Category Archives: science

On reaching beyond the low hanging fruit in science education

Yale lowhangingfruit

I woke up this spring break morning to a bit of a buzz on twitter that seems relevant to concerns I’ve expressed here in the past, and to my job as a prof at a CSU campus (and no, it wasn’t some April Fool’s prank). Terry McGlynn (fellow ecologist from CSU-Dominguez Hills) has a new post up on his blog Small Pond Science expressing some consternation that Harvard’s 6700 undergraduates received exactly the same number of NSF’s prestigious Graduate Research Fellowships as did the 392,951 students in the entire CSU system this year. He then reflects on some of the challenges of helping our students succeed in science careers in the face of what appear to be larger scale institutional and systemic barriers and constraints (if not active biases).

This bit at the end of Terry’s post resonates with me:

Not that long after I started my job at CSU Dominguez Hills, a good friend of mine came to visit campus and give a talk. I was griping about a series of challenges I consistently face, like riding a bike into a very strong wind. He was telling me how he was thrilled for the potential in front of me. I remember how he said it: I had the chance to literally remake the [white] face of ecology. Every student that I send on to graduate school would have a measurable effect. If I wanted to make change, then, he argued, then this is the perfect place for it. And I’m a guy who can make that happen.

I think he’s right. As several years have passed, I draw on this conversation for inspiration. I really need that inspiration for moments like these, when I realize how hard I have to pedal into the wind, when students at more privileged institutions have the wind at their backs. If we are going to make science equitable, then it must come from institutions like mine. If opportunity continues to overpass us, then the injustice persists.

Sometimes, I really feel like I want to stop pedaling. I have that option, but my students don’t.

I know the feeling of pedaling into that strong wind. I have been pedaling into that wind for over a decade now.

Terry’s post has triggered some good (and some frustrating) discussion both on his blog, and on social media. Some agree that there is a problem, others find his analysis superficial in not really looking at the demographics of who applies for and who gets NSF’s GRFs across the board. Yes, more in depth analysis would be useful and might help us crack the tough nut of how to get more underrepresented students and groups into science. I suspect someone may be doing more of this analysis already, and will look for such. Meanwhile, there are those asserting that this is nothing but meritocracy working at its best already – or perhaps even against merit in the opposite direction, because Harvard students are, but of course, better prepared and more interested in getting into PhD programs and are therefore more likely to be applying for these fellowships. So, if anything, they are being penalized by not getting way more GRFs than the CSU students. Must be nice up in that meritocracy.

Meanwhile, in our world, as Terry notes in a comment under his post:

Of course there are deeper problems that cause students from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply for grad school and graduate fellowships in lower numbers.

Allow me to add to that broader context, about the deeper problems faced by our students. Such has having a full belly while attending college. Which makes this nut just a bit harder to crack.

Last fall, as we were heading into the holiday feasting season, I wrote a commentary about the problem of hunger on our campus which was broadcast on Valley Public Radio, as part of the series The Moral Is (for which I am a regular contributor). You can listen to me reading the commentary through the audio link on their website. Or read this slightly more expanded (and hyperlinked) text here:


Educating The Poor And The Hungry

by Dr. Madhusudan Katti, Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Fresno
November 2014. 

What is the value of a university education? What is the price of a university education? How much does society value education as a public good?

We must pause to ponder these questions as we head into another holiday season, when we gather to give thanks for what we have, and are urged to share with those less fortunate. As a professor at a public university, I have a vested interest in how we answer these questions. For I am appalled by the fact that more and more of my students are among those less fortunate in today’s society, and yet we are not doing enough to help them.

A recent survey at Fresno State tells me that one in three of the students looking up at me in my classroom faces food insecurity: they are literally hungry, not just for knowledge. Another 20% are close to that brink if not over it quite yet. Most will stagger to the finish line still hungry, graduating under a life sentence of crushing debt.

It is hard not to find the student debt burden immoral when the Congressional Budget Office announces that the US Department of Education profited to the tune of $51 billion on student loans. (The actual profit margin has been debated, for the accounting may be complex, and most of the profit may be based on penalizing graduate students more than undergrads, but nevertheless, the CBO projects healthy profits from student loans.) Meanwhile, we keep telling kids that they must go to college if they want to be ready for a career, taking on loans to invest in their future. 

Even as developed nations like Germany offer free university education, American public universities remain underfunded. So they keep hiking tuition, hire more low-wage adjunct faculty, and keep salaries for tenured professors (but not administrators) stagnant. Some campuses, like my own, even charge hidden “success fees“, tacitly acknowledging that normal fees are not nearly enough to ensure our students succeed through an undergraduate degree any more. 

We might as well ask students to plop down their credit cards when they arrive, as we put their diploma on layaway to be collected after they’ve paid the full price of tuition over 4-6 years. How much can or should they care about actually learning anything, on an often empty belly, given the high price-tag on that diploma? We have let education become a commodity transaction between overworked, underpaid, insecure faculty teaching overloaded classes full of hungry, indebted students facing uncertain futures.

Agricultural universities like Fresno State might offer food pantries to help students, although charity is the last thing they need. The federal government may lower interest rates on student loans. Real lasting solutions, though, require fundamental changes in how we fund and run universities, to empower students. American society must do some soul searching to decide what the real value of education is, not just for the individual student seeking a job, but for a once advanced nation that has lost its way. Lady liberty may hold a beacon welcoming the hungry, tired, huddled masses to America. In my university classroom though, I urge you to send me eager well-fed students, hungry only for knowledge.


That is the broader context within which we must try to prepare our students for careers in science, encouraging underrepresented minority students with no cultural inheritance of science (or even university education at all) in their familial backgrounds to get into science PhD programs at a time when we also lament the overproduction of PhDs in the sciences! That is the context within which we must recognize the place of science/STEM education, and figure out how we can make science more representative and inclusive.

That is the wind into which we must keep pedaling our bicycles so we might help more of our students (and not just the “low-hanging fruit”) get up on that shiny hill of meritocracy.

“It’s true whether or not you believe in it. That’s why it works!” – Neil deGrasse Tyson brings Science to CNN and Colbert Nation

I don’t want to turn this blog into a Neil deGrasse Tyson fan site, but its hard not to share when he is so damned articulate about issues that concern me deeply, about the unnecessary yet ever-present culture war in America that is depriving generations of the beauty and wisdom that a scientific perspective can bring. Nobody explains this more clearly than Tyson, and in ways that should be understandable even to reasonable religious folks. I’m with him when he says that he doesn’t care what you believe—I keep telling my students the same thing—because you have the freedom to believe whatever you want in this country. But you must recognize also that your belief is not going to affect the reality that science allows us to perceive and understand. That reality, and the science of understanding it, “it’s true whether or not you believe in it!” Indeed.

So here are a few more clips from Tyson’s appearance on the telly this week, in the wake of his new fame as the host of the rebooted Cosmos. First, an interview on CNN’s Reliable Sources where he challenged the journalistic notion of “balance” which can be quite false and unbalanced when it comes to presenting science in the mainstream media.

And then he made his 10th appearance on The Colbert Report (presumably walking right over from his CNN gig because he’s wearing the same outfit!):–1–2

Genie Scott on the Evolution of Creationism


How has creationism changed over the years? How have beliefs–and tactics–changed? What’s the genesis of “intelligent design” and does it truly challenge the foundations of evolutionary biology? Genie Scott discusses the history of creationism and new tactics coming round the bend. From a talk given at North Dakota State University, 2/11/2010.


Posted via email from Darwin’s Bulldogs

The immortal HeLa cells and their source, Henrietta Lacks

ABC World News aired this story last Sunday, which includes a short interview clip with Rebecca Skloot, whose book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is just hitting the stores. And yes, the woman’s name is Lacks – but lame as it seems, the ABC website and video have misspelt it!! The story itself is quite remarkable, and really well told. I will try to post a review of the book here as I’m hoping to finish reading it soon.

Posted via web from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

Wishing I could be at this fun event this week… (#scio10)

Will try to catch it online instead, when I can, in between working on syllabi and getting labs organized for semester beginning next week. Do check out the website and associated wiki, for there are some cool things going on there, especially for those of us engaged in trying to do science and communicate science through various online avenues.

Posted via web from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

Café Scientifique tonight: Epidemiology of Lung Cancer in the Central Valley

Each year 160,000 Americans die from lung cancer and another 220,000 are diagnosed with the disease. About 85-90% of lung cancer is attributable to cigarette smoking and other tobacco related exposures; however, one in five American adults continue to smoke. Although there has been a decline in smoking during the last several decades, recent national data suggest the decline has leveled off, especially among young adults. In this presentation, the worldwide distribution of lung cancer, state and local patterns of lung cancer will be presented, as well as data on smoking habits and other risk factors for this deadly disease.

For those of you in Fresno tonight – a reminder: the above is the topic for tonight’s talk at the Central Valley Café Scientifique by Dr. Paul Mills of the UCSF-Fresno Medical Education Program. And note that we meet at a new venue tonight. Enjoy – even if some of us regulars have to miss it!

Posted via web from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

Scientia Pro Publica #18: the last of the oughties edition!

028CF91C-54C2-4589-B5AF-CDD794950600.jpegWell, this carnival doesn’t really have much to do with the impending end of the oughties decade, but since everybody seems to be going on about it, compiling decadal reviews and best-of lists, I just tossed it up there. Caught your eye, didn’t it? But didn’t turn you off, I hope… 🙂

So, welcome to this (late) winter solstice edition of Scientia Pro Publica, and dig into a fair helping of hearty reading matter to keep you company by the fireside as this winter rolls you over into the double digit years of the new millennium.

Let us begin, for this is the holiday season, with some thoughts about food: about the diversity of our food sources, about how much we waste, and about how often we are hoist by our own petards in attempting to manage our precious natural – esp. food – resources. Let’s start with Jeremy Cherfas, who has over the past year taken us along on the journeys of N. I. Vavilov, that pioneering explorer and champion of agricultural biodiversity. Vaviblog makes for very interesting reading indeed, especially for someone like me who doesn’t know much about Vavilov. But here, Jeremy rather uncharacteristically lets loose with a rant about the difficulty of pinpointing the exact location of one of Vavilov’s collections in the Sahara, and takes us through the frustrations of finding information in GeneBank and other online databases that are supposed to make the life of the modern keyboard explorer much easier than that of people like Vavilov who, you know, actually went out to the frikking Sahara in pursuit of interesting plants! Without, mind you, GPS or iPhones or laptops, as one of his commenters reminds us. Still, what’s the point of all this talk about making information accessible to everyone if one can’t pinpoint and georeference where Vavilov found a particular plant a century ago? I want my data instantly, don’t you? Well, if you’re carried away by expectations of CSI like speed in modern data acquisition, let Heilochica bring you down to earth with a (hopefully) comprehensible explanation of something complicated!

But let’s stick with Jeremy a while longer and visit his another blasted weblog to read about a recent PLoS paper on how much food is wasted in America; some sobering statistics there, to be sure, plus the disquieting observation that there is no incentive in this country for anyone in the food industry to stop producing, consuming, and wasting food, environmental and human health consequences be damned! Ponder that while you tuck into the holiday treats. And if you have to bake wheat-alternative cookies because you or someone you know is allergic to gluten, Eric Olson shares a scitimes video about Celiac disease, which may be the most under-diagnosed health problem in America today (and something I’d never heard of back home in India!).

Meanwhile, we are losing the sources of biodiversity that form the basis of our food security, even as we blithely overproduce and throw away food! What’s a conservationist to do to change such odd human behavior? Well, not what they did in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, where they encouraged coconut farming as a way to lure people away from fishing in order to relieve pressures on fish stocks! Find out what happened on the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog, in another post by Jeremy about the law of unintended consequences! Which bring me to the question from one of my own recent posts: what is it with these Pacific island nations and their penchant for such tragicomedies?

Lest you think this carnival is turning into mostly a one-man-show, let me assure you that there is plenty more that came not from Jeremy’s keyboard! For instance, continuing with fishy business, here’s a post that makes this one something of a meta-carnival, a Fishy Friday roundup of fish in tanks! And if you ever found yourself agreeing with Bertie Wooster’s assessment that Jeeves’ superior intellect was a result of a diet rich in fish, you may be underestimating his (Jeeves’ not Wooster’s) neuroplasticity, the subject of a fascinating interview with Michael Merznenich at SharpBrains on the applications of neuroplasticity to keep all our minds sharp even as we age.

Then there is Mama Joules with two poisonous posts: first, a disturbing one about the dangers of lead poisoning in your home, and the still high childhood exposure rate even years after lead based paints were banned in the US. Followed by a lovely introduction to venom & vomit in Tarantulas! Gotta love them.

Given the brouhaha over the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, I’m a bit surprised at the lack of submissions about anthropogenic global warming/climate change! Perhaps we are all over-saturated with COP15 coverage? Still, there is no shortage of controversy, genuine or manufactured, when it comes to climate change, as these two posts show: a kind of curiously provocative post that suggests nuclear energy may still become part of our green energy future – safely(?) (I have a more cynical take on the subject as I think we are addicted enough to energy in our technology-dependent societies that we are near a threshold where the marginal benefit of nuclear energy will outweigh the risks regardless of the environmental consequences. But that’s me being Grinchy again). Meanwhile, challenges us to ignore the pseudo-controversy over climate-gate and consider the climate change problem in the framework of Pascal’s wager: act as if anthropogenic climate change is real because the risks of not believing it are too great! Interesting thought that – and one that James Randi might consider, having rather startlingly fallen prey to AGW denialism in a manner worrisome to his most loyal supporters.

But, enough with the controversies and bad news. Let’s celebrate the season while we still can, while there still is enough biodiversity to stimulate, delight, and challenge us. For even as we worry about losing species, we continue to discover delightful new ones, like the world’s tiniest orchid that GrrlScientist (matriarch of this carnival) writes about. At the other end of the organismal size spectrum, Kevin Zelnio wonders why we don’t have even larger whales? What keeps the blue whales, for example, from evolving to even larger body sizes? Not the fluid dynamic challenges of using a volkswagen sized heart to pump blood, or the constraints of depending on the tiny krill for food – but a recent paper suggests it may be that their mouths would have to be too big (may already be too big, proportionally) to keep that humongous body fed! That’s why I love reading about evolutionary trade-offs and constraints, and allometry!

Let me leave you with two more posts that share the physical, emotional, and intellectual excitement of studying life on this planet of ours. Over on NCF’s blog eco logic, Manish Chandi describes his unexpected delight in discovering brooding geckos and gorgeous snakes while on a short focused ethnographic research trip to Chowra island in the Nicobar archipelago. And Hielochica expresses her excitement in studying hydrothermal vents – which she considers a mysterious love-child of geology and biology! What could be more fun than that?

So have a happy and safe holiday my friends, and I wish you all a wonderful, productive new year full of many an unexpectedly delightful discovery. And don’t forget to ring in the new year with the next edition of Scientia Pro Publica: issue #19 will be curated by GrrlScientist and Bob O’hara (submit entries per instructions here) and hosted at the latter’s Deep Thoughts and Silliness,