Science / Engineering / Mathematics

Study of German academics suggests that professors respond to bonus pay for research productivity

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Study of German academics suggests that extra pay concentrates talent and boosts output from some institutions, with corresponding losses elsewhere.

Essay responds to criticism of possible changes in accreditation standards for engineering

Recent media coverage of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology’s pre-proposed engineering criteria changes has raised concerns that some of the professional competencies may be removed from our accreditation criteria. In addition, many have incorrectly assumed that such changes are a fait accompli. The reality is there is no intent to reduce the professional competencies at all. Rather, we are in the early stages of discussion and opinion gathering on how to improve our accreditation criteria so they are more appropriately aligned with what students will need in the future to succeed in the evolving global economy.

Although discussions about potential criteria changes are in process, they have triggered heated debate regarding the importance of professional skills and abilities. We understand the concern and realize the enormous importance of these skills in an ever-changing multidisciplinary global environment. That is why we introduced them to our criteria in the mid-1990s and have strengthened them ever since. The primary purpose of these recent discussions was to improve the criteria: to make them richer in content, measurable and above all realistic. Additionally, in the spirit of continuous quality improvement, there was a concerted effort to streamline reporting requirements by programs undergoing accreditation.

Twenty years ago, we developed comprehensive criteria that have been adopted throughout the world as the standard for producing engineers who can lead and excel in an increasingly multidisciplinary world. In the intervening two decades, the world has changed, professions have evolved (and new ones emerged), while the rate of technological advancement has exploded. It is our responsibility, as the global accreditor of technical education, to examine our fundamental tenets -- the criteria -- to ensure they match the reality of today’s world, while leading us through the 21st century.

Our accreditation criteria were developed to provide programs with guidance on what’s expected from graduates of modern engineering programs. They were intentionally designed to be nonprescriptive, providing academic programs enough latitude so that they have the freedom to innovate. We are aware that academe is constantly examining ways to improve the educational experience for their students, and they must be able to build and modify their programs to meet an ever-changing world. This is a complex task, and for this reason, our criteria committee has been examining these topics very carefully for the past six years.

And while we welcome the vigorous discussions prompted by news coverage and an essay on this site, we want to reassure that, as we have done in the past, we will continue to provide opportunities for professional societies, faculty, industry and the general public to offer their inputs at every stage. For that purpose, a link is available, and we remain committed to engaging in a clear communication process that reaches our key stakeholders.

The wealth of input and opinions is incredibly valuable to our deliberations. This feedback has been influencing our criteria committee members’ decisions throughout this effort. On July 16, the criteria committee recommended selected changes in the proposal. These proposed changes were subsequently approved by the ABET Engineering Accreditation Commission. Now, this work will be sent to the ABET Board of Delegates for the first reading in October. If approved, the proposed changes will be released for public review and comment. We strongly believe that “continuous improvement is more productive than postponed perfection,” as the criteria committee noted during its recent meeting.

In closing, we cannot emphasize enough that it is not too late to provide comments at the ABET website at any time.

K. Jamie Rogers, professor of industrial and mechanical systems engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington, is the 2014-15 president of ABET.

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Essay warns against too much of a shift away from science in training future doctors

An organic chemist I know tells her doctors that she is a professor of Southern literature whenever she is in the hospital. That’s because organic chemistry has come to symbolize all the irrelevant science hoops that premedical and medical students jump through on the way to becoming physicians. Today, we are told, medical students should be learning “people skills,” placing medicine in the context of the community and learning how individuals make choices related to their health. These preferences are reflected in the revised medical admissions test rolled out earlier this year, with its newly added questions related to sociology, psychology and the humanities. This summer, as interviews begin at medical schools around the country, candidates who want to make the final cut are sometimes playing down their science credentials in favor of their relational skills.

This seems to me to be a false dichotomy. To be sure, I want my physician to understand how to deal with me as an individual and as a member of my social group. But I also want her to appreciate the underlying molecular nature of disease and to know how to evaluate scientific and statistical evidence about clinical trials and treatments.

The movement away from science springs from a misunderstanding that is not limited to the premed curriculum. Many people have the experience of science taught as a series of isolated facts to be memorized. All physicians recall memorizing biochemical pathways for which they have no use past the final exam in a given course. If there were ever a time when memorization had a place, that time is gone. Facts are cheap and readily available on every smartphone and computer.

The truth is that science is about so much more than memorizing a set of facts. Practitioners with a solid scientific grounding are able to analyze data and put that data in context, rely on what is known from previous studies and extrapolate to the future, and understand how changing environmental conditions are reflected in bodily conditions.

I have taught biochemistry to medical and undergraduate students for over 30 years. Premedical students usually come into my classes expecting to memorize structures, nomenclature, and pathways and are a bit taken aback at the idea that there is anything to learn other than that. By examining experimental data and case studies they become familiar with the core of biochemistry and are able to go far beyond rote learning. Unfortunately I hear back from them once they are in professional schools that, “it was great that you taught us about concepts, but you should have had us memorize more since that is what we have to do here.” As long as the health professions emphasize the acquisition of facts rather than their application, science will be seen as dry, uncreative and mostly irrelevant to the “real” world.

Along with colleagues at Wellesley -- Lee Cuba and Alexandra Day -- I recently published a study of science majors at liberal arts colleges. Our major finding was that science majors who took many courses outside of the sciences were better able to make connections among disciplines. Some medical schools -- Mount Sinai in New York is a prominent example -- have begun recruiting humanities majors to their classes, requiring fewer science courses than for the typical applicant because they are thought to bring different strengths to the profession. This move is well intended, but it misses the point.

Privileging humanities majors in medical school admissions may inadvertently reinforce the opposition between the “soft skills” associated with humanists and the technical capabilities associated with scientists. Long before the health sciences became deeply specialized, renowned physicians such as Hippocrates, Maimonides, John Locke and John Keats were as much philosophers and poets as scientists. Although that kind of Renaissance career may no longer be practical, today a strong liberal arts education in both the arts and sciences provides the most effective preparation for the medical profession.

Medical schools would do better to recruit broadly educated science students who bring the complementary strengths of integration among disciplines and a deep grounding in the process of scientific discovery and analysis to their study and practice of medicine. If we want knowledgeable and competent doctors who are also well-rounded and compassionate individuals, we must stop treating the arts and sciences as mutually exclusive. We must help our students see the connections between what they are learning in the classroom and what they will practice in the “real world,” to see that organic chemistry and Southern literature are not irreparably separate, but that each may have a role in a medical education.

Adele Wolfson is Nan Walsh Schow and Howard B. Schow Professor of Physical and Natural Sciences and interim dean of students at Wellesley College.

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Journal article speculates that Crick and Watson would have difficulty today publishing findings on DNA

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Article speculates that their landmark work on DNA, if evaluated by today's standards, might not have found a journal.

Microbiologists show it's possible to achieve gender equity in scholarly presentations

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American Society for Microbiology shows that a scientific group with relatively few female speakers can change things dramatically in just a few years.

Review of Beth Shapiro, "How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction"

So it turns out that -- title notwithstanding -- Beth Shapiro’s How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction (Princeton University Press) is not a do-it-yourself manual. What’s more, cloned mammoths are, in the author’s considered opinion, impossible. Likewise, alas, with regard to the dodo.

But How Not to Clone a Dodo would never cut it in the marketplace. Besides, the de-extinction of either creature seems possible (and in case of the mammoth, reasonably probable) in the not-too-distant future. The process involved won’t be cloning, per se, but rather one of a variety of forms of bioengineering that Shapiro -- an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California at Santa Cruz -- explains in moderate detail, and in an amiable manner.

Her approach is to present a step-by-step guide to how an extinct creature could be restored to life given the current state of scientific knowledge and the available (or plausibly foreseeable) advances in technology. There are obstacles. Removing some of them is, by Shapiro’s account, a matter of time and of funding. Whether or not the power to de-exterminate a species is worth pursuing is a question with many parts: ethical and economic, of course, but also ecological. And it grows a little less hypothetical all the time. De-extinction is on the way. (The author allows that the whole topic is hard on the English language, but “resurrection” would probably cause more trouble than it’s worth.)

The subject tickles the public’s curiosity and stirs up powerful emotions. Shapiro says she has received her share of fan and hate mail over the years, including someone’s expressed wish that she be devoured by a flesh-eating mammal of her own making. Perhaps the calmest way into the discussion is by considering why reviving the mammoth or the dodo is possible, but would not be the same thing as cloning one. (And dinosaur cloning is also right out, just to make that part clear without further delay.)

To clone something, in short, requires genetic material from a living cell with an intact genome. “No such cell has ever been recovered from remains of extinct species recovered from the frozen tundra,” writes Shapiro, whose research has involved the search for mammoth remains in Siberia. Flash freezing can preserve the gross anatomy of a mammoth for thousands of years, but nucleases -- the enzymes that fight off pathogens when a cell is alive -- begin breaking down DNA as soon as the cell dies.

What can be recovered, then, is paleogenetic material at some level of dismantling. The challenge is to reconstruct an approximation of the extinct creature’s original genome -- or rather, to integrate the fragments into larger fragments, since rebuilding the whole genetic structure through cut-and-paste efforts is too complex and uncertain a task. The reconstituted strings of genetic data can then be “inserted” at suitable places in the genome of a related creature from our own era. In the case of the woolly mammoth, that would mean genetic material from the Asian elephant; they parted ways on the evolutionary tree a mere 2.5 million years ago. In principle, at least, something similar could be done using DNA from the taxidermy-preserved dodo birds in various collections around the world, punched into the pigeon genome.

“Key to the success of genome editing,” writes Shapiro, “has been the discovery and development of different types of programmable molecular scissors. Programmability allows specificity, which means we can make the cuts we want to make where we want to make them, and we can avoid making cuts that kill the cell.”

Cells containing the retrofitted genome could then be used to spawn a “new” creature that reproduces aspects of the extinct one -- pending the solution of various technical obstacles. For that matter, scraping together enough raw material from millennia past presents its own problems: “In order to recover DNA from specimens that have very little preserved DNA in them, one needs a very sensitive and powerful method for recovering the DNA. But the more sensitive and powerful method is, the more likely it is to produce spurious results.”

Also a factor is the problem of contamination, whether found in the sample (DNA from long-dead mold and bacteria) or brought into the lab in spite of all precautions. Shapiro leaves the reader aware of both the huge barriers to be overcome before some species is brought back from extinction and the strides being made in that direction. She predicts the successful laboratory creation of mammoth cells, if not of viable embryos, within the next few years.

It will be hailed as the cloning of an extinct animal -- headlines that Shapiro (whose experiences with the media do not sound especially happy) regards as wrong but inevitable. The reader comes to suspect one motive for writing the book was to encourage reporters to ask her informed questions when that news breaks, as opposed to trying to get her to speculate about the dangers of Tyrannosaurus rex 2.0.

Besides its explanations of the genetics and technology involved, How to Clone a Mammoth insists on the need to think about what de-extinction would mean for the environment. Returning the closest bioengineerable approximation of a long-lost species to the landscape it once inhabited will not necessarily mean a happy reunion. The niche that animal occupied in the ecosystem might no longer exist. Indeed, the ecosystem could have developed in ways that doom the creature to re-extinction.

Shapiro is dismissive of the idea that being able to revive a species would make us careless about biodiversity (or more careless, perhaps), and she comes close to suggesting that de-extinction techniques will be necessary for preserving existing species. But those things are by no means incompatible. The author herself admits that some species are more charismatic than others: we're more likely to see the passenger pigeon revived than, say, desert rats, even though the latter play an ecological role. The argument may prove harder to take for the humbler species once members of Congress decide to freeze-dry them for eventual relaunching, should that prove necessary.

By now we should know better than to underestimate the human potential for creating a technology that goes from great promise to self-inflicted disaster in under one generation. My guess is that it will take about that long for the horrible consequences of the neo-dodo pet ownership craze of the late 2020s to makes themselves fully felt.

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