Communicating Science in My Native Tongue

Several months ago Drug Monkey asked me this:

@amasianv do you blog in Vietnamese? Could be a cool thing, no?

— Drug Monkey (@drugmonkeyblog) September 9, 2012

Communicating science is tough as it is, never mind doing it in my native tongue. Especially, as I’m embarrassed to admit, when my spoken Vietnamese is atrophying like a disused muscle and my written skills are, well, nothing to write home about.

One of the reasons I started science blogging was a compromise to my father. In the minds of many Vietnamese immigrant parents–this probably extends to other ethnic groups as well–only four career options exist for their children: doctor, lawyer, engineer, or garbage man. No disrespect intended toward my fellow waste collectors, but this is the view of many of our parents. However, my father’s dreams for me went a little against the grain since he wanted me to be a journalist. You can only begin to imagine how perplexing it was for me that my dad was disappointed in my affinity for the sciences. Of course, while blogging was an attempt at finding middle ground with my dad, the central irony in all of this is that my writing isn’t really geared towards him. His English is only a hair better than my Vietnamese. Now, that’s not to say we don’t talk science at all. In fact, many of our conversations range from science news he’s read on Vietnamese-language websites–some of which require elaboration if not outright debunking–to the details of my own thesis project.

Our conversations, however, can be a maddeningly staccato, mish-mash of Vienglish (I know, it lacks that certain yo no sé qué of “Spanglish”), with me attached to either my phone or computer ready to consult Google translate and my dad with his four hardcover Vietnamese-English dictionaries open and ready at his fingertips. But despite this, talking about science is one of the more rewarding experiences I get to share with my dad. For one thing, I practice using simpler analogies and try to find culturally-relevant examples to get around the language barrier. Recently, for instance, while on the topic of fermentation we talked about my dad’s perfected recipe for making dưa chua*, a Vietnamese specialty of pickled mustard greens.

dua-chua-h

Even more rewarding than honing my own communication skills, however, is being able to witness my father’s inquisitive mind at work. We’re talking about someone whose formal education ended somewhere in grade school. His questions and insights from our countless conversations tell me that the limit of one’s curiosity isn’t set by their level of education.

As for my father, I have to believe he enjoys our scientific conversations, as well. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be making cheat sheets like this one:

cheat sheet

*not my dad’s recipe.

Crossposted from Scientopia.

How my dad saved high school biology

It really came as no surprise when my 9th grade high school biology teacher told me that we wouldn’t be doing any experiments that year. The high school I attended was a chronically underperforming and severely underfunded school situated in the densely-populated, square-mile city of Central Falls, RI–an impoverished, inner-city community with a largely immigrant population. And if you were wondering, yes, it’s that Central Falls–the city that infamously tried to fire all of its high school teachers and shortly, thereafter declared bankruptcy (although, it has since rehired most of the teachers and exited bankruptcy). So I was pretty sure the reason we wouldn’t be doing experiments that year was due to a shortfall in the school budget.

Central Falls High School

The prospect of not doing experiments however, was still a disappointment to me. Especially considering that a classmate and I had spent the beginning of the school year petitioning the administration to let us take biology instead of the general science class outlined in the normal 9th grade curriculum. We’d already taken general science during the previous two years in junior high and I had grown tired of learning the different types of clouds and classes of rocks. No offense to meteorologists and geologists, but it was time for me to move on to what I thought were the “big leagues.” I wanted to do more hands-on experiments like dissecting frogs, looking at cells under a microscope, or wiping bacteria off of door handles and growing them on petri dishes. These were, at least, what 14 year-old me thought constituted a science experiment–before I knew that these were really called “labs.” And so, after petitioning the school and obtaining approval to take biology, what was the obstacle to making my dreams of experiments a reality, you ask? There wasn’t enough money in the school budget for latex gloves.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only bit of bad news in my life back then. Right around the same time, my dad lost his job at a local medical supply manufacturer, after they had decided to move their operation to Mexico (perhaps a casualty of NAFTA and what not). They were “kind” enough, however, to offer their former employees a “severance” package–their choice of the surplus medical supplies left behind in the move. According to my dad, there were boxes upon boxes full of gauze, bandages, medical tape, cotton swabs, and other supplies available for the taking. When I told my dad the disappointing news that we wouldn’t be doing any experiments that year because the class didn’t have latex gloves, my father smiled. Completely out of coincidence–unaware as he was to the plight of my biology class– my father had decided to take home nearly a palette’s worth of cases of latex gloves.

I remember the day my dad delivered the latex gloves to my biology class. Since my dad was never much the sort to draw attention to himself and because he didn’t want disrupt class, he waited until after the school day was over. I met my dad by the door nearest our biology classroom and helped him carry the cases of gloves into the building. We knocked on the door to the class and when my bio teacher answered, I explained to him that my dad had some things he wanted to donate. I could see my teacher’s eyes light up when his gaze fell on the large, cardboard cases labeled “Medical Exam Gloves” of assorted sizes. He was speechless for a brief moment as my dad and I pushed boxes into the classroom. And when he fully realized what was happening he grasped my father’s hand and started shaking it. He thanked my father profusely and told him how much this meant. I stood between them, translating in Vietnamese the extent of my teacher’s appreciation for my father’s generosity. My dad tried to wave it off as though it were no big deal, but I knew it was. Just days prior, my dad had suffered the indignity of losing his job, but on that day, my dad was a hero– a hero at a time when he really needed to feel like one. He needed this moment as much as we need those gloves.

I left Central Falls High School the following year after accepting an opportunity to attend a private school that I couldn’t turn down. But I never forgot about CF High. I came back often to visit the school and, in parpticular, my biology teacher. For my high school community service project I helped out as his teacher’s aide during the first semester of my junior year. Even when I went off to college, I made an effort to see my biology teacher whenever I was home on break. And during each visit he’d remind me of how grateful he was for what my father did. Sadly, I can remember seeing those same cases of gloves sitting in the back storage room–the number of smaller boxes inside dwindling with each passing year.

Several years ago, my 9th grade biology teacher retired and I haven’t been back to the school since for a visit, so to when those gloves finally ran out, I wouldn’t know. But the fact that he was frugally rationing them out over the course of many years really stuck with me. And the sad reality is that underfunded schools, unfortunately, is not specific to the city I grew up in. It’s a problem that is faced by a number of inner-city and rural schools across the country–a problem exacerbated by the financial tumult of the past few years.

DonorsChoose.org

Since 2006, however, a select group of science bloggers have been raising money through the online charity DonorsChoose to help fund many science education-related projects submitted by teachers in underfunded schools. Going through their giving pages and reading the projects submitted by teachers really drove home for me just how underfunded some schools are. Projects from requesting money to purchase new stools to securing supplies for frog and organ dissections to, you guessed it, latex gloves. If you’d like to contribute, here’s your chance to capture the spirit of my dad and help save science education for students in need–but you’ll need to act fast because fundraising ends on Nov. 5th November 9th (there is also a match in effect of up to $100 if you enter SCIENCE in the “Match or gift code” box).

Here are the giving pages for Science Bloggers for Students and also projects submitted by Central Falls teachers (not exclusively science-related).

#hashtag backlash: In defense of Twitter.

     A couple of weeks ago I was reproached on Facebook for overenthuiastic tweeting and my apparent affinity for hashtagging. Here’s a sampling of their criticisms:

“what’s with all these GD pound signs?”

“‎#annoying”

“#hatethatyoureahashtaggernow”

     In their defense, I hadn’t quite figured out how to selective tweet and so was probably spamming their feed, which coincidentally looks a lot like a Twitter feed. Regardless, I felt rebuked by my peers and I have to admit, it stung a little bit.

     Full disclosure: I hated the very thought of “tweeting” at first. I was under the impression that tweets were basically glorified “Away Messages”–remember those?– or a medium for people to spit out attention-grabbing, sometimes clever, sometimes funny one-liners. And in reality, a lot of Twitter IS just that. However, coinciding with the launch of my blog, I decided to join Twitter under the strong advice of a very capable, scientific blogger (@Katie_PhD) as a means to advertise and network. I don’t regret following her input and here are the reasons why I think Twitter can help science:

Staying informed

     Twitter has been my stock ticker of science news, constantly updating with stories and commentary. I haven’t felt this up-to-date on popular science, policy and outreach in years…maybe ever. I’d go as far to say that in many ways Twitter (and also blogging) has rekindled this disenchanted, graduate student’s interest in all things science, which had long gone dormant. And yes, the news cycle is fast, but I don’t fear missing anything since most of the days science stories is retweeted.

My Wishlist: what’s trending amongst my followers/followees rather than globally.

Speed

     Information is disseminated and can be accessed quickly, which can be used to promote your research or exploited as a tool to mobilize people into action–think the Arab Spring, in which both Twitter and Facebook were instrumental. Of more relevance to this blog, it was used to rally opposition against the Research Works Act (#RWA). Furthermore, rapid movement of knowledge is inline with a trend toward more “open science.”

Exposure

     Unlike other social media, Twitter is decidedly public in nature. You have access to people outside of your normal circles or networks since strangers can follow your tweets. Think about it, when was the last time you friended a stranger on Facebook. Never. It doesn’t happen because it’s weird. Twitter allows you to interact with strangers without it feeling, for the most part, creepy. I am, therefore, able to get my blog out to a larger audience faster. And for those concerned about privacy, the simple interface means that profiles are very limited. The only thing that’s public, really, is what you tweet.

Personality

      For many comedians, the Twitter format is a godsend. It allows their personalities to shine through in 140 characters or less (read: one-liners). And it’s an art, which I think @michaelianblack absolutely kills. Now, I know this is hard to believe, but lo and behold, there are funny scientists. And witty ones. And interesting ones. And some of them are on Twitter. What’s great about Twitter is that it lends itself to the re-branding and re-headlining of science news (and all news really) through wit, sarcasm, insight and commentary. This is all value-added, and can make the difference between whether someone reads an article or not. Random example from my feed:

This was a quote from an article written by Ed Yong (@edyong209) about male spiders that detach their penis* after sex to avoid getting eaten by the female (Spiders dodge cannibalism through remote copulation, the article appears in Nature, thus the more straightforward headline).

Another random example:

(‘Little Horny Man’: Rock Carving of Giant Phallus Discovered)

     Ultimately, Twitter can help make science more accessible to the public. One of my goals in starting this blog was to increase science accessibility to the public and bridge the divide between the public and science. I think an effective way of doing this is through humor and personality. And in a larger context, the issue of personality is important because where before scientists have been pigeonholed into the role of the dull and charmless nerd, there is now pushback. For evidence, check out these projects: This is What a Scientist Looks Like and I am Science.

I hope this stops the #hate.

Also, I hope this convinces more Drosophila researchers to join Twitter, otherwise I’ll be the only one live tweeting the Drosophila Research Conference (#DROS2012)

Related Reading:

Social Media for Scientists Part 1: It’s Our Job

Twitter for Scientists (Reason #3, in particular)

*

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!

Evolution can’t catch a break.     

     Today marks Charles Darwin’s 203 birthday. It’s been 153 years, since On The Origin of Species was published and yet according to a 2009 Gallup poll only 40% Americans “believe” in evolution (more on this poll in a moment). Of particular concern, four states are considering legislation that would impact or limit teaching evolution in highschool. Kimberly Winston reports

“One of the bills, New Hampshire’s House Bill 1148, not only singles out evolution, but would require teachers to discuss its proponents’ ”political and ideological viewpoints and their position on the concept of atheism.” 

— In the Indiana Senate, a bill would allow school districts to

‘’require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of

life within the school corporation.” That bill has already passed a statehouse

committee and was scheduled for a vote on Jan 31.

— The “Missouri Standard Science Act” would require the equal treatment of evolution and “intelligent design,” an idea that the universe was created by an unnamed “designer.” A second bill would require teachers to encourage students “to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues, including biological and chemical evolution.”

— A bill in the Oklahoma Senate would require the state’s board of education to help teachers promote “critical thinking, logical analysis, open and objective discussion of scientific theories including, but not limited to, evolution, the origin of life, global warming, and human cloning” if a local school district makes that request.

— A second bill in the New Hampshire House would require science teachers to instruct students that “proper scientific inquir(y) results from not committing to any one theory or hypothesis, no matter how firmly it appears to be established.”

— A bill in Virginia would make it illegal for state colleges to require a class that conflicts with a student’s religious views. Critics say that would enable a student to receive a biology degree, for example, without studying evolution if he or she objected to it.

     As Brown University Professor Ken Miller points out, “Our Darwin problem is really a science problem. The easier it becomes to depict the scientific enterprise as a special interest immersed in the culture wars, the easier it becomes to reject scientific findings. We see this everywhere in American culture and politics today, from the anti-vaccine movement to the repeated assertion that global warming is a deliberate “hoax” rather than a straightforward conclusion driven by reams of scientific data.” 

What’s in a Question?

The problem with polls is that it’s all in the way the question is phrased. The 2009 Gallup poll posed the question as such:

pp05ytoxcuijd73t

By framing the question in the context of belief, it places evolution in the realm of faith and by extension equates the theory with religion. This makes it easier for the religious community to reject evolution. However, the currency of science is not belief. Science deals in knowledge ascertained by testing proposed explanations (hypotheses) of phenomena. Where faith is essential for religion, proof and evidence is required for science. Furthermore, the poll assumes that the respondent knows or understands what the theory of evolution is. Without properly defining it, it doesn’t take into account misconceptions or preconceived notions that the public often has in regard to the theory. Practically speaking, it would be impossible to properly define the theory in the context of a poll, but a more honest attempt could be made.

The question should be posed this way:

I don’t know that rephrasing the question would necessarily change the outcome of the poll, but I do…believe think we should be mindful of the language we use when discussing science.