Tag Archives: Education

An open letter to all the kids I work with

I am an outreach science communicator. My full-time job is to pack a van full of science shows and exhibits and set off to schools all over Scotland, from the borders to the highlands and islands. I love my job, and one of my favourite aspects of it is interacting with the kids during the exhibit sessions or after a show, who can be anywhere between 5 and 16 years old. We ask teachers to fill out feedback forms in order to justify and secure our funding and to assure we are hitting all the right spots as far as the curriculum is concerned, but for me direct face-to-face interaction with the pupils themselves is the best measure of our impact, and I don’t care if it’s difficult to measure quantitatively or that it does not cut it with the funders. The children and young people I work with are the reason I do the job I do, and this is an open letter to them.

Dear Primary School pupils,

You guys are brilliant. I will never stop envying your energy, enthusiasm and endless curiosity about the world, and I think all adults could learn a lot from you.  You lot are all little scientists already and I hope you continue to enjoy the subject all the way through your lives, even if you don’t want to be a scientist, because it is all of you who will be the doctors, vets, astronauts, and teachers of the future! Thank you for all your questions which always challenge me, make me think and often make me smile (“Why is poo brown?” is a favourite). Never stop asking “why?” and “what if…?”, no matter how crazy it drives your teachers and parents.

Dear High School pupils,

I love talking one-to-one to you guys, not only because I can talk to you like adults and we usually have really good conversations, but also because you are not afraid to tell me the truth and ask really thought-provoking questions that often I do not know the answer to (admittedly I hate that almost all of you tower waaay over me). I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that you are not stupid. I hear this all the time from you guys, and it is a downright lie. (See also: “I caaaan’t!”, my other pet hate. You can.) You know who you are, the ones who say you enjoy the show or workshop but when I ask you how you feel about science at school, your reply is often “oh I’m not good at it, I’m not that clever!” Anyway, you don’t necessarily need to be uber-intelligent to be good at science (this seems to be a common misconception). The most important thing is to never stop questioning everything around you – remember when you were little and you would ask “why?” constantly? Try to get back into that habit. But now that you’re older, try working the answer out for yourself, either on your own or by carrying out research! You guys literally have a world of knowledge at your fingertips, the internet. You can find out absolutely anything you want to – be your own teacher. I learn from all of you as much as you (hopefully!) learn from me, so thank you for being so receptive and interested in the world around you.

Lauren

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Confessions of a psychology graduate

As is not uncommon in Scotland, I went to university when I was just 17 years old. I always knew I wanted to go to uni, although I was only the second person in my whole family to make the leap into higher education. I have always loved learning and school and therefore it just seemed like the natural thing to do. However this meant that I had to make a pretty huge decision between the tender ages of 15 and 16: Which degree program I wanted to embark on for four years of my life. There was no question about it (after a brief period of flirting with the idea of journalism): I was going to study psychology.

At the time this was a very easy decision to make and it has only been fairly recently that I have begun to reflect on why I made this decision and did not even consider another subject – in particular, given my obvious passion and enthusiasm for biology etc, why did I not chose to study a “real” science?

The answer is, if someone could go back in time, find the 15-16 year old Loris (probably sitting in her computing class giggling hysterically at hilarious cartoon videos on Weebls-stuff – hey, these were the days before Youtube, kids!) and tell her that she should consider studying biology at university, I’m almost certain she would have laughed in your face.

It’s not that I didn’t like science – in fact, when we were choosing our standard grade subjects (Scottish equivalent of the English GCSEs or whatever they are these days) I was adamant that I wanted to pick up both chemistry and biology, which my guidance teacher advised against because it was “tricky to take two sciences” (he asked me to consider taking an arts subject instead, however if he had spoken to either my art or craft and design teacher and/or ever taken a look at any of the monstrosities I had produced in these classes I’m sure he would have retracted that statement). But I got my own way and studied both biology and chemistry. It’s sad to say that I adored both of these subjects until I was formally taught them in school.

My chemistry teacher looked like a mad scientist, but not in an eccentric and endearing way. He was short with the most unruly beard I have ever seen, was never without a ragged tank top covered by a lab coat and had a very obvious dislike of high school-age children. He mumbled when he spoke so you couldn’t hear a damn thing he said, and when he tried to emphasise his point by writing it on the blackboard at the front of the class, his writing was so manic and unintelligible that it just made things more confusing and you wouldn’t dare ask a question because it just seemed to frustrate him, making everything a bit more agitated. I enjoyed the demos we got to do in class, but I left every day with absolutely no idea of the science behind them and the relevance of any of them.

Biology was a little different; my teacher was a patient elderly woman who explained things quite well. I loved learning about plants and animals and cells and ecology, but when it came to assessment time I failed miserably every time. I felt like I understood the lessons and my homework was always fine, but when it came to class tests I was just not getting the grades. I was in my biology class at lunch times leading up to exams and worked my ass off to eventually got a top grade in the exam, but it was a real struggle. I realise now that perhaps I found this so difficult because the questions we were asked were so aloof and out of context. To revise we were all told to do lots of past papers which I did, and they helped – but only because you got to know the sorts of questions that would come up. They did nothing to enhance my actual understanding of biology or science itself, I was just repeating stuff I had memorised.

I don’t recall if I made this analysis at the time or not, but I now realise that to me, psychology was “like science but easier”. But I absolutely adored my degree. I barely missed any of my lectures and classes over four years and found the university system of assignment much easier to handle than the school arrangement I was so used to but had grown to hate. Suddenly I could write essays and give an opinion and criticise without being “right” or “wrong”. I was fascinated (and often horrified) by the history of psychological research, and my degree subject became more than my studies, it became part of my identity, and on my graduation day I was proud to hold a BSc in psychology.

It was only after I graduated that I began to reflect on my chosen degree. People began asking what I wanted to do now. Most assumed I was going to be a psychologist (which I had decided against strongly within two weeks of my first semester), then seemed genuinely confused and almost sympathetic when I told them this was certainly not going to be the case (presumably they thought I had just wasted four years of my life). I grew tired of the number of times I heard something along the lines of “Oh you’ve got a psychology degree? Well you’ve got your work cut out with this one!” “Psychology? Oooh we better watch ourselves around you, you’ll be reading our minds!” “You know psychology? Do you, like, constantly analyse everything then?” Suddenly I felt very fed up of the psych stigma.

After returning to university to complete an MSc in evolution and behaviour and deciding that science communication was the field I wanted to get involved with, I was reminded even more of how stigmatised a psychology degree can be. Even now, upon learning that I want to be a science communicator, people say “oh so what is your first degree in?” When I tell them it is psychology, they often respond with a look of near-confusion, at which point I feel the need to add in “…And I have a master’s degree in evolution and behaviour” as if this somehow verifies that I Know Some Science.

I’m certainly not expecting psychology to be viewed on a par with physics or chemistry, and I know that the field has had its controversies and downright absurdities. But it feels to me like it’s always viewed as an easy degree, or something you take if you didn’t get the grades to do something else, or if you went to university for the craic. But I chose to study psychology, despite never wanting to be a psychologist, I loved my degree, I worked my ass of for it, yet… Now, if I could have my time again, I’d at the very least do a joint honours degree with biology, because I feel it would give me more credibility. One of the reasons I am so passionate about science communication is probably because I wish science had been communicated properly to me when I was making such a huge decision. It may not have changed my mind about studying psychology (it almost definitely would not have, I was a stubborn child) but at least it would have made me aware of what studying science entails and the opportunities a science degree can give you later in life.

I don’t know, maybe this is my problem. Are there any psychology graduates out there who feel almost apologetic about their degree, even if they love psychology? If so, please do let me know, maybe we can start a movement or support group or something.

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On animal research

As I was wandering aimlessly around Newcastle town centre today, I heard a couple of older women talking. The only snippet of conversation I made out was something along the lines of “it’s terrible all this research they do on animals these days”. This really made me think, because as a (I hope) scientifically literate individual, my initial reaction was “pfffft clearly they don’t know a thing about animal research”. Then I paused for a second and remembered that as a teenager (not that many years ago), I was against animal research. (It is worth noting here that as a teenager I also wanted to become a member of Greenpeace and attended all the anti-war protests I could; all at a time of my life where I genuinely thought it was “cool” to go to Edinburgh for the day dressed in my pyjamas armed with vodka in a Tango bottle and 10 Lambert & Butler). Anyway, I digress. The point I’m making here is that all too often we assume that “most people” are like us, and have similar views and attitudes to us. But they don’t. And with a topic as controversial as animal research, I can completely understand why people have such strong and opposing views. So for what it’s worth, and as someone who has gone from one extreme view to another, here is my primer on animal research.

Why are people anti-animal research?

I believe the main reason that so many people are violently against animal research is due to a highly emotive subject paired with a lack of knowledge and education: This certainly was the case with my 15-year-old hippie-wannabe self. It seemed obvious to me that you could not simultaneously be an “animal lover” and pro-animal research. But I now realise that is utter nonsense. But that’s not what animal rights extremist groups would have you believe. They like to bombard the public with pictures like this:

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Yes, this is a horrible image. But it is also a very old image and if you look hard enough I’m sure you’ll find other horrifying images of human behaviour from this era, like torturing fellow humans because of their religion or sexual orientation. My point is that you cannot judge current issues on what you think you know about the past. We learn from our mistakes, science advances, we move on. Don’t let stock shock and very often manipulated images like this make your mind up for you.

The truth about animal research

Have you ever been prescribed antibiotics? Are you up to date with your vaccinations? Do you know anyone who receives medicine for athsma, diabetes or high blood pressure? Guess what – we received these treatments thanks to years of research on animals. The fact is that without animal research, we would not have the life-saving medicines we have today. Therefore when people say “there is no clear benefit to humans from using animals in research”, you can tell them that they are wrong.

Despite what horror stories you may have heard or shocking stock animal rights images you may have seen, animal research is and must be carefully regulated. Three separate licences are required in order for any animal research to be carried out: a personal licence for the researcher, a project licence for the study, and a licence for the place where the research is done. In reality, due to extremely high standards and regulations, most lab animals are likely to enjoy a higher standard of welfare and care than your average household pet. According to a publication by the organisation Understanding Animal Research:

“Government vets and doctors make regular, and often unannounced, visits to make sure that the animals are being properly looked after. On their recommendation, licences can be removed and facilities closed down if rules are broken. Almost without exception, animals are specially bred for research and testing. Many studies cause little suffering. Typically, trained researchers give doses of a potential medicine, take small blood samples or scan the animal to check painlessly inside its body. Technologists and vets are on hand to look for the smallest signs of pain or distress.”

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The three Rs

The three Rs refers to three techniques that are required by law to be used instead of animal research, unless it is completely necessary. These are replacement, refinement and reduction.

Replacement  techniques are those which result in the replacement of animals in research with other models, such as computer models. I often hear people saying “why do we still need animal research when we have computer models? In truth, although advances in science and technology mean that animals are now used in fewer situations, some animal research is still essential for medical progress.

Refinement refers to the welfare of any animals being used in research. This is important not only from the perspective of our moral duty to minimise any pain or suffering to an individual animal, but also for the research itself: Animals who are not distressed and live longer lives lead to much more reliable and worthwhile data.

Reduction means using as few individual animals as possible in a given study. This can be achieved by good experimental design and statistical analysis.

So remember that by law, scientists are only allowed to carry out research on animals if all of the above guidelines have been met. Permission will not be granted if animals are not essential to the research, if their welfare is not of a good standard, and there are checks on how many animals can be used.

Final thoughts

One of the key arguments used by animal rights extremists is that the scientific community is being secretive, because they have something to hide, like animal research is their dirty little secret. This is not true; plenty of scientists who use animal models talk about their work, they publish journals and speak at conferences. The reason they may not do so much public engagement with those outside their field is because of the ever-lurking menace of animal rights extremists. This is a bigger problem in the USA than it is here in the UK, but it is still a very real threat. If your family is being threatened because of the work you do in the lab, would you want to talk openly and publicly about it? Thankfully, public support for animal research is increasing, and this is a Good Thing for everyone. If scientists were able to do their work without fear of backlash from animal rights groups, we would ultimately see  an improvement both in the welfare of the research animals (for example, some UK universities have animals which would benefit from outdoor enclosures but their visibility as lab animals would make them a vulnerable target) and in the scientific progress being made.

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