Category Archives: Science

Is it just me?

I’m beginning to think I’m a bit weird. Not in a running-around-thinking-people-want-to-eat-me kind of way but in the sense that I’m not sure I quite fit in with my peers.

I like to plan. I spend an inordinate amount of time by myself, planning things in my head. I don’t just mean I plan next weekend’s night out, I plan for things 5+ years down the line. Now these plans are obviously quite likely to change, so I don’t just make one 5 year plan, I make about 4, all at the same time and they evolve and develop with me. Planning my life in this way has been a feature of my personality for as long as I can remember, but especially from around GCSE’s when we first started having to think about careers. My planning-centric brain decided that this meant I had to decide NOW what I wanted to do as a career in 20 years time and lay down a precise set of steps to get there.

I admit, this is not normal. It might even be unhealthy. It sometimes means I don’t like to do things spontaneously and if I’m not careful, the plans I’ve made put pressure on me to not change my mind. Its sometimes easier to go with a plan than have to adapt and change to new circumstances or feelings. On the other hand, so long as my plans are flexible enough to mould with me as I get older, its meant that I’m a step ahead of the future competition. I already know what I want to do (I think) and I’ve exhaustively researched exactly what I need to do to get there.

This character trait also means that I’m determined to grab as many opportunities as I get a sight of. This isn’t a bad thing and its reflected by the sense of gratitude and genuine love that I now have towards University life. In less than a year, University has already presented me with more opportunities and experiences than I could have dreamed for and I imagine that these chances will only increase as I progress. I’ve had opportunities to gain skills that may be important to my future career/life in general…but what I’m most grateful for is the opportunity to feel totally enthused by and enthralled with a subject.

Studying Zoology is the best decision I’ve ever made. Studying Zoology at the University of Exeter is the 2nd best decision I’ve ever made.

Whilst I’d had a minimal interest in Darwin and Evolution prior to University, I wouldn’t profess to being all that bothered. I’d flicked through the Origin of Species without thinking too deeply about it. So its somewhat to my surprise that I find myself absolutely fascinated by it now.

English: Edible Frog, Pelophylax esculentus (s...

The Edible Frog, or Rana esculenta, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It came about in a rather subtle way. It snuck up on me whilst I was least expecting it. Lecture 2 of my Introduction to Evolutionary and Behavioural Ecology module. My lecturer mentioned in passing how Rana esculenta comes about as a result of hybridization between two parental species and how the paternal genome is excluded from the female gametes during oogenesis. I found this bizarrely fascinating. It presented me with so many questions…How? Why? Is this common? So I promptly spent the next day reading every paper on hemiclonal reproduction, pre-meiotic genome exclusion and frogs I could. This though led me on further into social hybridogenesis and facultative mate choice. Yet more unanswered questions to explore. What joy!! Now, hemiclonal reproduction is interesting, but I’ve no idea why it caught my attention in such an intense way.

The best bit about this little crusade of mine though, was the way my lecturer responded to my new found interest. I had questions, which he patiently answered and encouraged. This meant that rather than getting stuck and feeling stupid, my new found interest (not just in Frog reproduction, but more generally) was nurtured rather than stunted before it had begun. I’ve had ‘teachers’ in the past tell me in a roundabout way that I was being annoying and they’d prefer it if I just stopped asking them questions. Believe me, that knocks your confidence. At one point, it becomes easier to not be interested than to risk having to ask a question.

Luckily, this didn’t happen in this instance. Instead, the response I received meant I felt comfortable to continue asking questions throughout the course and fueled an ever burgeoning interest. I can now say my main interest lies not in frog reproduction per se, but more broadly across sexual selection, evolutionary conflict and co-evolution. At one point in the course, I even managed to ask a question about the evolution of anisogamy that no-one had seemingly asked before (either in class or in research). That was pretty cool. My lecturer, by the way, remained patient to the end. Even when my end-of-lecture questioning became somewhat of a tradition, and for that I’m truly grateful.

Getting back to the title of this post though. Part of the reason I asked my lecturer so many questions during the course was because I couldn’t find anyone else to talk to about it! I tried my coursemates – they were totally nonplussed. I tried my family – they were glad I’d found an interest, but they didn’t care what it was. Eventually I did manage to find one coursemate who shared my interest to some degree, and we’d grab a coffee after the lectures and spend a good extra hour discussing the various details of what we’d been taught, or (sometimes more interestingly) what we’d looked up ourselves. It was GREAT to have someone on the same wavelength, and through our discussions we managed to build a more rounded friendship too.

What I’m getting at here though (and sorry its taken me 1000 words to get here) is..Why did I struggle so much to find someone who shared a vague interest in what we were being taught? Where is the enthusiasm amongst the rest of my coursemates? My specific interest in the Evolution module hasn’t meant I’m not interested in the others. I’ve at some point or another put in a few hours of extra research on every module I’ve done so far, because something I’ve seen has caught my attention. I do realise that some of my coursemates may be feeling the same way as I have in Evolution about a different module and I hope they’ve found an equally enthusiastic buddy to bounce ideas off.

What really narks me though is the seemingly high proportion of people who are on my course, or at university in general, without really knowing why they’re there. They seem to have taken the degree because they had no better options. They’re happy to pass 1st year with 40%. How can you sit through a year of education and not make the most of it? How can you not try to do your best (whether it counts towards your degree or not)?! I just cannot understand how someone could lack that motivation. You could quite happily sit through 3 years of University, without ever speaking to a lecturer face to face…but why would you? You’re paying money and expending effort in gaining a degree which presumably is part of some sort of longer term plan. Why then would you ignore opportunities that stare you in the face, or seek out those who might be hiding from you?

This is where I think I’m different. My desire to plan means that I predict the consequences of my immediate actions in relation to things that might or might not happen years down the line. A small missed opportunity here means that I might miss a bigger opportunity in 3 years time. Perhaps my desire to make the most of my time at university also stems from the fact that I missed out on my original offer of a place by just 1 mark. I then put in a year of 40+ hours in two low-paid, unskilled jobs to earn the money that might go some way to countering the fact that I stupidly missed the last boat of £3000 fees!  It means I feel I’ve put the hard graft in and I deserve to be here. It also gives me extra motivation to avoid having to go back to those unskilled jobs in the future!

Who knows what the reasons are. All I do know is that I’ve started to ask ‘Is it just me?’ and I’d quite like an answer!

Maths is SCARY

E.O Wilson’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled ‘Great Scientist ≠ Good at Math’ seemed to cause lots of debate amongst established scientists (see here and here, amongst others) as to whether Wilson’s opinion and arguments were valid or whether they were a dangerous misrepresentation of what it is to be a scientist. However, in all this discussion no-one seems to have bothered to garner the opinion of the people who Wilson was trying to target. By that I mean the aspiring young scientist perhaps currently studying their A Levels or in the very early stages of their Undergraduate degree.

As it happens, I am part of that demographic. Just coming to the end of the first year of a Zoology degree I feel somewhat justified in having an opinion on the Science vs/via Maths debate. You see, I chose Zoology largely because of my lack of ability in Maths. Until the end of GCSE’s I had dreamed of studying Veterinary Medicine and becoming a Vet. My total lack of confidence in my mathematical ability (although I got an A) coupled with a lack of ability to relate to the subject meant that my Vet dreams were over. I avoided Maths at A Level and chose Zoology instead of Vet Med because there was no Maths pre-requisite.

As it happens, my decision to choose Zoology over Veterinary Medicine couldn’t have worked out better. I absolutely love my course and couldn’t imagine studying anything else. If I hadn’t chosen Zoology I wouldn’t now be sat surrounded by books on Evolution and dreaming of a career in academic research, but that’s another story.

Back to Maths. Somewhat naively, I have swept  Maths under the carpet, hoping never to see it rearing its ugly head at me again. However, as my career aspirations have changed I’ve begun to realise that it might not be that easy. For example, at the most basic level, it is obvious that if I want to do valid research in the future I will need to understand something of statistics. As part of my new found interest in Sexual Selection etc I’ve discovered Game Theory and a host of models that aim to predict what should happen under certain conditions. I suppose that in future some understanding of how these work will also be necessary. Many of the scientists commenting on Wilson’s article went further, arguing that a fairly comprehensive understand of Maths is vital to all scientific endeavour. I personally think the real level lies somewhere in between these two. There will always be people in Biology that are more interested in Empirical research and those more interested in Maths and by working together both sides can somewhat make up for their lack of skill in the other discipline. This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to continually improve our abilities in the weaker side, its simply saying that it shouldn’t be an insurmountable problem.

At school (at least up until GCSE level), Maths is taught in an isolated and trivial way. You never get taught how different parts of Maths might join together, or how the maths you’re doing in the classroom might relate to the outside world. In fact, it was always a great source of frustration to me that this was never explained. I found myself sat at the back of the classroom bored and seething because I couldn’t see the point. On many occasions I asked my teachers (not in a sarcastic trouble-making way) what’s the point of studying how to find the circumference of a circle? When will I ever use that Maths again? And guess what….they never provided me with an answer. In fact, most of them agreed that it all seemed a bit pointless. This lack of ability to teach Maths in a way that makes it relevant is one of the biggest obstacles to students like myself. If I don’t think something is relevant, why would I focus my efforts on understanding it?

So here I am now after 4 years of denial and joyous freedom, discovering that learning more Maths might actually have been quite important after all. And that’s SCARY. Where can I go now to learn the Maths I need? Will I be able to learn it along the way, either through my degree or through my supervisors and collaborators as I slowly (and hopefully) progress up the academic ladder? Will I have to seek out opportunities and courses? The trouble for me is, ‘Maths’ is a massive umbrella term. How am I supposed to find out which parts of Maths are the basic set of principles that I should be attempting to understand? And once I’ve found them out, how can I go about learning them? Having not studied Maths since GCSE I don’t even know what the word ‘Calculus’ means, let alone what it is!

This is where E.O Wilson’s article has been reassuring. His belief that Maths is not the be-all and end-all of science and the example he sets of being someone who successfully started an academic career without being a maths whizz is refreshing. Okay, he started his career a long time ago and he is clearly an exceptionally clever man and an excellent empirical scientist, and perhaps someone like me will need to work harder to understand the Maths than he did. Despite this, I agree with what I believe to be Wilson’s overriding message – that if you’re truly interested and focussed on a subject and you work hard enough, a lack of confidence or ability in Maths should not be an insurmountable stumbling block.

Whatever your opinion on Wilson’s article and the level of Maths that’s needed to do good science, the fact that a perceived lack of ability in the subject is putting talented young people off the idea of studying science further is a tragedy. These people could be the new E.O Wilson, who if given enough support and if helped to conquer their Maths fears could make a substantial contribution to our understanding of the world around us. I for one hope that I’ll be amongst those who do find a way to conquer maths and who can succeed in studying science at the highest levels.