they serve. Some like the camaraderie and interaction with customers and coworkers. Other people like to fill their time with activity. Some workers like change, challenge, and diverse problems to solve.” Nice summary of why most scientists do their work, don’t you think?

An older theory known as the “Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory”(or the “two factor theory,”) suggests that job satisfaction and dissatisfaction are determined by different factors. This already indicated that the salary per se is not a positive motivator, but rather a “hygiene” factor.

  1. Factors that are work ‘motivators’ include challenging work, recognition, responsibility which give positive satisfaction, which arise from intrinsic conditions of the job itself, such as recognition, achievement, or personal growth.
  2. The work ‘hygiene factors’ which Herzberg suggested do not trigger positive satisfaction, are related to the work environment (e.g., company policies, supervisory practices, or wages/salary), and not necessarily related to the work itself, include: status, job security, salary and fringe benefits. However their absence leads to dissatisfaction, hence the name “hygiene” (its absence is hazardous).

What defines a ‘great work day’?
A Harvard Business Review study published in the latest issue (Amabile, T. M., Kramer, S. J “What really motivates workers”, HBR Jan-Feb 2010) concluded that the biggest factors in defining a workday as great was the perception of “making progress” and collaborations.

The authors underline the important role of the manager in making workers feel they had a great day. In the scientific slang, in an academic, as well as biotech/pharma laboratory, this personal might be refered to as the Principal Investigator (PI).

What a leader/manager should do:

  • Clarify goals
  • Use glitches as learning moments
  • Cultivate a culture of helpfulness, including rolling up own sleeves to pitch in
  • Recognize real progress (otherwise praise loses value)

The top three things a manager should avoid doing:

  • Changing goals autocratically
  • Being indecisive
  • Holding up resources

What makes people happy: common denominators and “diversity” in happiness

This is not off the topic, but it’s rather considering the whole person’s “happiness” as a combination of personal and professional aspirations.

In studying how personal/individual factors contribute to the overall human feeling of happiness, another report revealed that in fact both women and men share the two main sources of happiness: achieving professional/financial aspirations and… being married! (Plagnol and Easterlin, the Journal of Happiness Studies). These authors also discovered an inter-relationship between gender and age and happiness. Their conclusion was that… “Women end up less happy than men” because they feel less able to achieve their life goals. Women begin life happier than men but the difference wears off and by 48 yo, men are in average happier that women. Here are some age milestones that stood out from the gender comparison:
o 41: Age at which men’s financial satisfaction exceeds women’s financial satisfaction
o 48: Age at which men’s overall happiness exceeds women’s overall happiness
o 64: Age at which men’s satisfaction with family life exceeds women’s satisfaction

Harvard experts cited by Physics.org suggest the following rounded approach is most likely to create overall (lifelong) happiness:

  • Eat thoughtfully, exercise often, have daily ‘quiet’ time,
  • raise your children well, teach them to be kind!),
  • stash a few bucks away,
  • and ‘stop thinking it’s all about you! ‘ Giving money away creates lasting happiness compared to spending it on oneself which only creates a ‘buzz’, the kind of happiness that wears off quickly

What makes working couples happy?
Sharing responsibilities for paid (professional) and unpaid (house chores) work apparently works well in making working couples happier and more productive. For more insights see “Power couples”, The Scientist 2010, Volume 24 (1): 55.

What makes YOU happy?

 

References:
• ‘Best Places to Work 2009: Academia’, The Scientist Volume 23 (11) Page 43, 2009-11-01
• Heathfield, Susan M. ‘What motivates people’, About.com http://humanresources.about.com/od/rewardrecognition/a/needs_work.htm
• The ‘two factor theory’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motivator-Hygiene_theory
• Plagnol, Anke C. and Richard A. Easterlin, “Aspirations, Attainments, and Satisfaction: Life Cycle Differences Between American Women and Men.” 2008, Journal of Happiness Studies, http://www.springerlink.com/content/4j11681jx415315k/
• Wiens Carl, ‘Power couples’, The Scientist 2010, Volume 1: 55, 2010-01-01

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eclipse and twitter

Thinking Twitter? Bird perching on the statue of late Chairman Mao Zedong is silhouetted against a partial solar eclipse in Wuhan, Hubei province July 22, 2009. Reuters

I know… I used to be skeptical about using Twitter too. “Who has the time?” right? Also, I did not think it would be interesting to “tweet” about myself; however, I finally pulled myself from my inertia and gave it a try. I even succeed to beat Oprah to joining Twitter by almost… a day! I am now tweeting for My Lab Your Lab and for Amplinovia.

I do not yet feel pressed to tweet all the time. I tweet for two main reasons:

  • to communicate news and thoughts about science, scientists and about innovation in general, which I feel might be of interest to others. For me, tweeting is an interesting mental exercise. Twitter forces users to distill whatever they want to say in 140 characters or less (including spaces and included URLs). Many times I find it to be a challenge for me to write a message that it is both clear and interesting; however, the direct style of communication is right down my alley and I had already used Twitter as a paradigm of the times to challenge speakers on an innovation panel I recently organized for BIO to convey their main message in one minute or less (hey, I was much more “generous” with words than Twitter! 😉
  • to connect with like-minded people. In spite of its virtual nature, I can attest that Twitter brings together diverse people in real life. For instance, I might have never met Amira, an undergraduate student from U of MD, if it wasn’t for Twitter. Due to our Twitter connection, Amira became a member of My Lab Your Lab, our growing online scientific community, and later she asked me to become a mentor to help with her upcoming major career decisions.

I also use Twitter to gather knowledge and information. I follow people and news outfits that have something relevant to say. I try to encourage yet hesitant people by telling them that one can actually filter the staggering amount of intersecting chatter in the… Twittosphere (?). I would list as main reasons for which I recommend reading others tweets the following:

  • Twitter news are… well up-to-date! Twitter spreads news fast, these can originate either from a phone (e.g., as sms) or from a computer.  Compared to most websites that usually require some techno-savvy people to update content, Twitter updates in real time, as demonstrated by the news immediately spread during the recent events in Iran. I understand that a lot of professional  journalists use it now to get their leads for information.
  • Twitter is also “democratizing” the news and breaking down “walls” and “boxes” – i.e., anybody from anywhere can create or spread the news, no journalistic credentials required! Of course, access to technology (cell phone or computer) is needed… The Twitter crowd is innovating the way we create and  gather our news.
  • Twitter expresses the mood and interests of its global community =“crowd-feeling”? For those seeking patterns and global trends, the column that appears on the right of the Twitter’s homepage shows what the top topics people communicate about at any given time are. Most times I find that the topics are not what I would consider interesting… I think the main problem is that many people who might have something enlightening or interesting to say are not on Twitter yet (!) For instance, at the 2009 Experimental Biology  meeting, attracting 14,000 highly educated and smart registrants, it was pretty shocking to discovera as result of a poll that I was the only attendee using Twitter at a session specifically dedicated to employing Internet 2.0 tools to connect science, health, and the public… As shown by a recent articlein the “Journal of Happiness Studies” (yes, there is a legitimate journal that uses scientific methods to analyze and measure moods in a variety of contexts) the global online written expressions such as those from blogs and on Twitter (in fact a form of “microblogging”) can now be mined and analyzed. I can think of many public health, educational, and business reasons for which this exercise might be helpful.
  • Twitter allows the wide sharing of personal wisdom, knowledge and wit. I think great Twitterers (?) are philosophers and poets of current times. Is an educational collection of the best crafted, deepest, most inspirational messages on Twitter available yet?

In case you are intrigued, Twitter has put on line a very simple to follow “101 course” on how to use it for a variety of “serious” reasons, complete with business case studies. Btw, I have no conflicts of interest… Hey, Tweet me @amplinovia let me know what you think!

P.S. If all this talk about relevant and timely messages did not convince you to try Twitter yet, you might want to check if you favorite places now accept “to go orders” placed on Twitter…

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Recently I was fortunate to hear Professor Leon Lederman, Physics Nobel Prize Laureate 1988, speak and to continue with him the conversation regarding understanding science. He is not only brilliant but also very funny. His main message was that nature is likely very simple once we finally understand it. He also emphasized the need to be able to explain science to a large audience in order to engage others.

His opinion completely resonated with my own central belief that a few fundamental principles could explain – and rule – nature in her many representations. Maybe this is because I started my own scientific education journey with Physics then went on into biology and medicine, or maybe it is why I pursued my education in that order (mentioned in an earlier post on our educational journey). In fact, Professor Lederman is on a crusade to re-haul high-school science education. He believes the sequence in which this is currently taught in the USA is wrong and that students should be first introduced to Physics, then go on to study Chemistry, and finally Biology (the exact sequence I pursued myself!) He argues that we should be building up the knowledge of our world from understanding the few elemental particles to studying the list of chemical elements, and then go on to studying the much more complex collection of biological systems. As a simple yet brilliant demonstration that something simple could the basis of something much more profound, Professor Lederman offered the following thought: “consider for instance a simple problem such as: Johnny drives at 60 mph from point A to point B which is 360 miles away. How long will it take him to get there? When solving this problem, you are basically… predicting the future!” (If only Wall Street would be better at that…)


Agh, I finally felt understood! To me, physics is all about fundamentally simple building blocks, about learning a few fundamental principles (like E=mc2) and using them to deduct anything else needed and build up from there. As I might have mentioned somewhere else, the perceived simplicity and lack of expectations to memorize things were the very reasons due to which I had decided to begin my scientific training to become a biomedical researcher with Physics. Later, during my years among biologists and physicians (yes, I did not mean physicists), in the process of analyzing puzzles presented by biological systems I often raised eyebrows when expressing my fundamental belief: “It just cannot be so complicated. If it were… we would be broken most of the time. It must be simple, we just don’t get it!” If starting with this premise, one makes a conscientious effort to ask the “simplest” fundamental question that might explain the observation (allowing the quickest way to confirm of infirm the hypothesis) and then design the simplest experiment to test it.

And, I think Physics is all about unifying theories and the “big picture!” On the other hand, biology’s building blocks are already rather complicated and display great apparent variability, and it only gets harder from there! Biology delves into the details and variability of things, while physics constantly seeks the unifying themes. A quick analogy of the difference between physics and biology can be gleaned from the quintessential tools used by these two scientific disciplines: telescopes and microscopes. The first can help one see galaxies millions of times bigger than us and the world we came to know, all captured in one little circle, and they all look basically very similar, some sort of “speckle”… The other type of tool, reveals the extraordinary intricacy and variability of worlds millions of times smaller than us and the microscope calls for … two (!) oculars to do it.

The same quest for simplicity should guide our efforts to solve any outstanding problems: great solutions, as well as great innovations, are really simple. These rely on ideas that are easy to understand, therefore easy to design and build, test, implement, and easy to “sell!” If you still have doubts about this, think of the proverbial “30 seconds elevator speech” or consider the continuously rising popularity of Tweeter (if can you say it in 140 characters, we’ll read it and might be persuaed to became your followers!). One should be able to explain the most brilliant ideas in a few simple sentences. This is the surest way to win support, whether it is in terms of human following, gaining resources, or the funding needed to develop it. When the benefits of the innovation are obvious, the product literally sells itself.

While travelling I was pondering the concept of the beauty of simple innovations, so I was more tuned into observing them around me. I don’t know about you, but I used to cringe every time I got into the shower of a hotel room knowing that in spite of my best efforts the curtain will be sticking to my wet body. I knew they did not change the shower curtain too frequently, and I dreaded the almost certain occurrence. However, lately, this daily stress has completely disappeared. Thank you, inventor of the… curved shower curtain rod, whoever you are, you deserve all the royalties for this simple innovation that finally allows me to start my days completely refreshed.

Simple is beautiful!

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Our educational journeys, when and where (in its most general sense) did we start them and where through these have taken us, have a lot to do with “where we are coming from” (i.e., our current perspective and approach to things). Multiple personal and cultural anthropological factors influence our formation as individuals. To keep on my previous post’s train of thought, I will refer specifically to issue regarding the exam type choices.

My own early educational experiences (I was initially trained as a physicist) did not include multiple choice questions exams. Quite frankly, it was probably the main factor that allowed me to survive the rather arduous process to emerge with scientific credentials. I became familiar with the multiple choice exams afterward during my North American education in the life sciences and medicine. As I concentrated on unraveling the intricacies of the human body I thought  the years I had spent resolving differential equations modeling inanimate matter behavior might have been a huge waste. Yet, I finally realized the real value of a training gained through examinations of abilities based on a combination of writing essay, solving new problems, and oral (“free style”) exams, requiring us to understand fundamental principles and to use them to continuously deduct or construct solutions on the spot. These had armed us with a system for thinking through any kind of problem. We also had to develop the ability to clearly (and efficiently) explain in words our thinking process and interact live with our examiners, which further encourages (forces?) cultivation of our creative side. I now credit my initial training for the ease of doing well later on my multiple choice tests. On the other hand, I am pretty convinced that, personally, I would have had trouble passing as successfully through a reversed sequence of exam styles.

One instance when the realization of the likely impact of differences in educational and selection systems finally struck home not too long ago. While attending a professional session aimed at assessing personality profiles, I turned out to be the only “creative” out of a group of 20+ scientifically trained people. The most surprising to me was my colleagues’ reaction: “How can you possibly be creative? You are a scientist!” (?!?) Furthermore, corporate HR guidelines recommend that people with my profile work in the sales or marketing divisions rather than in R&D. One cannot but wonder: are the current education and selection systems working to most efficiently filter out all the creatives from the scientific and technical fields?!? Likely! Furthermore, is the common work environment placing people into boxes, force fitting or even rejecting the ones who are different or refuse to fill predefined boxes? Would this be expected to have an impact on our overall ability to innovate? I would love to hear other opinions…

My hypothesis, that not only the field of education but also the place of education plays an important role in our predisposition to innovation, has been confirmed by many conversations with other foreign-trained individuals. Besides the many obvious ethnical differences that influence our formation in general, many of the foreign-trained individuals are the product of different educational systems where the multiple choice selection does not reign supreme, thus were not filtered out tightly by its use. Other differences are likely to put their mark. For instance, individuals might have also been trained to think more broadly.

Times also put their mark on the issue. The younger generations, currently using mostly keyboards to communicate, are likely to erode the domination of either side, allowing an increased use of both sides of our brains: the end of the lopsided – or maybe lobe-sided – “left brain-right hand” era”? We all, regardless of age, are increasingly using new learning, communication, and cooperation channels, a phenomenon which I think is majorly responsible for the definite surge in the interest toward understanding global issues and wide open cooperation. Take for instance the “crowd-sourcing” phenomenon, which allows a wide variety of people to jump at the chance to solve problems, including some that normally would not be presented to them, because they do not have the credentials normally qualifying them as “specialists”. Due to the broad availability of knowledge on the Internet, what one needs to be able to do is not to remember information, but be able to use it in a constructive way. Technically speaking, the only relevant product of the educational system should be developing reasoning skills and knowledge management skills, finally releasing us from our current hang-up on possessing factual domain knowledge, and the definition of ability based on narrowly classified specialties or specific degrees. We could then step into the brave new era of creative problem solving.

 

Addendum. As I was writing this entry, the following joke was landing into my e-mail box… (seemed to hit too close to let it drop).

“During a physics lecture to the pre-med class, the professor was explaining a particularly complicated concept. A student interrupted him:

‘Why do we have to learn this physics stuff?’

The professor responded: ‘To save lives!’ and he continued his lecture.

After just a few moments the student interrupted again. ‘So how does physics save lives?’

The professor intently stared at the student. After a long silence, he said: ‘Physics saves lives because it prevents certain people from getting into the medical school.'”

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For no apparent reason, I recently remembered an odd thing from my childhood. One of my earliest memories is looking down in disbelief at my left hand, and wondering why everybody seemed to think that it was not as good as my right hand… I could not write yet, but I already knew that I was going to have to use my right hand for that purpose as well. There was no negotiation about it, I had been disciplined that the right hand was the only hand to eat with, to write with, to shake other right hands with. Even so, I kept coming back to my original question: why did nobody want to give my left hand a chance, why was everybody discriminating against it? I can remember the moment when I decided I that I would become a secret supporter of my left hand: I would comfort it when all the important assignments went to my right hand and then I would give it a chance to try them when nobody else was around. As I grew older, I realized that in several languages the word “right” was used to not only designate one of the sides, but to specifically indicate the correct or positive side, while the word “left” in many languages suggests something inapt, unlucky, even designates a strongly negative trait. For instance the Italians use “sinistra” (for left) from the Latin sinistr-, or sinister, unlucky, inauspicious.  How did it get to this point, but more importantly how does this predetermined, negative view of one of the two sides consciously or subconsciously affect the way we place judgments when it comes to anything that can be specifically related to one of the sides: of our body (our hand, our brain) or our thinking and actions? Is there a wrong way to think or do things? Why “take sides” anyway?

My secret persistent support for my left hand proved to be extremely useful to me several years later. My right hand had to be immobilized for a few months in a cast from its finger tips to the shoulder, after a basketball accident during my high school freshman year. I had to take a bunch of exams during that time, none of them a multiple choice test… My somewhat prepared left hand, emerged from its previous anonymity to legitimately take over the task of writing my exam essays, allowing me to not miss a beat. Even later, I learned that the left side of our body is controlled by the right side of our brain, which also happens to the center of our creativity, the one with the capacity to discern patterns, and make new connections. This further made me wonder: is the widely supported predominance of the right hand leading to a supremacy of the left brain thinking patterns?

Why am I writing about this? The constructive interference of my old memory, which couples my willingness to make use of my left hand (widely considered substandard) to write exam essays (right brain?), is now finally starting to make sense to me… Moving later in my educational journey to North America, I had briefly considered now and again the potential implications of the over-reliance of this educational system on the multiple choice type tests. I am not referring to the problems created by poorly written questions (e.g., ambiguous, or too obvious). I am questioning the reign of the principle itself: the correct solution has to come from a pre-set collection of choices, all provided for the picking. Do the multiple choice tests adequately measure the right brain creative problem solving ability? Maybe if you had forgotten or maybe never learned the correct answer, and you had to figure it out? Could be, but as many readily available materials, some displayed by websites, will eagerly teach you, the intellectual effort of finding the correct answer should focus on finding a fault in the question or the potential answer formulation, rather than on trying to find the answer based on making logical connections with the learned material or attempting to build a solution from scratch. One is advised to analyze the mismatch of the “superficial” features, e.g., does the answer match the grammatical construction of the question, or to consider whether some answer is just a decoy based on being overly restrictive or too different (or maybe appears to use jargon!!!) Yet another suggested technique is to basically game the system, either by literally using game theory reasoning (Ian Ayres writes: “Game theory is so powerful it can help you figure out the correct answer without even knowing what the question is.”) or to mindlessly select random answers which might just turn out to be right one and will bring you points. On other tests there is also some gain for leaving all blank answers or sometimes no penalty for giving the wrong answer…

What are the advantages and disadvantages of the “Multiple choice” examination system? The related entry from Wikipedia indicates that the main advantage compared to soliciting written answers is “a more comprehensive evaluation of the candidate’s extent of knowledge” (in the same amount of time).  I.e., the multiple choice test is convenient to administer and grade, and say some students easy to take. On the flip side, the consensus seems to be that the main disadvantages are losing some credits for partial answers or gaining some credit for random guesses. Personally I think that operating based on these principles and selecting year after year students mostly based on this type of test creates an enormous loss of an entirely different order of magnitude: the test does not teach the students to consider the possibility that… there just might be another/new, potentially better solution! Creativity and the creative don’t stand a chance! I am referring to people who might be able to “build” the correct answer, whether it might be the one known to the examiners as being the correct one or maybe a completely new answer. These people are weeded out of the system early or retrained to think in terms of memorizing pre-set answers, to find fault in the superficial formulation of the question or the answer, or simply to become champions at gaming the system. Along the way we lose the ability to assess and stimulate a lot of qualities that include organizing, processing, and articulating information and thoughts, and the ability to think outside of the box (literally, outside of those A, B, C, D choices). This post is getting too long, so I plan to come back with some considerations of the interplay between education/selection systems, fields of training, geography and potential generational differences.

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