Girls Just Wanna Be Computer Scientists [video]

The world has a big problem.

Developing technology is the primary way we’re advancing toward the future, and yet in 2010, only 18.2% of American undergraduates studying computer science were women. To work in technology is to innovate, and innovation benefits from a diversity of minds, which often comes from a group of people who don’t look alike.

So where are the women? Maria Klawe has an answer.

The president of Harvey Mudd College, Dr. Klawe has helped transform the way computer science is reaching students. She was recently profiled in a New York Times story that examined how Harvey Mudd’s intro computer science class has been made-over to appeal to more learners:

Known as CS 5, the course focused on hard-core programming, appealing to a particular kind of student — young men, already seasoned programmers, who dominated the class. This only reinforced the women’s sense that computer science was for geeky know-it-alls.

“Most of the female students were unwilling to go on in computer science because of the stereotypes they had grown up with,” said Zachary Dodds, a computer scientist at Mudd. “We realized we were helping perpetuate that by teaching such a standard course.”

To reduce the intimidation factor, the course was divided into two sections — “gold,” for those with no prior experience, and “black” for everyone else. Java, a notoriously opaque programming language, was replaced by a more accessible language called Python. And the focus of the course changed [from] computational approaches to solving problems across science.

“We realized that we needed to show students computer science is not all about programming,” said Ran Libeskind-Hadas, chairman of the department. “It has intellectual depth and connections to other disciplines.”

See how inclusion is done? To embrace those who’ve traditionally been left out, it takes self-reflection, broad thinking, and action. 

Harvey Mudd isn’t the only college to revamp its curriculum:

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Doctors Guided by the F-Word

We expect to get a dose of the facts when we visit the doctor: details of our health, maybe a diagnosis, then a prognosis for the near future, with a swift good-bye. Yet what if these facts were heavily influenced by something less objective?

This happens every time we interact with a medical professional, or with anyone. Because whether we realize it or not, each one of us is guided by that dreaded f-word, our feelings.

In fact, Danielle Ofri, associate professor at NYU School of Medicine, recently shed light on how doctors’ natural feelings continue to influence their work.

We flipped when we first read it! Check out what Dr. Ofri says:

By now, even the most hard-core, old-school doctors recognize that emotions are present in medicine at every level, but the consideration of them rarely makes it into medical school curriculums, let alone professional charters. Typically, feelings are lumped into the catch-all of stress or fatigue, with the unspoken assumption that with enough gumption these irritants can be corralled.

Boo, hiss! Looking at emotions as “irritants [that] can be corralled” is very 2011. So out with the old wisdom; Ofri goes on with the new:

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Strong, Able, and Dyslexic

If you’re dyslexic, this is what you need to know about your self. And if you don’t live with dyslexia, here’s how you may be limited without it.

In “The Upside of Dyslexia,” an opinion piece recently published in the New York Times, writer Annie Murphy Paul outlines the ways that dyslexia confers advantages on workers, especially those related to the arts and sciences. She writes:

People with dyslexia possess distinctive perceptual abilities. For example, scientists have produced a growing body of evidence that people with the condition have sharper peripheral vision than others.

How does this work? Paul explains:

The brain separately processes information that streams from the central and the peripheral areas of the visual field. Moreover, these capacities appear to trade off: if you’re adept at focusing on details located in the center of the visual field, which is key to reading, you’re likely to be less proficient at recognizing features and patterns in the broad regions of the periphery.

The opposite is also the case. People with dyslexia, who have a bias in favor of the visual periphery, can rapidly take in a scene as a whole — what researchers call absorbing the “visual gist.”

If you’re dyslexic, yes, focused reading can be hard. Yet perceiving data on the periphery of your view comes naturally.

Indeed, whole research centers have been founded to study the positive attributes of dyslexia. Consider the recent creation of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, as well as the Laboratory for Visual Learning within the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

So the evidence continues to add up: dyslexia is less of a disability, and more of a different style of taking in information.  If you struggle with reading, knowing the current discoveries about dyslexia can help you find words to describe the strengths you possess along with your struggles.

And if you don’t experience what was once known as “word blindness,” you might seek the help of your dyslexic peers at work.

Especially if you’re striving to see the whole picture.

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Let Out Your Inner Geek [video]

What were you interested in when you were 12? And do you incorporate it into your work today?

Maybe you should.

Our newest favorite scientist, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, loved looking through telescopes at the age of 12. Now age 53, he hasn’t stopped yet.

Spotlighted by Carl Zimmer recently in Playboy magazine, the director of the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History started out with a 2.4-inch refractor with three eyepieces and a solar projection screen. Writes Zimmer:

Tyson would run an extension cord across [his Bronx apartment building]’s two-acre roof into a friend’s apartment window. Fairly often, someone would call the police. He charmed the cops with the rings of Saturn.

His shenanigans were not without purpose. Three years later he would give his first hour-long lecture to fifty adults, fulfilling his wish to talk to people about the beauty of the universe.

We can really feel his passion for studying the cosmos. In fact he once said, “For me, talking about the universe was like breathing.”

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Top 10 Tips for Switching Careers [video]

You know these techniques have to do with revealing your whole self at work, the question is:  how?

We look to the career path of Dr. Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, a genetics research center established to help scientists work collaboratively, and whose mission includes discovering the molecular basis of major human diseases. He started out as a math genius, and–good for him–wanted more.

Recently highlighted in the New York Times, Dr. Lander’s work history can serve as a guide on how to find more fulfillment by switching your career track. From his story we gather these top 10 tips for switching careers:

1. Disrespect convention. If you’re working to transform something — be it a whole discipline, or your individual career — traditional norms may get in your way. Dr. Lander relates why the Broad Institute is interdisciplinary at its core:

We used to have these boundaries of the chemistry department in the chemistry building, and the biology department in the biology building, the math department, the computer science department. Young scientists today… have no respect for these boundaries, and they shouldn’t. They just munge it together… people are now exploring the fusion cuisine that comes out across all these different disciplines.

2. Leverage your frustrations. Author Gina Kolata writes:

“I began to appreciate that the career of mathematics is rather monastic,” Dr. Lander said. “Even though mathematics was beautiful and I loved it, I wasn’t a very good monk.” He craved a more social environment, more interactions.

3. Identify all your talents, then use them.

“I found an old professor of mine and said, ‘What can I do that makes some use of my talents?’ ” He ended up at Harvard Business School, teaching managerial economics.

4. Embrace your naivete. So many of us try to hide our inexperience; Lander knows better:

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Biases Not All Bad, Have Benefits

Bias is bad, or so we’ve learned. And yet we all have prejudgments that have formed over time in complex ways. New research is indicating that employing some of our prejudices on the job sometimes can help advance the world.

Cordelia Fine (right), a senior research associate at the Melbourne Business School, recently wrote in the New York Times:

Some academics have recently suggested that a scientist’s pigheadedness and social prejudices can peacefully coexist with — and may even facilitate — the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

She introduces us to:

the philosopher of science Heather Douglas (left) [who] has argued that social values can safely play an indirect role in scientific reasoning. Consider: The greater we judge the social costs of a potential scientific error, the higher the standard of evidence we will demand. Professor A, for example, may be troubled by the thought of an incorrect discovery that current levels of a carcinogen in the water are safe, fearing the “discovery” will cost lives. But Professor B may be more anxious about the possibility of an erroneous conclusion that levels are unsafe, which would lead to public panic and expensive and unnecessary regulation.

Both professors may scrutinize a research paper with these different costs of error implicitly in mind.

First, did you note Douglas’s role? She’s a philosopher, specifically of science. There are millions of occupations out there!

And next, it seems reasonable to apply this analysis to the everyday workplace, no? Yet we caution: we’re talking only about thoughtful conclusions that have been considered with an open mind, and not knee-jerk reactions about whole groups of people.

Dr. Fine concludes the article with the statement:

Maybe progress would be even faster and smoother if scientists would admit, and even embrace, their humanity.

Hooray for bringing your whole self to work! Revealing the stuff of which we humans are made in this case can help propel progress. We considered inducting Dr. Fine into the Whole Wide Work Hall of Fame for making this declaration, yet first we’d like to see more similar work from her.

In conclusion, feel free as you engage all your many facets at work; even your biases can make your work output better.

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How to Make Great Discoveries

We increasingly incorporate technology into our work lives; LinkedIn, iPhones, MS Outlook all help us get more done, more quickly. As computers and the Internet help us manage more of our daily living, we think about what makes us essentially different from all the silicon.

So we were heartened to read that Svante Pääbo, a prominent German evolutionary geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, is dedicating his life’s work to finding out what makes us essentially human. His approach? Sequencing the entire genome of the Neanderthal.

The human genome was sequenced in 2000, a significant feat in the history of biology. Still, Craig Venter and company had a lot of material to work with; humans are everywhere. Pääbo, however, is working with small fragments dating back 30,000 years. And that’s if the chip of bone or speck of skin is recent.

Amazingly, Pääbo is halfway through mapping the Neanderthal genome. Once it’s done, he’ll compare it bit by bit with the human genome, and see where the two diverge. It’s estimated that the two genomes vary by 4%; Pääbo is hot on the heels of that small, yet significant, percentage!

Yet he may have never progressed this far had he listened to some of his former colleagues. Indeed his career path is intriguing, as reported in a recent New Yorker profile by Elizabeth Kolbert:

When [Pääbo] was a teenager, his mother took him to visit the Pyramids, and he was entranced…

“I really wanted to discover mummies like Indiana Jones,” he said…

In the early nineteen-eighties, Pääbo was doing doctoral research on viruses when he once again began fantasizing about mummies. At least as far as he could tell, no one had ever tried to obtain DNA from an ancient corpse. It occurred to him that if this was possible, then a whole new way of studying history would open up.

Suspecting that his dissertation adviser would find the idea silly (or worse), Pääbo conducted his mummy research in secret, at night.

 The results of his work were a hit! Read more