Box? What box?

When I first read this job advert, I began to weep. I didn’t know anyone else understood what it was like to be this sort of person – to have this kind of mind – much less that anyone out there valued it.

Miscellaneous Vacancies

Are you:
• A creative, articulate scientist with research experience in biological, medical, chemical, electrical, mechanical or materials engineering disciplines?
• A lateral thinker, passionate about science and your own discipline, yet able to think outside of the box and make connections to other fields?
• A great listener with highly developed interpersonal skills, with career goals in commercialisation, technology transfer or business development and able to manage relationships with clients in a highly fluid environment, respect confidentiality and work with people across all levels of an organisation?

Do you:
• Thrive on change and derive great pleasure from making connections between seemingly unrelated ideas?
• Get a buzz from finding new routes that others have not trodden before and yet would be comfortable with working collaboratively to develop your ideas and those of others without expectation of extra personal or monetary recognition?

Sadly, the closing date for the position had long since passed by the time I read it. But like so many dangerous ideas, knowing that such a thing even existed reverberated up and down my mental timelines.

In graduate school, the entomology professors didn’t understand how or why I kept making connections between ecology and learning disabilities. Such details were certainly not necessary to researching insect behaviour, no matter how much they might apply to some of the students in the department.

In a recent New York Times article, “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike”, Janet Rae-Dupree describes the “so-called curse of knowledge” where experts are so familiar with traditional means of getting things done that their expertise gets in the way of innovation. The article also describes how bringing in people who have other fields of knowledge, but who are not bogged down by the specialist jargon that reinforces and limits the current understanding, can free up boxed-in thinking and create new ideas.

It’s a conundrum how organisations (academic or otherwise) claim to want innovation, but are resistant to novel suggestions that often go against what everyone knows will work. But as the saying goes, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.”

More recently, an education professor was not only unfazed by my entomological background, but thought it “wonderful” and mentioned that Jean Piaget had worked on snail behaviour before working with children. I was flabbergasted. I so rarely get such unexpected, sincere kudos that such a moment can keep my spirits buoyed for weeks.

“Thinking outside the box” has always been easy – rather, it’s trying to figure out just what the hell others perceive as The Box that’s hard. I’ve spent decades struggling to understand what people’s boxes are like, how they construct and use them, where the boxes came from, and when I am supposed to intuit and conform to those boxes.

Unfortunately, because of everyone’s jargon-constrained knowledge boxes, it’s hard to describe my own kind of lateral, inter-disciplinary thinking. Trying to convince others that they can benefit from such seems almost beyond my abilities, as I’m not a natural salesperson who can schmooze and easily persuade others.

Meanwhile, I’m still buzzing about, looking for a good niche. At least now I have a few more um, “buzz-words” that will help me describe what I can offer.


Welcome to the first ring of Hell

I’m going to send in a couple of job applications for biology teaching positions at community colleges. With some 200 credit hours of college education, I’ve been exposed to enough teachers to know that I teach better than some of them. I’ve had a course in college teaching, over a decade of teaching continuing education (designing my own courses, content, handouts & my own photography), and have been tutoring biology for several years.

But of course I’ve not actually applied for such a job before. So here I am re-doing my teaching philosophy, checking over my resume, chewing over application letter drafts and whatnot.

Like everyone, I’m really nervous about the prospect of interviews. Unlike a lot of people, I have particular difficulties with interviews, such as the prosopagnosia. This means not recognising people from one day to the next, at least not until I’ve been around them a while. I hate it when people drag you around a building and introduce you to a gazillion people. I can barely mentally file away some vague identification characteristics for one interviewer, and even then I never know which details will prove to be the useful ones for recognising them in the future. Yes, I know … I spend an hour talking with someone, and then (aside from the name on the business card) I truly can’t remember who the hell they were the next day. It’s awful.

During the actual interview process, I’m running mental circles around the auditory processing difficulties, fidgety-scatterbrained ADHD issues, unconsciously suppressing little motor tics (I shouldn’t have to theoretically, but it’s ingrained habit under such situations), concentrating on trying to make “enough” eye contact (whatever the hell that is), concentrating on speaking clearly and avoiding stuttering, ignoring the tinnitus and joint aches (and hoping against migraine). And being nervous is bad enough without those damn menopausal hot flashes!

Of course all that detracts from the amount of energy available for composing brilliant answers. So my usual interview plan is to anticipate interview questions and then prepare and practice answers. I spend days ruminating over and practicing my short “scripts” while in the car. Fortunately, I can never remember my answers verbatim, so they don’t come off as sounding “canned”.

Unfortunately, for all I have a large vocabulary and am a well-practiced writer, I’m less able to produce clear, concise answers to unexpected questions. It’s not that I can’t think of what to say, but rather that all the details of things come to mind at once, and I can’t prioritise and sequence them easily, nor compose paragraphs and then remember them all the way through.

So … anyone out there have specific tips for teaching interviews? (I’m good on basic interview stuff like professional wardrobe.) But this is a new kind of interview situation, and I don’t know what sorts of questions are likely to be asked, nor what sorts of unspoken conventions are typical for such a process, or what committees look for.

ADD-itional News

While driving home, I just heard this latest ADHD news on NPR (link has text synopsis):  some children diagnosed with ADHD do literally grow out of the disorder by the time they are in their 20s.  Parts of the brain responsible for “the control of action and attention” experience about a two-year lag in these children, compared to their age-cohort.  The MRI study at the National Institute of Mental Health looked at scans of over 400 children (half diagnosed with AD/HD) taken over several years, to track the development of various areas of the brain.

Previous studies have shown that the AD/HD brain shows structural differences, as well as differences in the levels of neurotransmitters*.  Although some people continue to have these differences into adulthood, not everyone does.   Apparently this is sometimes merely a maturational delay, and sometimes a more permanent developmental difference.

* No, AD/HD is not “just an excuse” to cover up lazyness, or due to “bad parenting” (although poor parenting practices can certainly aggravate related issues), nor is it due to food colouring, sugar, et cetera.  There are a plethora of MRI scan studies out there demonstrating that the condition has a real, physical basis.


So here I am, still trying to find a way to make the job scene work.

Don’t get me wrong, I really like my college student tutoring, and special education paraprofessional, and noncredit instructor positions. It’s just that I’d rather have one job that paid decently, rather than three jobs cobbled together into something that leaves me overworked but seriously underpaid. (“underpaid” = $11/hr for someone with a MSc)

Lots of schools need teachers. No matter what employment resource I search, there are lots of positions for secondary science and special education teachers. School districts in every state need them, not just in the US but also in the UK. But to teach I need certification, and for certification Read the rest of this entry »

Math and Science, Bass-Ackwards

In one of my jobs, I’m a paraprofessional in a high school science classroom. Last week in Biology we were in the unit on carbohydrates, lipids and proteins as polymers. Of course, the students have been struggling because we’re touching on biochemistry concepts, and they’ve not had chemistry.

So I asked the teacher, “If biology depends upon chemistry, and chemistry depends upon physics, then WHY don’t we start with physics, and then go to chemistry and then biology?”

(I mean like, duh!)

And he replied, Read the rest of this entry »

Epidemics of Bad Science vs Epidemics and Bad Science

Here’s a hot topic constantly resurfacing in the news, especially with the Omnibus currently proceeding at the US Court of Federal Claims, to wit: Is autism caused by vaccines? I won’t pretend that I’m going to capture everything in this controversy; there are too many players in the drama. (Autism Diva is keeping track of the daily news on the hearing.) However, this does make for an excellent case study in the scientific method. We get to look at concepts like incidence & prevalence, correlation vs causality, testimonials vs evidence-based medicine, and some general concepts in epidemiology. Could we possibly have any more fun?! (tongue-in-cheek joke)

When you read about autism, something noted most everywhere is the increasing numbers of children diagnosed. Surely, people say, there has to be something causing that to happen!

The whole vaccines-causes-autism story starts back in 1998, Read the rest of this entry »

Auditioning for Parts

I’ve not been posting much lately because I’ve been working on an involved application for a teaching job, and doing my other teaching-type jobs. (My goal is to have one job, not three.)

Anyway, here’s this lovely piece from the news: some girls presented sections of The Vagina Monologues, but the school officials decided that although they could present this play, they weren’t allowed to actually say the word,


Yeah, riddle me that one, Batman. It’s a part of the body, like gastrocnemius, only easier to spell. (Your gastrocnemius is your calf muscle.) Anyway, the girls went ahead and said the word, because trying to get through The Vagina Monologues without saying the V-word is well, silly, and is kind of like getting through Inherit the Wind without saying “evolution”. (Uh-oh, maybe I shouldn’t have suggested that!) As a result, the girls got suspended for insubordination.

Personally, I’d say it was worth it.


I can’t wait until I get to teach Biology. “Okay everyone, let’s practice these vocabulary words. Repeat after me. Epididymus.”

“Fallopian tube.”



“SCROTUM.” (titters)



“Vas deferens.”
“Vasss de-fer-ens.”

… We’ll never get out of there alive.

Special Tips for Life Sciences Students

Well, another semester is revving up, and I’m collecting tutees again. I tutor a variety of subjects, generally getting students taking introductory writing and biology classes. The number of tutees always increases right after they have sat their first exams, and discover that taking college classes is not just a shorter-school day version of taking high school classes. So for all you students out there who are facing your introductory Biology and so on, here are some friendly warnings.

A “survey” course means broad and shallow waters, so start paddling now or you will be left behind! Survey classes (100- level Biology, Botany, Microbiology etc.) cover a wide variety of material, but do not go in depth on anything in particular. The in-depth part comes in the next levels of courses about specific subjects. Because there is such a large quantity of material to cover in a limited number of weeks, the class will be going through roughly a chapter per class, depending upon how many chapters the text book is divided into, and the number of meeting days per week. This is not high school where you took a week or two (meeting four or five days a week) to go through a chapter. It’s not so much a question of “don’t get behind” but rather of “stay on top of things and look ahead”!

Vocabulary is going to be an integral part of studying, so find a way of memorization that works well for you. Although every field of study has its own terminology, the life sciences are positively riddled with new words to learn. Most of these words have Greek or Latin roots, so learning what those prefixes and suffixes mean is important, because then you can decode other new words.

Cramming doesn’t work well as a study method when taking identification classes. Students who try to cram do not do well on tests. There are certain subjects that have mostly vocabulary and identification, such as Anatomy (human or veterinary), Taxonomy (plant or animal), and courses like Woody Plant Materials. Don’t mistakenly think that these are “easy” just because “all you have to do is memorise stuff”. Learning hundreds of names, exact spellings, and how to identify hundreds of different birds, flowers, or micro-organisms takes repetition. Learning takes lots of repetition. Plan on studying daily. Be there during all the open-lab time going over models and specimens. Learn to recognise your organisms (or parts thereof) by generalising from several examples, otherwise you will only have learned to identify your particular Acer saccharum leaf, rather than any sugar maple tree anywhere.

When an instructor puts up a graph or diagram, don’t just sit there watching, but make notes about what is significant about the graph, and how that is determined. You will either have a copy of this illustration in your handouts, or else the instructor will refer to a graph on a particular page in your text. If the latter, be sure to write down both the page number and the name or number of the graph. Remember, you can re-draw the graph in your notes after class, but you should do so as soon as possible, while the details are still fresh in your mind.

Your job is to take notes on both aspects that being explained about the graph: firstly, what the significance of the graph is, and secondly, how we know that. For example, in ecology, the k-values of lines in a graph describe the mortality rates over time – that’s the “what” significance of the graph. But the “how we know that” part is related to the idea that the closer the slope of an individual line is to a value of 1 (a 45° angle), the more important is the particular mortality factor. When you get to the test, you will need to know not just that the graph describes mortality due to various factors, but also know the latter part and be able to tell which factor was the most important!

Science courses are about understanding the principles and concepts particular to the specific discipline. “Understanding” is not the same thing as memorizing. The details of human understanding of events and processes change over time, so there’s no point in memorizing everything in the text book. Instead, you need to learn what the concepts mean, and how things interact with each other, and then be able to apply your understanding to problems and to new situations.

One of my math teachers said that, “Life does not hand us a page of math problems to be solved. Real life more like word problems, where you have to create the equation and there are no answers in the back of the book.” We have to do the same thing with science in real life.

You may be shocked to discover that in college, multiple-choice (MC) exams are not automatically easy exams. You cannot rely on simply recognising the correct answer. Instead, you will have to take those new concepts you have learned, and apply them to new situations.

The reason that some people find science classes to be difficult is that not only does a person have to memorise material, but also to apply and analyse and evaluate the concepts, especially in lab experiments.

Speaking of taxonomy, the field of education has a system of classification as well: Bloom’s Taxonomy. This is a hierarchy of cognitive processes, often diagrammed as a pyramid. There are six categories with number 1 being the simplest level at the base of the pyramid, and number six being the highest. Each step builds upon the previous.

1. Knowledge – the ability to define, recall, identify, recognize, knowledge of methodology, principles, generalizations, trends, facts, terminology, theories, and structures.
2. Comprehension – translate, rephrase or restate, interpret, extrapolate
3. Application – apply, generalize, choose, organize, develop, use, classify
4. Analysis – analyse relationships; to deduce, compare, discriminate, categorize
5. Synthesis – derive or create a set of abstract relationships
6. Evaluation – to judge, assess, argue

What this means to you as a student is that basic survey courses (such as 100-level Biology) will be mostly at level 1 and 2, but the more specific junior and senior courses will be integrating the content from several basic courses and requiring you to operate at levels 4-6. This means that cramming and memorizing material won’t work. (Do you detect a trend here?)

Weeding Out The Astroturf

This seems like an especially apropos subject to blog about; I am after all, a horticulturalist and also work with children who have developmental disabilities, some of whom are autistic/Asperger’s. As a freelance writer with degrees in science, my goal is to provide useful information to the public that is unbiased, based on good research science, and is not created to promote commercial products. In the classes I teach, the articles I write and the conversations I have with others in my community, I am constantly working to correct the misinformation given by the likes of J. Baker, who flog books full of quackery, self-promotional videos and broadcast programming, and present pseudoscience as special, secret knowledge that only they have access to because the “experts” don’t want the public to know. More details deconstructing this kind of bunk are on this page.

I really, really don’t like inauthentic stuff. I like fields with real grass, and floors with real carpeting. Astroturf and indoor-outdoor carpeting rub me the wrong way, even when I have my shoes on. More inauthenticity includes advertising, propaganda and campaigning presented as vox populi. (Sorry, I guess the word “propaganda” in that list is a redundancy.) “Advertorials” and “astroturf” efforts exasperate me.

When used outside of sports arenas, the term “astroturf” refers to faux grass-roots efforts. These activities are meant to seem like they come from the general populace, when in fact they are really self-promotional campaigns sponsored and instigated by businesses. The purpose of astroturfing is to spread a commercial meme, sliding it under people’s advertising radar by presenting it as originating from other ordinary people, rather than from its true source.

Real grass-roots efforts (as organizers everywhere will attest) are nearly always blessed with thin wallets but loads of volunteers. In contrast, astroturf efforts frequently have plenty of funding to support a small but carefully-led group of workers. The whole “autism is vaccine induced / mercury poisoning and we need to cure our stricken children with X, Y and / or Z treatment” crowd is a prime example of small-time astroturfing by the various quacks who are selling purported “cures”. Some of the workers in this whole fiasco are journalists / media people and medical personnel, who end up adding their skills and patina of respectability.

In an effort to “get the word out”, the workers are advised how to get the attention of unwitting television reporters to and create the angst-ridden, “small person vs big bad government / organization” newsbites that will sell airtime for broadcasting companies; are given sample letters to send to the local newspaper editors; and are provided with Web boards that purport to be helpful consumer sites and support groups for concerned families sharing information, but are also fronts for promoting commercial enterprises, e.g. quack “cures” and dubious treatments.

The insidious problem with stealth astroturf is that the people involved don’t realize they’re being duped. Full of earnest, well-intended zeal for spreading the gospel, these followers are very convincing and energetic, in ways that ordinary paid employees wouldn’t be.

Now, those Web sites can contain a lot of useful advice and emotional support between ordinary people posting there. But some of those members will find the boards are also bastions of groupthink, enforced by a booster club of the vociferous few who create an atmosphere that is hostile to disagreement. The zealous may also go beyond the bounds of their own personal expertise and become self-appointment experts simply by dint of experience rather than by professional expertise.

It gets worse. Beyond promoting commercial products and services, astroturfing seeks to champion not just the social but also the legal necessity. This requires selling the whole system of ideas to the mass-market culture as the beneficial and inevitable solution to what is actually an artificial need for a non-solution to a nonexistent problem. Therefore we have “autism epidemics” resulting from “poisoned” children, or those who assert that ABA is a “medically necessary” treatment for “afflicted” children.

The ordinary citizen or government official doesn’t understand the scientific or educational issues, and doesn’t have the time to educate themselves to a level necessary to be able to critically analyse the claims. When faced with the inevitable scientific debunking of either the problem or the solutions being sold to address them, these quacks find that they must fend off potential legal actions by expanding into pre-emptive damage-control: (emphasis mine)

As WKA Communications stated in a brochure distributed at Key West, “We’d Rather Guard the Border Than Fight the War.”
“If you don’t keep an ear to the ground, or ignore what you hear, the results aren’t pretty,” the brochure states. “In terms of time, energy and cost, the difference between early-stage issues management and late-stage crisis management is the difference between guarding a border and fighting a war. It’s easier and less expensive to influence an outcome before the government has written the law or regulation.

In these cases, the question parents, educators, therapists and government officials must ask themselves is, “What is being sold here, and who ultimately benefits?”

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