Sunday, February 22, 2009

It's Good to Know the Odds are Against Me... Not

Like most standardized tests, the GRE claims to measure general knowledge acquired by the individuals who take it.  However, most people think this is an inaccurate description of what it really measures: an individual's "thinking skills."  In this blog entry, I will talk about the research I found on the bias of the test... and complain about it.

The GRE is used to measure applicants against each other and each individual's potential for success in graduate programs.  Some schools rely on the GRE to make decisions about applicants because it is a numerical value.  But looking only at these standardized test scores, schools might pay no attention to other determinants of success among graduate students like drive, passion, determination, and charisma, and whether or not each applicant has them.  Ultimately, these characteristics seem vital to success.  How does one expect to be successful if they don't care about or want to use their knowledge?

Discrimination started against the individuals taking the GRE when it became a computer-based test.  The computer-based version zeros in on a person's score within the first few questions in each section.  This is unlike early paper versions which offered every student questions weighted with the same value.  You're now probably thinking what I'm thinking: how in the world is this fair?  Well the truth is, it's not.  

Despite what the ETS says, the GRE doesn't measure an individual's critical skills associated with competence, it measures the students ability to pace and guess strategically.  This means that exceptional GRE scores can be prepared for by learning techniques for answering questions that have nothing to do with the amount of knowledge and individual has obtained.  I bet you know what that means: students with the money and access to test-prep materials have an advantage and these advantages are, of course, associated with a high socioeconomic status.  Just because someone has the money to go to test-prep classes and buy every book on the GRE in the book store, it doesn't mean they will do well on the test the first time they take it; they just have the money to take it again.

The GRE further discriminates against females and minorities.  Research shows that most females receive better grades in undergraduate studies but lower scores on the GRE and other standardized tests.  On average, white men tend to score around 100 points better on the GRE than females of various cultures and all minority males.  Within ethnic groups, men received higher scores than females.  Overall, people who proclaimed themselves as white scored higher on the verbal and analytical sections that all of the other ethnic groups studied.  At this point I'm thinking, "WTF?!?!"  This kind of information is seriously disturbing... at least to me.

Figure 1: What graduate schools picture when they see my GRE scores
One good thing about the ETS, however: they discourage universities from using GRE scores to discriminate against applicants.  This might be because GRE scores were only responsible for explaining a 9% variation between students' first year graduate grades.  Hey graduate schools, you know what would be a better way of screening applicants?  Undergraduate grades, which were responsible for explaining 14% of the variation in first year graduate grades between students.  Furthermore, graduate schools that placed a high emphasis on GRE scores accepted mostly white male students.  So for all you minority females with a low socioeconomic status, good luck!  The odds are against you.....

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sniffing out new mates...

There are many things that people use to rate how intriguing a potential “significant other” appears. The most common features people use to evaluate their prospective quarry are height, general physique, facial features, personality type and (of course) income. :-) However… according to some researchers, evaluation of the potential “significant other” may also be occurring at a much more primal level than most people realize.

It is hypothesized that humans are able to produce pheromones and pick up on those pheromones produced by other members of the human race. This hypothesis is not entirely unreasonable considering how important pheromone use is to other mammals such as rats, mice and dogs who use these to mark territories and signal to the opposite sex that they are ready to mate.

Pheromones essentially function as external hormones in the fact that they are small chemicals secreted from the body that have the power to influence the physiology or behavior of a conspecific (member of the same species).

Martha McClintock
first published evidence for the existence of human pheromones in 1971 in the peer-reviewed journal Nature. This study was conducted on women living together in a college dorm setting. It was discovered that the menstruation cycles of women who spent great amounts of time together (such as two best friends) would synchronize over time. This provided very strong evidence that people are able to produce pheromones which affect the physiology of other members of the human race in various ways.

According to a
2001 review article of this pheromone issue, sufficient evidence from various research studies has been accumulated to confidently state that humans do, indeed, produce a certain level of pheromones.

The above findings largely satisfy the classic definition of pheromones: “Substances which are secreted to the outside by an individual” (in humans: sweat) “are received by a second individual of the same species, in which they release a specific reaction” (in humans: change in timing of ovulation and sex-specific changes in physiological measures, levels of hormones, and brain activity) “for example, a definite behavior or a developmental process.” It is only this last component of the classic definition that has not been decidedly demonstrated in humans.
One of the strongest arguments against the human pheromone hypothesis argument is the fact that it is uncertain whether or not humans have a functional vomernasal organ (VNO). This organ is part of the accessory olfactory system and is the main, though not the only, manner in which the previously mentioned mammals sense the pheromones from other conspecifics. It was stated in this same 2001 review article that even though the functionality of the human VNO is not certain, this does not necessarily mean that humans cannot sense pheromones. Pheromones can be taken up and processed by way of the main olfactory system possessed by humans.

Obviously, whether or not people produce pheromones will not be of much interest to the general public if the only power they have over the human body is synchronize menstruation timing of unsuspecting females.

However, if it was discovered, for example, that higher concentrations of these pheromones could increase one’s chance of ‘getting lucky’, the general public’s interest in these little compounds would significantly increase. Most scientific work today dealing with human pheromones is focused on the two hormone-like chemicals ‘androstadienone’ (which is thought to function as a sex attractant to women) and ‘estratetraenol’(which is thought to function as a sex attractant to men). Both of these compounds are found in human sweat.

Further work from McClintock and Jacob in 2000 has shown that the effects of these hormones, while they do have very interesting effects on brain function and psychological state, are not as powerful as the advertising companies are claiming. Nevertheless, other works, such as that of Norma McCoy, PhD, in 2002 and Winnifred Cutler, PhD, in 1998 have found that the male pheromone additive to a perfume significantly increased the man’s likelihood of having sex.

However… The results obtained by Winnifred Cutler, PhD, in 1998 may or may not be partially biased as she was one of the founders of a certain company specializing in perfumes containing pheromone additives. Even though the scientific work being done with these two compounds have not shown the simple cause-and-effect relationship between these products and sex, many many companies are still making profits on items such as candles, lotions and perfumes that are infused with high concentrations of these potentially sexy human pheromones.

My very favorite site advertising pheromone perfumes was this link which shows an attractive, presumably half-naked model seductively explaining the nuances of how this chemistry is supposed to work....

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Skeeter the Narcoleptic Poodle

Per my usual "boredom due to chronically avoiding work" routine one evening, I found myself on a website founded on the very spirit of mankind's ability to operate a videocamera: YouTube. As my friends and I were about 15 minutes into the hilarious tradition of sharing and discussing videos that exeplify the evolutionary failure of my peers, we decided to switch gears to videos of interesting animal occurances. While hitting on some key points of interest (ie. cats getting what they deserve, cattle seeking revenge, and fainting goats) I came across a stand-out situation in the form of a poodle. To be specific: Skeeter the Narcoleptic Poodle.

Now this is about the time where i try to dust off my moral compass to see if it still works. I know that busting up laughing over a puppy suffering from Excessive Daytime Sleepiness is not the most sensitive quality. Losing it when the poor thing passes out while eating, tips over while going for a walk, and faceplants into REM sleep and the floor directly after trying to jump on to a couch is not good either, but there is some science to be had in this situation. I like to think that balances out the raucous laughter.

Even in the video it is mentioned that there is no known cause for Narcolepsy, and that this pooch could yield some serious aid to researchers. There are theories as to how a person or puppy could be predisposed to such a malady. As someone with appreciation for science, I find the way that I think about things to be scarcastic as I normally am, but with a distincitve nerd-tastic undertone that few truly understand. When Wikipedia-ing Narcolepsy I was checking out the causes and find that I break things down into individual scientific punchlines to understand them. So instead of copy-pasting from ye olde reliable Wiki, I shall relate what I have learned in a more tid-bit fashion:

1) Who knew an HLA complex error on Chromosome 6 could be so cute and cuddly.
2) I bet this puppy is thinking "Man, increased levels of hypocretin would so rock my face off right now"
3) Foiled again by linkage disequilibrium. Sweet irony!!

So without further wait, so you know what the heck I'm talking about:


Pimp Smacked by Powerpoint

So it seems that in each of my college classes the ability to procure a presentation by way of powerpoint is one of the main reasons I am paying thousands of dollars. Seriously, think of all the classes you've been in and what was required??? A presentation and if you're smart powerpoint presentation my friends! It is a tool used to determine whether or not I can actually put information together in a readable format without effectively putting the class to sleep in less than 4 minutes.

Plus if you're even thinking of doing a powerpoint presentation about any topic in science, the percentage of people that were just paying attention dropped drastically. Why? Because any time complicated material needs to be broken down into a simplistic form, the main points tend to get lost in translation. It's even more frustrating when you know the individual giving the presentation quite possibly knows less about the topic than you do. Hey we've all been there but shouldn't there be a better way?

I get the reason behind using powerpoint but I don't think anyone gave any tips to students as to what a good powerpoint presentation looks like. Because I couldn't say it any better please check out this lovely presentation about
powerpoint presentations. It helpfully points out the don'ts of powerpoint. You won't be disappointed!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Show Me The Sunshine

Anybody that knows me knows how much I love sunshine. At first I thought it was all in my head, “sunshine can cause happiness,” but it turns out this may be true! All I can say is “whoo hoo!!” What is even better is that individuals who are happy have a higher rate of success. Sign me up!
Sunshine makes people happy because of the production of vitamin D due to its exposure. When vitamin D is produced in the adrenal glands, it regulates an enzyme known as tyrosine hydroxylase which is vital to the production of dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine (which are also produced during physical activity… but who wants to do that when you can lie around in the sun?). With a lack of sunshine, an individual might develop chronic fatigue or depression, basically every student’s enemy.  Who can do homework when they are sad or tired?
So, how are we supposed to get this sunshine without developing skin cancer? The answer is simple: get about 10-15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure per day. FYI: This means wearing no sunscreen with an SPF of 8 or over; but, once the 15 minutes is up, you should definitely slather up!   Also, most people don’t know that many factors contribute to lack of vitamin D production during the months of November through February.  Some cities, like Boston, don’t obtain enough sunshine for individuals that live there to produce enough vitamin D during these months.
To me, happiness is essential in my daily functioning. For those of you who think that you have more important things to worry about than your happiness level, I’ll give you a heads up as to why you should start worrying: happiness can lead to success. That’s right: people who are happy experience success in work, in relationships, and they even experience better health. I don’t know about you, but that’s enough to make me pack up and leave for California ASAP. And if you’re wondering why California, it's because it is one of the five states that experience the greatest amount of sunshine per year in the U.S.  Is anyone willing to pay for my plane ticket?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Goodness gracious great balls of popcorn!

Popcorn may be the most amazing snack in existence today. Not only is it small, white and fluffy, it’s also pretty high in fiber and low in calories… and it tastes great covered in salt. I’ve always had a few questions about this crazy awesome snack, but never made the time to look any of it up…
Anyway, I finally did that and thought it’d be fun to share what I found…

The physics and chemistry behind how popcorn ‘works’ is almost as enjoyable as it’s puffy texture. The actual origin of popcorn dates back to the time of the Native Americans long before European settlers ever arrived. The oldest popcorn ever to be discovered was found in the “Bat Cave”, located in central New Mexico and is believed to be around 5600 years old.
Popcorn has a hard ‘outer shell’ (called the pericarp) which traps moisture inside the kernal (the seed of the corn plant). Inside this hard outer pericarp is a tiny corn embryo surrounded by some starchy material and water.

When you heat popcorn by using a microwave, hot air or oil, you are essentially heating the water inside until it boils. This boiling water produces steam and a pressure inside the kernal which, when it gets hot enough, causes the popcorn kernal to explode violently and turn itself almost completely inside out.

The ‘white stuff’ you see of the popcorn is the starchy material that the embryo of the plant would have used for energy to grow had this little guy not exploded in your microwave.

A recent study by Hamaker et. al (2005) was designed to determine how pericarps with different internal structures might lead to bigger, fluffier popcorn with a smaller percentage of unpopped kernels. It is known that the pericarp is mostly made up of two different compounds, cellulose and arabinoxylan.

This study essentially found that, while the pericarps of the many different varieties of popcorn tested have essentially the same amounts and ratios of both compounds, the manner in which these chemicals interact during heating varies from strain to strain. In the better popping kernels, these compounds would organize themselves into stronger crystal-like walls around the rest of the seed which would help contain the moisture until the pressure became too great from heating and the kernel exploded. In kernels with less than desirable popping performance, these compounds would not organize so tightly and leave 'holes' in the pericarp wall. These 'holes' allow the boiling water inside the kernel to simply escape to the outside air allowing no pressure to build up inside the seed and no delightful explosion to take place.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Being Smart Is Beautiful

I love Dr. Isis’s blog. She is not your average scientist. The typical scientist the society thinks of is old and maybe has no style but Dr. Isis seems to be part scientist part fashionista. I think she is a great role model for young individuals who may look away from science because it might seem drab. Dr. Isis lets everyone know that you can be smart without being mundane.
... plus she has great taste in shoes!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Where's My Manual?

Step 1 to Preparing for a Successful Career: Pick One.
Well I have that down. For a long time I have wanted to be a pediatric physical therapist.

Step 2: Take Prerequisites for PT School.
I’ve done a tremendous amount of research on prerequisites for many different schools and slaved over my class schedule to be able to fit them all in before I graduate. I’ve taking the GRE, I’ve learned physics (well sort of), and I’ve taken a million classes basically all about the same thing.

Step 3: Apply to Graduate School.
Here’s where everything seems to fall apart. I know, I know… I’ve only applied to two graduate schools. But when you have to take a whole week over Christmas break to fill out one graduate application and you still have 22 credits of school work to complete, it’s kind of impossible to apply to more without going insane or failing out of school.

Step 4: Panic.
So what’s a girl to do? Desperate to be a physical therapist because I would like nothing more in the world, and not having the GRE score that astounds every school, I’m left with only a few options: pray that a school accepts me, retake my GRE (but during the summer when I might actually have a spare second), or go to graduate school for physiology (to make my PT application more attractive) and retake the GRE. I’ve basically given up on the idea that my GRE scores will ever be good enough so I guess that leaves me with plan C if I don’t get into graduate school.
Of course there’s always the option of getting a job. But what jobs are offered that provide experience for aspiring physical therapists? I could observe some more but that doesn’t get my and money and I’ve already got 100 hours of experience. I’m stuck in this rut and the only thing it seems I can do after I graduate from undergrad is go back to school. All I have to say is: there should be a manual on all of this…

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Personal Statement or Pizza?

Especially for those about to graduate college and start applying to grad schools or jobs or both, one can often feel like there are so many pressures, deadlines and expectations pushing in from every angle that it can sometimes become overwhelming and can lead even the most dedicated to seriously consider scrapping everything to just continue at your minimum-wage job making pizzas for the rest of your life.
Well…at least for a few minutes.

One of the worst parts of applying to the various jobs and schools, other than hunting down endlessly disappearing pieces of paper from previous schools and such, is the fact that you are asked time and again to summarize, in 5,000 words or less, all of your significant life accomplishments as well as beliefs, current skills and future goals.

Once this actual ‘summary of your life’ has been written, it is rather easy to recycle and use more than once. But actually writing it in the first place can leave you raking your brain trying desperately to answer the question of "What have I accomplished in my life?" and, just as desperatly, trying
to find some significance in the seemingly haphazard collection of life experiences that you have had.

In these stressful times it is really nice to find a comprehensive ‘checklist’ of what to do and include in your application to ensure the previous short-lived fantasy of working forever making pizza does not actually come to pass.

2008 blog post by Thomas Robey was very well organized in the way it presented exactly how one should go about writing this dreaded ‘personal statement’.
Although it would be almost impossible for you to avoid the work altogether (*see pizza suggestion above), this post should help immensely in giving you an organized manner of going about writing this crucial short statement.