Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Hopeful Evidence

I heard about through an email from my mom.  Since then, I've signed up for their daily scans.  Boy, are they neat!  It's a digest of some neato scientific developments that I probably wouldn't hear about any other way!

For example, they featured a young investigator: Dr. Pardis Sabeti.  In an interview ( she confides that her beginnings as a scientist weren't all that spectacular: she always put off her science fair projects.
    Y'know, that just made my day.  I have always been ashamed of my science fair record.  Ever since those days (where I honestly cared about my color scheme than the hypothesis that I wrote at the END of the experiment), I wondered if I was the only one to do badly at them, but still stick with science.  I mean: should this have been a sign?  Have I been driving 146 miles down the wrong road after missing that first "Do Not Enter" sign?
     These days, I see some of the pitfalls I fell into.
      First off, from the get-go, I assumed that my project would be terrible.  So, it always was!  And that wasn't just the case during when my most recent fad became a less than imposing project -- the year that I tried finding an "Optimal Cake Decorating Icing."  (That year the judge quickly refused my offer to give him a demonstration because "he always saw his wife doing that sort of thing.")  Even when I had cool (parent-thought-of) projects (measuring the viscosity of oils, or measuring the visual fields of actual people with actual ophthalmologist equipment at an actual Eye Center), I always found a way to undermine it.
      Usually this meant groaning whenever the phrase "science fair project" came up, and being about 0.05% intellectually involved in the project.  This often took the form of saying "Do I have to?" and pre-condeming all tasks related to the project as menial, boring, and a waste of time.  (Granted, some of the tasks were menial and boring, but most were not a waste of time.  For instance, on the viscosity of oil project, the data analysis came in the form of sitting on the couch and watching footage.  What was the footage of?   Oil.  I watched the oil dripping out of a buret frame-by-frame and counted the frames to measure the amount of time a given volume of oil took to drip out!  Since I had absolutely no interest in finding the viscosity of the oils, I had absolutely no interest in counting frames.  I considered the process to be a burden cast upon me by my usually-caring-but-in-this-case-deluded parents.  I grit my teeth, and in the long run, I made sure that neither my parents nor I would find any joy in the process or the final result.
      You'd have thought I'd have learned my lesson by the time my final project rolled around, but no.   When my parents arranged for me to measure talk to our family ophthalmologist, borrow his medical books, and use his equipment, my reaction was not excitement or thankfulness: it was abject terror.  I have to talk to him!!!!  Later on, I put off copying pages from the books he lent me until the only available copier was the junky one at the gas station that cost a dime a copy and were so low quality that all the pictures looked like a psychologist's ink-blot test.  I remember sitting at the dining room table, bemoaning the fact that I *had* to sit there reading about the eye's anatomy.  Boy, was I a blessing as a student!!!
       The night before the science fair saw the peak of activity.  This was when everything had to come together.  This was usually when the actual hypothesis was decided upon, rolls of tapes were divided and conquered, and the printer spat out paper all night.
       It was pretty much like the night before the 4H fair, except you weren't guaranteed the 50 cents.
       Finally, the last sheet of paper had found a resting place, and all the projects, accessories, and well-dressed children were parceled into the car.
       Then we got to meet "The Competition."
       One of the local public school teachers dominated the high school division.  I can't remember her real name, but she should have been called "Madame Z."  Her students not only had impressive sounding projects, but their duds were even color-coordinated with their project boards!  This, to me, the was the epitome of science-fair professionalism.  How could I hope to pit my puny talent (and un-coordinated apparel) with such genious?
       Still, it couldn't hurt to at least look at the other projects.  This could be done by browsing the outlandishly-sized title boards atop the cardboard or wooden project boards.  While most of the other kids included the scientific name of whatever bug they were studying ("Daphnia longispina" instead of "the water flea"), mine displayed the single aspect of my project which was mine and mine alone: the cutesy title.   (Why, why did I name it "Muffin Gas" instead of "A Quantitative Investigation of the Fluctuations in Gaseous Content of a Common Carbohydrate-Containing Product during Thermal Cure"?)  Now, ten years too late, I see my error.  Let the judge figure out what the project really is!  Don't spell out your mediocrity in the title!
      The other projects ranged from comparing battery brands to swimsuit materials to the merits of the "10 second rule" to torturing Daphnia longispina.  I usually ended up comparing the type of shadowing or 3D effects different people used on their bar graphs.  Every once in a while, though, a scientific thought tiptoed softly into my head, unbidden.  Once I even looked past the teal business dress suit the girl on my right was wearing to evaluate her project on the 10-second rule.  Doesn't it really just depend on where you drop the food?  But my arrogance in questioning a student of Madame Z shocked even myself.  I timidly put the thought from my mind and tried with all my might to concentrate on my own project.
      All at once, I realized that my parents had only been trying to prepare me for this day, and that what I had thought was all baseless cruelty was actually them teaching me.  But it was all too late.  My realization had not come in time for me to do this project as it should have been done.   Of course, I convinced myself, to really do my job right, I should have become an an expert on whatever I was talking about.  Since I never felt like an expert, I was pretentious to have a project there at all.  (Who did I think I was using the word "optimal"?  I hadn't even known what it meant 'til Mom told me!)  When a judge came up I didn't speak forcefully or excitedly.  Oh no!  I basically apologized for taking up so much of their valuable time with a project that I didn't know much about.   What little I did know about my project often evaporated from my brain as the judge stared at me with mind-reading eyes.
(One year I studied gyroscopes as a project.  I remember reading and re-reading a section on gyroscopes in the book "The Way Things Work," in a rare attempt to actually understand what was happening.  Basically, all I gathered was that whoever drew the pictures was really good at doing angels.  Dad had also given me a diagram of the forces involved in a gyroscope's rotation, and he also explained the right hand rule.  As I waited for judges to come up and talk to me, I remember staring at that diagram, trying to place my thumb, pointer and middle finger face the way his had, and willing the words he'd explained to return to my mind.  When the judge came, he told me that his company used gyroscopes in planes (or something like that).  I looked at him and blankly said, I think it'd be better if you told me about gyroscopes instead of the other way around).
    But Sabeti's honesty gives me hope: maybe I can face the world.

    After all, didn't I learn from all those days and nights of (as I saw it then) torture?  You betcha.  I learned something that has applied to every other experimental trial I've ever tried since then.  When I was trying to compare icings to find which one had the best taste, the best ability to keep the shape of a star while not producing droopy "chocolate chip tips," and the ability to hold its shape even when piped into shapes four inches high, I went about it arbitrarily.  I didn't always do every test with each icing, and I was not at all methodical in my testing.  Mom told me that if I was really going to compare the different icings, I had to do the same thing for each icing.  If I changed my criteria or method for one icing, I'd have to do that for all the others, too.
   Simple, you say?  Why'd you have to be told that, you ask?  I don't know why, exactly, but hearing that concept from Mom the way she said it and in the context of struggling with a bag of icing in my hand, clicked.  (It was like the time that Dad explained to our chemistry class what chemical "stability" meant.  He said that a molecule could exist in many different states, but the one that it spent the most time in, and was most likely to be found in, was its most stable state.  He took a marker and placed it vertically.  This might be more stable than a 45 degree orientation, but it isn't nearly as stable as this one -- and he placed the marker horizontal).
    Those concepts clicked in those moments, and I've thought about them many times since then.  When I've been tempted to cut the corners when running samples or controls while functionalizing silanized slides, I remembered what Mom told me.  When I heard about the chemical states in later, more advanced (but often not as well-demonstrated) classes, I always pictured Dad's marker in its different states.
    I truly lacked confidence.  I remember one judge disagreeing with me on which area of the retina had the most acute vision.  I had studied that, but I felt super uncomfortable asserting anything he disagreed with.  That general sense of embarrassment was a constant companion as I stood in front on my project.  But it didn't have to be that way!  I could have broken out of that, especially if I had listened to my parents!  (And if I hadn't had an allergic reaction to the word "rehearse," things would have been better, too!).
   Mom and Dad never gave up on me.  They never sat me down and tried to break the news to me: "Hannah, I'm sorry to have to put it this way, but, well, you're an imbecile."  They just let me find out the gentle way, and then helped me work through it.
    Their confidence that "you'll do better once you find a project you're interested in" gave me hope that there was such a project.  Now I realize that the problem was never in the project: it was in my attitude.  If I had decided early on that I would be interested in the project, be involved in the selection, keep my eyes focused on the goal, and really try to get the individual steps done, those days spent on the projects would have been completely different.
    There were glimmerings of this truth even in the midst of those projects, but I refused to learn the lesson then.  Since I didn't have the discipline to be tell myself "you will be interested, " the glimmerings came when I let my guard down, and let myself be interested.  When I wanted to test the ability of my family to read words in dim lighting, I had a ball coming up with the messages they were supposed to read.  I decided to put in subliminal messages, and tailored the signs according to who would be reading them (not realizing that this was warping my results).  I designed a poster for Dad that talked about sharing his turtles, and I can't remember what I did for everyone else!  When I started wondering "how dim is dim," I actually looked up the units for light intensity, and discovered a unit (the candela) I'd never even heard before!  Every once in a while, when I let myself get interested, I'd go down a rabbit trail (like looking at light intensity units), and sometimes, in the end find that it actually related to what I was doing!
     If I had only made myself learn that menial tasks are often completely necessary in order to reach a goal, I would not have been so sullen and stupid.  Sure, no one laps up an offer to count hundreds of squares inside a visual field chart, but it that gives you an approximate area of that person's visual field, and a quantitative value or rating to compare to other subjects, isn't it worth doing?  (And now, if I've really learned my lesson, I'll dig in and scrub my gel rack with No-Count again and again, if need be: it really is moving me closer to my goal!)
     If I had let myself see the dedication of my parents and been thankful for their help and persistence, it would have been totally different.  How many hours of work did they spend buying materials and helping/making me do stuff?  How much money did they spend on film for pictures of icing sculptures, project boards, and construction paper?  How much energy did they spend on coming up with projects I unrationally rejected, or telling me for the upteenth time, "No, you can't skip doing a project this year?"
    The biggest lesson I learned was that the bigger the thing you have to do, the better the sense of relief is once you're done with it.  That's why the time after all the judges had finished, all the ribbons had been handed out, and you were breaking down your display were the best moments of your life to that point. 
    Plus, if you can laugh, then laugh.   I think I'll always remember that day as we left the science fair building, with Dad singing a ditty about "Muffin Gas..." to the tune of a Christmas carol...  My stupid title was actually worth something: it could make someone laugh!

    Oh, ho!  Here's another article ( to look at.  A geneticist, in his "spare time," teaches judges the fundamentals of DNA evidence.  This is exactly the kind of thing that judges need.  The more first-hand knowledge they have of what DNA is, how it's acquired, and what kind of uncertainty is involved in evaluating it, the better decisions they can make in the courtroom.
(Now if we can just start having a Christian giving tutorials on Biblical Christianity, I'll REALLY be happy :-)

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