When School is just a Memory: Science after Graduation

Happy graduation! Whether you graduated last week or twenty years ago, the experience is roughly the same. As soon as you arrive on the far side of the stage, empty diploma folder under your arm, hand still sticky from the Dean’s sweaty handshake, the reality of post-academic life sets in. Perhaps grad school is on the horizon for some and others might be busy prepping for med school. For some of us, though, our years of formal education end after four and we run off to rejoice in our newfound freedom. No more exams, group projects, late nights writing papers, disapproving professors, supervisors and mentors – done with that life forever! We didn’t even bother with the GRE, MCAT, LSAT or a single “Why [insert school]” essay. Now it’s off to enjoy the Real World, which will definitely be better than college.

I’ve found, in my one year of post-college life, that sometimes you can miss academic life. You’ll occasionally look back and think, “I didn’t know how good I had it.” In particular, those of us with a pure love of learning can find ourselves unsatisfied with our prospective learning opportunities or lack thereof. We spent college soaking up mountains of knowledge–and not just from textbooks. University life gives you access to free talks from eminent thought leaders, unrestricted access to myriad scientific journals, and plenty of people around who are eager to argue about that day’s lecture in Cell Biology or Neuroscience. After college, it’s tough to fill that void.

I work at Promega (obviously), a biotech company, so I still have access to journals and there are plenty of brilliant scientists around me. However, I’m still looking for more opportunities to learn and grow. I may be out of school, but the love of science never goes away. Here are a few of my tips for everyone receiving their hard-earned science degree this spring.

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Catalyzing Solutions with Synthetic Biology

Computer-generated model of a virus.

The keynote speaker for this year’s International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI), Andrew Hessle, describes himself as a catalyst for big projects and ideas (1). In biology, catalysts are enzymes that alter the microenvironment and lower the energy of activation so that a chemical reaction that would proceed anyway happens at a much faster rate—making a reaction actually useful to the biological system in which it occurs.

In practical terms, Andrew Hessel is the person who helps us over our inertia. Instead of waiting for someone else, he sees a problem, gathers an interested group of people with diverse skills and perspectives, creates a microenvironment for these people to interact, and runs with them straight toward the problem. Boom. Reaction started.

One of the problems he has set his mind toward is that of cancer drug development. Continue reading

Reflections of a Thankful Former Teacher

Today is the start of Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States, punctuated tomorrow by National Thank a Teacher Day. I used to be on the receiving end of the various expressions of gratitude bestowed upon our educators: platters of brownies or cookies from the Board of Education, free meals from restaurants, discounts at retail stores and, if you were really lucky, maybe a student or two (likely initiated by their parents) would bring a gift card or note.

I would also reflect on the teachers that I was personally thankful for: my elementary teachers through graduate school professors (I still remember most of them by name and, with few exceptions, I received what I needed from all of them to learn and grow), my colleagues (who provided mentorship, support and comradery to me and so much more to their students) and my parents (who taught my earliest and most important lessons).

But now I find myself looking at this annual celebration of teachers from the other side—it has been two years since I became a science writer after nearly a decade of teaching high school science. The transition has completely changed my life in ways I could not have imagined and has also impacted the way I think about educators.

The main impetus for this career change was burnout. I had spent countless early mornings, late nights and weekends grading, planning lessons, completing professional development requirements and simply worrying about what challenges I would face the next morning, week or class period. The pressures of each school year would crescendo to a near breaking point every May, and then be swiftly wiped away by the arrival of summer break.

This cycle seemed inevitable, but I had been conditioned by the cultural narrative about teachers to consider it a tolerable tradeoff to the enviable benefits of teaching: holidays and summers “off”, ending the workday before 4 (even I groaned while typing that), great (read: better than average American, worse than someone with similar level of education and experience) benefits & retirement.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t sustainable for me. Moreover, legislative changes and budget cuts exacerbated the ever-present stress to new levels during my last few years as an educator. The strain was taking a toll on my mental health and my ability to be present with family and friends, especially my children.

In my new position, I have been met with intellectual challenges equal to those I encountered as a teacher but face a manageable amount of stress and few threats to work-life balance. Ending my teaching career was probably one of the best decisions I have ever made for my personal well-being. But despite this newfound joie de vivre, I am left with a feeling of guilt that resurfaces whenever issues I used to be so connected with make their way to the national spotlight.

Two of these have been in the news a lot this year—repercussions from budget cuts to education and gun violence in schools. I shouldered the burden of helping my students’ process school shootings and personally dealing with the reality that I could be in the middle of such a tragedy. Similar to the recent wave of teacher walkouts, budget measures that targeted educators brought me to the state capitol in protest.

Yet, I don’t have to face these issues with the sense of urgency I used to. My guilt is rooted in the fact that being a good teacher required selflessness and I chose to be selfish and leave because I couldn’t meet that expectation. It is perhaps because of this nagging feeling that I now feel a gratitude toward teachers that I didn’t before. I am still thankful to all the teachers in my past, but now my appreciation also extends to those that are and will become the future of education.

This year for Teacher Appreciation Week I want to express special gratitude for all of the teachers who feel the same pressures I did and are able to persist. I admire those of you already in the classroom and know you are putting your students’ needs ahead of your own. I’m grateful for all of you who are studying to become teachers, looking past all of the reasons you shouldn’t go into education and focusing instead on the impact you’ll have on future generations.

At a time when it is increasingly difficult to be optimistic about the future, knowing that there are still teachers willing to fight for themselves and their students gives me all the hope I need. Thank you teachers, this week and every week, for all you do!

Inspiring the Next Generation of Scientists

A Promega scientist works with a girl scout.

Local girls scouts worked with scientists at Promega to learn how a cell culture facility operates.

My twin daughters are finishing up their 10th-grade year next month, finding themselves smack in the middle of their high school experience, and discussions of classes, colleges and careers are increasing in frequency in my household. (It’s cliché, but I have to say it… Where does the time go?) As the girls begin to ponder their future, my husband and I are encouraging them to gain real-life insight from adults who work in fields they’re curious about. It’s never too early to get a first-hand perspective.

One of my girls has known from a pretty young age that she wants to pursue something in STEM, and likely the “S” in the acronym. Her schedule happened to be open the night a few months ago that one of my Promega colleagues, Senior R&D Scientist Danette Daniels, was speaking on a panel sponsored by the University of Wisconsin – Madison chapter of Graduate Women in Science. My daughter wasn’t sure about how she’d be received as the only high school student in the room, but she agreed to go with me anyway. Besides, I told her, they’re serving pie.

The six women on the panel represented a huge variety of avenues (academic to industry), specialties (biophysics to geology) and professional styles. During introductions, one panelist declared, “I had a job in a lab and was depressed. When I was stuck in a library all day, I was totally excited.” She now works with an organization to recruit more women into STEM fields. The woman sitting beside her runs a research lab and declared, “I love the bench quite a bit, and I don’t want to be in an office reading!” Continue reading

Orchestrating the Genome: Final Thoughts for #HumanGenomeMonth

Recently I wrote about the completion of the human genome sequencing project and the promise, problems and questions that the project has generated in the last decade and a half. One of the biggest realizations that I had from researching and writing that post is that our human genome makes us more alike than different at the molecular level, yet there is incredible variability in the human species around the globe.

I started to think about other things where the basic building blocks were the same, yet the final products were so very different—and I landed in the middle of a symphony orchestra.

Orchestras, if we look at the instruments that they have at their disposal, are very similar: dare I say 99% identical? For instance the instruments listed in the February 2017 roster for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on Wikipedia (1) are very similar to the lists of instruments listed for the musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on its web site (2). Numbers and groupings might vary, but the instruments are the same.

However no one would argue that the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus are interchangeable. Experiencing one is not the same as experiencing the other, and two separate experiences of either are often completely different.

The orchestral “DNA” is the same: highly trained musicians playing essentially the same set of instruments, and quite often the same piece of music. What makes each experience of these organizations unique is the when, the where and the how of the expression of that DNA. Continue reading

Why Hasn’t the “Alternative” Become Mainstream?

Pearl Jam, a popular alternative rock band in the 1990s (and still pretty awesome!). Photo credit: Rolling Stone Magazine.

This post could easily start out as an ode to ’90s alternative music (of which I’m a huge fan). That new and totally different sound (a la Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Nirvana, etc.) in the 1990s eventually made its way into the mainstream as it gained popularity. (I have to say that I got a shock when I recently heard some Pearl Jam on “classic rock” radio stations. But I digress…)

Why isn’t the same true for science career paths? Science careers outside of academia are still referred to as “alternative.” Continue reading

Letter from Uganda: A Promega International Internship Scholarship Recipient Shares her Experiences

Sydney Roberts, left, at work at a rural community outreach health clinic outside of Kabale, Uganda where she helped conduct basic health screenings. Here she is measuring a woman’s MUAC (midupper arm circumference).

Sydney Roberts, left, at work at a rural community outreach health clinic outside of Kabale, Uganda where she helped conduct basic health screenings. Here she is measuring a woman’s MUAC (midupper arm circumference).

We were inspired by a letter we recently received from one of the recipients of the Promega International Scientific Internship Scholarship. The scholarship supports undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. who are undertaking an international internship aimed at using science to improve the quality of life in the world. Students from all scientific fields are eligible but preference is given to those whose internships use molecular biology techniques. Students must be based in a country other than their own for at least six weeks and cannot be in a country where the recipient has already spent significant time.

Sydney Roberts, a junior at UW Madison majoring in Community and Nonprofit Leadership with a certificate in Global Health, was awarded the Spring 2018 Promega scholarship. As a result, she’s spending her spring a long way from her hometown of Cedarburg, WI. Sydney is currently working in Kabale, Uganda, a town in the southwestern part of the country near the border of Rwanda, as an intern with the Kigezi Healthcare Foundation (KIHEFO).

KIHEFO operates a primary care clinic, HIV/AIDS clinic, Nutrition and Rehabilitation center, and works with rural community groups. Sydney is supporting local staff members as they treat clients, provide counseling sessions for families affected by disease, and work on global health initiatives that support prevention of these diseases and health complications. She has only been in Uganda for a few weeks, but she says her experiences have already been life-changing. Continue reading

The Free Scientific Resource: Evaluating the Accuracy of Wikipedia

Several weeks ago, I came across an article on ScienceNews.org about how Wikipedia is becoming a scientific resource, whether we like it or not. Scientists are reading Wikipedia, the article said, and it’s affecting how they write. The article cited a study by researchers from MIT and Pitt that found statistical evidence of language in peer-reviewed articles being influenced by Wikipedia articles relevant to the topic. They concluded that journal articles referenced in Wikipedia are subsequently cited more than other similar articles, and that on a semantic level, Wikipedia is influencing the language of scientific journal articles at an astounding rate.

I was intrigued by the idea that reading Wikipedia affects how we later write about a subject. When I start writing about a new topic, the first thing I do is head to Wikipedia to gather a basic understanding before I dive into journal articles. I’ll skim through the overview and most relevant subsections, then check out the references to see what I should continue reading. However, the findings of the study imply that even though I don’t directly use information or language from Wikipedia in my work, it’s still subtly influencing how I write. Continue reading

Announcing: 17th International Forum on Consciousness

Means and Metrics for Detecting and Measuring Consciousness

Speakers on stage during last year's conference.

Panel speakers from last year’s Forum on Consciousness.

A diverse panel of thought leaders in neuroscience and consciousness, from the chief scientist and president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science to the principal English translator for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, will explore Means and Metrics for Detecting and Measuring Consciousness at the 17th International Forum on Consciousness May 17–18, 2018, in Madison, Wisconsin.  Presenters will discuss emerging technologies for looking into the phenomenon of consciousness such as sleep, wakefulness, altered states, focused attention, and coma. The Forum will ask how the ability to better measure consciousness may create opportunities to improve human function, resolve disease states, and keep the brain/mind healthier throughout all stages of life.

WHAT: The International Forum on Consciousness is a yearly event dedicated to information-sharing and discussion regarding important—and often challenging—topics related to the exploration of consciousness. It is co-hosted by the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute (BTC Institute) and Promega Corporation.

WHEN: May 17-18, 2018

WHERE: BioPharmaceutical Technology Center, Promega Corporation, 5445 East Cheryl Parkway, Fitchburg, WI 53711

REGISTRATION: The International Forum on Consciousness is open to the general public but limited to 300 participants. Registration is $265 and there are a limited number of scholarships available to assist with the cost. Forum registrants also have the opportunity to join a presenter for a small group discussion over dinner on Thursday evening, May 17 for an additional $90. For more information or to register, visit www.btci.org/events-symposia-2018/international-forum-on-consciousness/

CONFIRMED PRESENTERS: Continue reading

Get Out and Count: The Great Backyard Bird Count of 2018

2018 has been designated “The Year of the Bird”, and beginning today, Friday, February 16, 2018, bird lovers around the world will grab their binoculars, fill their bird feeders, update their eBird app, and look toward the skies. The 21st Annual Great Backyard Bird Count, one of the largest and longest running citizen science projects, begins today, and you can be part of this grand event of data collection.

All it takes is a mobile device (or computer) to log your results, an account at gbbc.birdcount.org , and 15 minutes of your time during the four-day event.

Can’t tell a red-tailed hawk from a red-winged black bird? That’s okay. The GBBC web site provides a handy online bird guide.  The web site also provides a guide for tricky bird IDs, including: Which Red Finch is it, Identifying Some Common Sparrows, and Identifying Doves.

I recently spent some time talking to Brian Schneider, one of the educators at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center in Monona, WI, to get some tips for first-time birders. Continue reading