Saturday, 17 November 2018


What do we want for our children? Insofar as we can change their fate; what attributes, knowledge or stuff would we wish on them. You can stop reading now if your answer was €10,000,000 because you're not on my wavelength at all at all. Because, if you pause in your gallop you'll realise that there are many things that money cannot buy: health, honour, honesty, happiness . . . and that's just some of the Hs. Many years ago, when I wrote articles for the Home Education Network Newsletter, I submitted a short filler piece; and as I was the editor and needed to fill a fraction of a page, I accepted the submission.
Educational Outcomes
We obviously want good things and positive outcomes for our children and presumably we believe that home education is a way to optimise this process. But can we prioritise? Here is an exercise. Look at the alphabetised list of words below and sort them for how important they are to you as educational outcomes for your children. Subsidiary exercise: do this blind with your partner and see how well your aspirations match. Or again, write your own list and date it and look at it in a year's time - will it have changed? 
Brave -*- Compassionate -*- Confident -*- Co-operative -*- Famous -*- Generous -*- Happy -*-Honest -*- Independent -*- Kind -*- Punctual -*- Rich -*- Successful 

I was thinking about this on the last day of Science Week at The Institute. It has been a great success for me because at least once every day, I've had an encounter with teenagers which gives me hope for the Future of Ireland as a Technological Nation. There was Gabriela, part of whose self-image was Woman of Science although, as yet, she knew little. Her classmates were being constructively noisy around her. I wrote to their teacher: "Science is not about the stuff you know, it's an approach to working out how thing tick. They were pushing the frontiers of acoustics working out how to optimise the signal-to-noise ratio for reflected sound. Of course, they wouldn't have used that sort of language but that was in effect what they were doing. You can find out what "The Answer" is by looking it up but if you Do it, the information will stick." What do I wish for young scientists? Consistency -*- Cooperation -*- Perseverance -*- Self-confidence.

For an hour on Friday morning, I was told off to mind a bank of microscopes which visiting teenagers were encouraged to look through. All the exhibits were obviously alive and kicking: giants snails and cockroaches, nematodes, insect larvae, and huge variety of microscopic pond-life. I was there to make sure nothing got broken but it was me who spilled the vial of Hydra [like L] and had to suck up the puddle with an eye-dropper. I spent rather more than 1 hour fielding questions about the life and times of each creature. During a lull, one of the girls from a Community College just up the road, came back to me.
  • Could she ask me a question?
    • She could
  • Did I know what was a UV-vis Spectrophotometer?
    • I did. I also knew that I was the least appropriate person in our Science Department to ask for help. But I have allowed students to learn how to use such an instrument while I got out of their way - the best way to teach anyone anything. 
  • Did I know what was the minimum amount of water necessary to make measurements with a UV-Spectrophotometer?
    • I didn't but we could find out, and whisked the girl to one of the labs upstairs where I showed her the UV-spec, and gave her a plastic disposable "cuvette" for receiving and processing samples. I gave her my e-mail address: by the time she contacted me I would have found the most appropriate person to supervise her BT Young Scientist project about heavy metals and water quality.
What do I wish for young scientists? Knowing when to ask for help; and when it's better to try something yourself. Knowing whom to ask and getting the timing of the request right. You only learn those skills by being wrong a few times and not giving up. She could have found the answer to her substantive question with Google "UV spectroscophotometer sample size" the answer being 2ml. But by that path she would never have encountered me and secured free access to the instrument she needed.

Friday, 16 November 2018

Open for Business

Yesterday all classes were cancelled at The Institute, so that we could host the annual Open Day. This is when many bus-loads of school kids are delivered to the campus in the hope that the visit will help them decide what to do at college in one, or a couple of, year's time. I am required to stand at a tall table, answering questions and handing out dull-dull-dull brochures for the various course we offer in the biosciences.  It is like nothing so much as an Attenborough documentary about coral reefs. Schools of identically coloured creatures drift past without much obvious sense of purpose: Voice-over "Here, in their characteristic green sweater and skirt, comes a group of Loretto kilkennensis; notice how the tall melanic individual leads the others from one feeding location to the next. But wait, here comes a smaller school of bright-red St.Leo's carlovia, also an all female group: they are studiously ignoring the other species".

One of the heart-warming positives of such events is to see solid evidence of Irish multiculturalism. This manifests as black teenagers speaking perfect idiomatic, locally accented, hiberno-english; and why not? they were born here, schooled here and GAAed here. Not so much when my friend and work-mate Aspinas came with his family from Zimbabwe 15 years ago. His boy was A God on the GAA pitch in Tullamore but his accent retained a southern lilt until he left school a tuthree years later. The other evidence is the make up of pal-clutches: these are typically 2 or 3 in number and often come in a palette of colours. Maybe the current teenagers are not only down-with-the-gays but also colour-blind.

Having concluded that the brochures had no information that was of any use to a 16 y.o would-be student, I decided to play an empathy game. If I, even silverback crotchetty me, can come across as interested and engaged, or even interesting and engaging then it might shift the scales so that a bright, curious student falls into our clutches in 2020. My standard patter was to tell anyone who would stand still long enough:
  • For god's sake take a year out after school! If you go to Perth or Perth Amboy or Prague for a visit you may never come back to Carrick-on-Suir and then you won't need to worry about which college to go to . . . you can skip that whole schtick.
  • Don't over-think the decision. Our [generic] Bioscience degree is no better, no worse, than the equivalents in other colleges. The vital details in teaching quality are not captured on the brochure. In any case the most significant variable (and probably the source of your life-time Significant Other) is the group of kids whom you meet in your first week in college. Their composition is completely beyond your control.
  • Never go to any college in order to get a job! Imagine trudging through four years of your life getting marks but marking time, to get a job that will have been Taiwanised or robotised 5 years from now.
At the end of a long day, I spoke with one Mum who quizzed me about how we would manage her son, who was fifteen, ASD, dyslexic and colour-blind. Put those in order of burden, if you can. I remember being fifteen, it was not a pretty sight. I think I was able to reassure her. Every year about this time, and again in January, we have a Retention Meeting where we compare notes on All our students. If Jimmy has been mitching half my classes, it may be because he has to leave early on Tuesday to go to work; if he's missing half of all his classes then we intervene. In the first instance, we collar him in the corridor and ask him what's going on because he's not getting his money's worth out of classes. That never happened when I worked in Universities: nobody was pushed if a student was struggling or consistently absent. Indeed, my impression is that those, more likely from stable middle-class homes, university students were less likely to have work-life issues that couldn't be balanced. So, at The Institute, we care. At about the same time of year we get a <strictly confidential> list of students who need extra time or special conditions for December and May examinations: ASD, dyslexia, dyspraxia are the commonest conditions on the list, but impaired sight, wheelchair-needed and other surprising conditions feature. I said to Mum "As we're talking, students are passing my mind's eye each of whom was special: they were accepted, accommodated and, well, cherished". I think that's true. My dyslexic star Project student a few years ago, never thought of dyslexia as a handicap, that's for sure.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

As good as Curie

Science Week motors along. Busy, busy yesterday. I started with a 1st Year Cell Biology class that generated beautiful results from a rather clever experiment to determine just how sweet a potato is. Not a sweet potato Ipomoea batatas! The regular "Irish" potato Solanum tuberosum is not as sweet as as a bowl of breakfast cereal but it's got a lot more sugar onboard than plain tap water.  Me, I love data, but there's something particularly exciting about data that has been generated fresh by students before your very eyes.
Accordingly I was quite bouncy at 11am when I went out to the big steel-and-canvas Science Week geodesic dome [above] to check on my Science Week project inside:
The things hanging from the horizontalish struts are the 26 posters for my Alphabet of Eponyms. I was expecting a trolley loaded with free tea-and-coffee-and-fancy-biscuits but all I found was 1 chair, 1 table and 1 very necessary space-heater . . . and about a dozen schoolkids with their teachers from Selskar College, the Vocational School in Wexford Town. Vocational Schools are scattered across the country. They cater for those youngsters who maybe care a little less about academic abstractions and are more interested in practical skills and things you can see and measure and knock into shape. In this case, in this town, it the only secondary school catering for those families which think that boys and girls should be in the same classroom. Whatever, these kids seems to be having a lot of investigative science-fun playing with the acoustics of the dome: a whisper on one side can be clearly heard over the hubbub if the receiving ears are exactly opposite. They are just the sort of kids - curious, engaged, give-it-a-go - whom we'd love to have in The Institute in a couple of years time.

Two of the girls were occupying the 1 table and 1 chair . . . and working on the Eponym competition while their class-mates were doing Practical Acoustics 101. Despite much pencil sucking, the girls were coming up empty so I asked if they could name any female scientists.
"Mmmble Crmmble", one of them replied [the acoustics were really terrible in the middle of the space]
"Say that again"
"Marie Curie"
"That's okay, but she already has something named after her; do you know any others?"
I was distracted by something else [not the arrival of the tea-trolley, harrrumph] but when I came back to them, they had an answer.
"A Gabriela!"
"Ace! which scientist is called Gabriela?"
Bouncy as I already was, that was the mostest, bestest, brightest thing that had happened all week. Here was a 15 y.o. young woman who had a degree of self-belief to say that a) she was a scientist [I blame the engaged young men who were their teachers] b) she was, or had the potential to be, every bit as good as Marie Curie [I blame herself for that, helped by her pals and her family]. Curie snagged two Nobel Prizes, I'll wager €1 that Ms Gabriella wins one. This may remind you of the great Ken Robinson story about a young girl drawing a picture of god: "They will in a minute".

We weren't finished because the name had yet to be pegged on something. After a couple of minutes the pair had decided that a Gabriela would be a measure of stress. Not engineering stress, but medical stress. With a little help from their teacher and a suggestion from me about salivary cortisol [prev] being used to measure stress we finished up with a novel Eponym:
Gabriela [Gb] n. A measure of internal stress.
1 gabriela = 1μg/dl cortisol in the blood.
Me? Stoked!

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Bob the Pencil

No not those pencils! Those are Science Week pencils; today I'm a metaphorical pencil. Science Week is happenin' all over the country but I'm in The Institute somewhere near the middle. It turns out that I am somewhere in the middle in myself too, because I got my vitals tested by our 2nd Year Strength and Conditioning S&C students in their Annual Mini Health Check. I did this last year, which gives a base line and I got in early yesterday before the lines built up. Well friends, it seems I am wastin' away. Last year I clocked in at 72kg [which was my steady-as-she-goes aged 18-30 weight], now I'm reporting 68.7kg fully clothed. I am not so old that I've started to shrink through vertebral compression, so my BMI has slumped from 24 to 22. The S&C lads told me that my waist is now 81cm = 32 inches. No wonder my trews don't stay up.

The final stop in the Mini Health Check protocol was to have a Lifestyle Consult with an apprentice (younger than my daughters) to that trade. I presented my docket of results and said "Okay, tell me what to do, Doc". But the current feeling in the Life-style & Exercise profession is that they are not proscriptive: they've realised that telling people what to do [esp. if it comes from a beardless boy] will achieve no good outcome. Young feller replied:
"What do you think of the results?"
"Well I'm a professional biologist - that's my office up there - and I have an idea about what the terms mean and they look like average, so I can continue to occupy my sofa until I need to get up to bring in more fire-wood". Sofa? who mentioned sofa? Bring on the sofa, with the light, the lap-top, the stove, the kettle:
Then I had a thought.
"What would you say to a big fatty who came to you? Who might actually need some advice"
"I certainly wouldn't use that terminology, for starters!"
Touché, my fine young friend!
Well I could imagine the sort of advice which would be given for such a case in the form of Socratic questions like "How do you feel about a pile of profiterols?" and "Do you ever think that minutes  mowing the lawn is better than seconds at dinner?"
Then I had another thought.
"It must be a much harder conversation when you're presented with someone who is under the recommended BMI. What do you say to such a one?"
"Have you thought about seeing a nutritionist?" That's the answer given by my colleague, the S&C coach/teacher who was i/c the whole exercise.

When I'd finished, I came up to my office and reported my blood glucose to my roomie who is a pharmacist: "93 mg/dl" I said, "within the normal range, they said".
"When did you have breakfast?", she replied, looking a little anxious.
We both calmed down when I realised that she was using very different units (mmol/Lt) to record blood glucose in her shop and my mg/dl is about 20x what she would consider normal in her clients.
FYI Normal range between meals is 70-130 mg/dl = 4-7 mmol/Lt.
Blood pressure is 121/82 and my pulse-rate is 82bpm. That reminded me to be much less dogmatic about this sort of thing in Human Physiology class. I've been saying the adult pulse rate is 70bpm, but that's just the mean and there is quite a lot of flex (60-100bpm) to be still in the normal range.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

A fine cursive hand

A couple of weeks ago, one of my 1st Year Cell Biology students rocked up to class with his right hand in plaster. He was sorry to have broken himself and wondered what he should do about writing up the experiments.
Bob: Are you right-handed then?
Stu: Yes.
Bob: Well you'll have to use your left, so. Give it a go, if you don't try, you'll think you're crippled. If you scratch away and write something, anything, then I'll cut you some slack on the marking.
An hour later, he showed me his progress: the writing was scraggy but legible and he was quite chuffed with himself. The drawings were much worse - like a child of four. Then again it was not the worst in the class.

The reason I insisted on him trying was that I've been there myself - in 1997 I broke both wrists [in series] the first accident took out my right hand and I could still use use one or two of the fingers for typing, so it wasn't really a handicap at work. Who actually writes much with a pen anymore? My mother otoh, tripped on a rug in our kitchen and, aged 73, broke her right wrist. She quickly learned to write with her left-hand and by the time her plaster was removed was almost as quick with left as right. I remember thinking it was noteworthy that her left-handwriting was shaky but recognisably hers; not like an alien scrawl from demonic possession. How does that work? How do we develop a distinctive hand? Is it all training and example, or is there some slice of genetics in the mix?
That's an autograph from WB Yeats: with horizontal flip. The Stolen Child. Where dips the rocky highland / of se of Slewth ^[wood]^ in the lake / there lies a leafy island / where flapping herons wake / the drowsy water rats; Sing it! When my sister was a teenager, she taught herself to write 'in mirror' from right to left like she was living in Israel or Syria. It took a while until her party trick became completely easy. Again, her writing was recognizably her own albeit backwards. Leonardo da Vinci more famously used the same technique in his notebooks.

In primary school my handwriting was all over the shop and I was put through remedial classes in a largely vain attempt to develop in me a fine cursive hand. It was part of being the despair of my parents and teachers because I clearly wasn't stupid but seemed to be functionally illiterate. Then at the age of 15 or so, I embarked on a project to transcribe all my favorite poems into a couple of fat foolscap blocks of lined paper. It was unfortunate for me and all the trees that serviced the task that I liked long narrative Victorian epics like Morte d'Arthur [300 lines] and Sohrab and Rustum [950 lines]. I rapidly discovered that I could write more and quicker if I wrote neatly - I was a machine - and it still looks well on the page [Wilfred Owen for the Weekend that's in it: he died exactly a week before the Armistice 4th Nov 1918]
I was reflecting on this because The Boy and his family were over for a few days over Hallowe'en and we got plenty face time with Gdau.I and Gdau.II. The older one is in her second year in an English country primary school which is so small that pairs of year groups are bundled into the same room with one teacher. It's therefore quite intimate and the head-teacher tries to channel a holistic education not too trammelled by curriculum and syllabus. tries but the poor chap spends a lot of time filling in forms to show how he is obeying policy from the education mandarins. The policy seems driven by two things:
  • a) accountability and transparency which requires reams of form-filling and external checking that detracts from the actual teaching and dampens each spark of spontaneity into a grey sameness that spreads like a pall across the classrooms of the country.
  • b) a sort of bullying nostalgia for the kind of things that were emphasised in the 1950s and 19060s when the current policy wonks and their political masters were in short pants at school. "If it didn't do me any harm, then it's what we want for the current generation who have been allowed too much woolly leftie 'imagine you're a medieval peasant' nonsense. Children really prefer rote learning of dates. And grammar, let's have more grammar; grammar requires discipline; let's have more discipline; discipline requires rules; rules require rulers; Mr Chapman used to give us a tonk with a ruler in 1959, never did us any harm"
No more than me, Gdau.I is not stupid and she has much more bottle - staying-power / concentration / engagement - than I did at her age. Part of my identity was to be a little drifty; so much so that my siblings briefly called me 'bubble'. As soon as she needed to, Gdau.I learned how to write more than her name and started to get her thoughts, whims and ideas down on paper. The more she wrote, the easier it got and more thoughts, whims and ideas were captured. Then her age group passed the arbitrary age threshold when the central government dictates that all English school-children should start performing >!ark! ark!< joined up handwriting à la 1956. Well, you may imagine that has put a real damper on her true creativity - her teachers prefering to hector the kids to make all the letters in a word join up than give any credit for what the words mean. That kind of petty, picky, rule-based box-ticking just makes me bloody furious. We sat round the fire after the girls had gone to bed and found that we had all made a big shift on the hand-writing front which came from within in the early teen years. If my sister could teach herself to write backwards in a couple of weeks, and I could miraculously start writing neatly, then it seems an exercise in futility to foist that sort of thing on children ten years younger when they aren't ready for it. Why? What use is it? So that they can write thank-you letters to their grand-parents.

Monday, 12 November 2018

F is for Eponym

It's Science Week!
Epic fail, me. A month ago, I undertook to create an Alphabet of Eponyms. Then we had a progress meeting and objections were made about the sex-ratio. Fairy nuff. We dumped half the patriarchs and scrabbled for things to be included so that we began to approach a 1M:1F ratio. Some of the previous choices were oversights, bias and want of imagination in poor old Bob the Biologist.
  • M is for Mertensian Mimicry is, frankly quite obscure except to nerdnik evolutionary biologists
    • M for Meitnerium, the 109th chemical element, hadn't been discovered when I passed through college in the 1970s. But it's named for Lise Meitner one of the many women in 20thC science who was much less visible than her male colleagues like Otto Hahn who stood on her shoulders to win the 1944 Nobel Prize.
Meitner is well 'ard but some of my other affirmative actions could be derided as from the squidgy end of science. The new list tribs a number of STEM women after whom species have been named. In general when fenaming species, men carry on in their usual objectifying women way - tribbing royalty and celebs rather than actual working women in science. Calypte anna, a hummingbird, for example is homage to Anna Masséna, Duchess of Rivoli. Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Angelina Jolie all have creepy-crawly eponyms. The promotions to eponymhood on my final list, the linked ones having featured on The Blob before, are:
That brings the ratio to 12F:14M = 46% which is better than the representation in the EU parliament. Estonia 55%; Ireland 50%; Malta 67%; Finland 54%; Sweden 55% are the only countries that elected more women to Strasbourg than we promoted to Eponymbourg. I decided that we can do some small-small thing about redressing the eponym imbalance and have instituted a competition:
My suggestions [above] may not be readable on your m.device, so:
  • Chisholm n. a billion3 = 1027 = the number of Prochlorococcus, the world’s most abundant organism, in the ocean. Named for Penny Chisholm their discoverer. Sometimes called a Chisllion to match billion, trillion . . .
  • Hopkins Ratio n. the amount by which office space [see comment] is diminished for female faculty members. Named for Nancy Hopkins who documented the discrepancy in MIT.
  • Cliona v.t. A didactic / mentoring technique in which despairing post-graduate students are encouraged to re-read their first post-graduate lab note book. "I've just been clionaed, I really knew bugger-all two years ago and feel much better about my progress now." Named for Nature Mentor of the Year 2014: Cliona O'Farrelly.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

A is for orAnge

Damme, I started, by accident or force of circumstance, at B for Sunday which was naturally followed by C for Sunday and now need A for pArity of esteem before we move off, like QI,  through the alphabet D E F.