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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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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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

Come Out at Work: As Atheist [video]

Religion is a touchy subject; just reading this post’s title makes us go “eek!” inside.

In many organizations, executives promote a message that people of all faiths are welcome, and that no one religion is espoused. Then they close on Christmas, which suggests that the Christian persuasion indeed is most valued.

So in a work environment where having a religious identity is expected, what can we do if we’re atheist?

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, increasingly the go-to spokesperson for atheists, has an answer: come out as such.  The author of The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976 and 2006) was recently featured in the New York Times, and he spoke about his upbringing, his beliefs about the world, and of course, his work. Michael Powell relates several facets of Dr. Dawkins, including:

His impatience with religion is palpable, almost wriggling alive inside him. Belief in the supernatural strikes him as incurious, which is perhaps the worst insult he can imagine.

On working in Britain:

It is a measure of Britain’s more resolutely secular culture that Professor Dawkins can pursue his atheism and probing, provocative views of Islam and Christianity in several prime-time television documentaries.

On perceptions of him by his peers:

Critics grow impatient with Professor Dawkins’s atheism. They accuse him of avoiding the great theological debates that enrich religion and philosophy, and so simplifying the complex.

And finally, his thoughts on the future:

He talks of the possibility that we might co-evolve with computers, a silicon destiny.

We ponder that too!

In revealing his philosophical beliefs as they connect with his research and areas of expertise, Richard Dawkins models coming out at work as an atheist. Which would seem scary, and yet he looks very comfortable.

Watch the video below, in which he talks about “coming out” as an atheist.

If you identify as atheist, are you out at work?

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Follow Whims, Increase Productivity?

Admit it: at work you sometimes wander over to YouTube to “conduct research.”  And there are times when you’ve played solitaire to distract yourself from a mundane–or especially complex–task.

Well good for you! When you listen to your whims, you often increase your productivity.

James Surowiecki writes in the New Yorker about the benefits of distraction, and cites some interesting studies which conclude that a worker’s impulse to take a break is typically aligned with an organization’s pursuit of higher output. Consider this:

A new study, done at the University of Copenhagen, asked participants to perform a simple task—watch videos of people passing balls and count the number of passes. … One group of participants had a funny video [first] come up on their screens; the rest saw a message telling them that a funny video was available if they clicked a button, but they were told not to watch it. … The curious result was that those who hadn’t watched the comedy video made significantly more mistakes than those who had.

Turns out that following rules can sometimes be more problematic than following personal desire–in this case, to watch a humorous video.

To be sure, we’re not advocating the total disregard of organizational policies in favor of doing whatever you wish. We’re thinking critically about how to match your internal drives with workplace realities, knowing it’s almost always possible to find a fit.

Sometimes, our brain needs a rest to process abundant or complicated data. Time reported on a study about our brains at rest by neuroscientist Lila Davachi at New York University. “Your brain is doing work for you even when you’re resting,” says Davachi. “Taking a rest may actually contribute to your success at work or school,” she adds.

So don’t feel bad about taking a short respite from the daily grind to read Whole Wide Work. Rest assured, you and your place of work will be better off.

What benefits of resting on the job have you experienced?

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Eric Schadt Commits Violence at Work (And So Do You)

Contrary to his teddy bear looks, pioneering scientist Eric Schadt (pronounced “shot”) engages in battle every day at work. In a laudatory feature in Esquire, Schadt relates how the book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn influenced the way he thinks about violence in his career.

Initially published in 1962, Kuhn coined the term “paradigm shift,” which captures the essence of Dr. Schadt’s current endeavors. From Esquire:

According to Kuhn, scientific progress is not a peaceful process, characterized by the gradual accumulation of knowledge. Rather, it’s a nearly political one, characterized by acts of intellectual violence. A paradigm is like a king — it’s the body of knowledge and practice that coheres around a theory or a discovery, and in periods of stability everybody serves it by practicing what Kuhn calls “normal science.” Eventually, though, it becomes insufficient to its own ends and enters a period of crisis, during which it comes under attack by those practicing “extraordinary science.” At last, the king is overthrown, and that’s a paradigm shift.

Schadt, who practices extraordinary science as the Chief Scientific Officer at Pacific Biosciences, says, “I remember the exact month, almost the exact day I started reading that. It was when I first started graduate school in 1993.”

The article continues:

A paradigm shift requires not only scientists practicing extraordinary science; it requires “attackers” and “persuaders” willing to declaim the end of the old order and announce the dawn of the new. Schadt has turned out to be both. He’s very aware that biology is in the middle of a paradigm shift and very aware of his role in both the murder of molecular biology — the king is dead! — and the establishment of its successor. He’s even produced a documentary film entitled The New Biology, which heralds the arrival of a biology that’s “more like physics” and “more quantitative in nature” than biology has ever been.

Did you catch that? To recap: 1. The discipline of biology–the study of life itself–is being decimated and rebuilt as we speak. And 2. Eric Schadt is forging the path to the New Biology. Indeed his star is rising.

So the genomics guru commits all kinds of violence at work. And so do you. Read more