Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sigma's getting with it on Twitter!

Just got this e-mail from Sigma that feels like some 57 year old in marketing tasked with "engaging the youth through social media" heard about selfies and Twitter from their kids and decided to put it all together to try and "go viral". I really gotta get in touch with my field rep for a T-shirt!

Here's our lab's Sigma Selfie, starring cholesterol and calcium chloride:

Sunday, September 14, 2014

University admissions at Ivy Leagues are unfair: wah-wah-wah

Lots of carping these days about university admissions processes. Steven Pinker had some article, then Scott Aaronson had a blog post, both advocating a greatly increased emphasis on standardized testing, because the Ivy League schools have been turning away academically talented but not “well-rounded” students. Roy Unz (referenced in the Pinker article) provides some evidence that Asians are facing the same quota-based discrimination that Jewish people did in the early 20th century [Note: not sure about many parts of the Unz article, and here's a counter–I find the racial/ethnic overtones in these discussions distasteful, regardless of whether they are right or wrong]. Discrimination is bad, right? Many look to India, with its system of very hard entrance exams to select the cream of the crop into the IIT system and say, why not here?

Yeah. Well, let me let you all in on a little secret: life is not fair. But we are very lucky to live here in the US, where getting rejected from the Ivies is not a death sentence. Aaronson got rejected from a bunch of schools, then went to Cornell (hardly banishment to Siberia, although Ithaca is quite cold), then went on to have a very successful career, getting job offers from many of the same universities that originally rejected him. It’s hard not to detect a not-so-subtle scent of bitterness in his writing on this topic based on his own experience as a 15 year old with perfect SATs, a published paper and spotty grades, and I would say that holding on to such a grudge risks us drawing the wrong lesson from his story. Yes, it is ironic that those schools didn’t take him as an undergraduate. But the lesson is less that the overall system is broken, but more that the system works–it identified his talent, nurtured it and ultimately rewarded him for it.

Those who look elsewhere to places like India have it wrong, also. The IITs are rightly regarded as the crown jewels of Indian education. The problem is that the next tier down is not nearly so strong, thus not nurturing the talents of all those who were just below the cutoff for whatever reason. So all those people who don’t manage to do as well on that one entrance exam have far less access to opportunities than they do here. Despite these exams, India is hardly what one would call a meritocratic society. So again, I would not consider India a source of inspiration.

I understand the allure of something objective like an SAT test. The problem with it is that beyond a certain bar, they just don’t provide much information. There are tons of kids with very high SATs. I can tell you right now that my SATs were not perfect, but I’m pretty sure I’m not that much less "smart" than some of my cohort who did get perfect SATs. I did terribly on the math subject GRE–I’m guessing by far the worst in my entering graduate school class–which almost scuppered my chances of getting into graduate school, but I managed to get a PhD just fine. At the graduate level, it is clear that standardized tests provide essentially no useful predictive information.

I think we’ve all seen the kid with the perfect grades from the top university who flames out in grad school, or the kid from a much less prestigious institution with mixed grades who just nails it. Moreover, as anyone who has worked with underrepresented minorities will tell you, their often low standardized test scores DO NOT reflect their innate abilities. There are probably many reasons for why, but whatever, it’s just a fact. And I think that diversity is a good thing on its own.

So scores are not so useful. The other side of the argument is that the benefits of a highly selective university are immense–a precious resource we must carefully apportion to those most deserving. For instance, Pinker says:
The economist Caroline Hoxby has shown that selective universities spend twenty times more on student instruction, support, and facilities than less selective ones, while their students pay for a much smaller fraction of it, thanks to gifts to the college.
Sure, they spend more. So what. I honestly don’t see that all this coddling necessarily helps students do better in life. Also this:
Holding qualifications constant, graduates of a selective university are more likely to graduate on time, will tend to find a more desirable spouse, and will earn 20 percent more than those of less selective universities—every year for the rest of their working lives.
Yes, there is some moderate benefit, holding “qualifications constant”–I guess their vacations can last 20% longer and their dinners can be 20% more expensive on average. The point is that qualifications are NOT constant. The variance within the cohort at a given selective university is enormous, dwarfing this 20 percent average benefit. The fact is that we just don’t know what makes a kid ultimately successful or not. We can go with standardized testing or the current system or some other system based on marshmallow tests or what have you, but ultimately we just have no idea. Unz assembles evidence that Caltech is more meritocratic, but so far there seems to be little evidence that the world is run by our brilliant Caltech-trained overlords.

What to do, then? How about nothing? Quoting Aaronson:
Some people would say: so then what’s the big deal? If Harvard or MIT reject some students that maybe they should have admitted, those students will simply go elsewhere, where—if they’re really that good—they’ll do every bit as well as they would’ve done at the so-called “top” schools. But to me, that’s uncomfortably close to saying: there are millions of people who go on to succeed in life despite childhoods of neglect and poverty. Indeed, some of those people succeed partly because of their rough childhoods, which served as the crucibles of their character and resolve. Ergo, let’s neglect our own children, so that they too can have the privilege of learning from the school of hard knocks just like we did. The fact that many people turn out fine despite unfairness and adversity doesn’t mean that we should inflict unfairness if we can avoid it.
A fair point, but one that ignores a few things. Firstly, going to Cornell instead of Harvard is hardly the same thing as living a childhood of neglect and poverty. Secondly, universities compete. If another university can raise their profile by admitting highly meritorious students wrongly rejected by Harvard, well, then so be it. Those universities will improve and we’ll have more good schools overall.

Which feeds into the next, more important point. As I said, it’s not at all clear to me that we have any idea how to select for “success” or “ability”, especially for kids coming out of high school. As such, we have no idea where to apportion our educational resources. To me, the solution is to have as many resources available as broadly as possible. Rather than focusing all our resources and mental energy into "getting it right" at Harvard and MIT, I think it makes much more sense to spend our time making sure that the educational level is raised at all schools, which will ultimately benefit far more people and society in general. The Pinker/Aaronson view essentially is that this is a “waste” of our resources on those not “deserving” of them based on merit. I would counter first that spending resources on educating anyone will benefit our society overall, and second that all these “merit” metrics are so weakly correlated with whatever the hell it is that we’re supposedly trying to select for that concentrating our resources on the chosen few at elite universities is a very bad idea, regardless of how we select those folks. The goal should be to make opportunities as widely available as possible so that we can catch and nurture those special folks out there who may not particularly distinguish themselves by typical metrics, which I think is the majority, by the way. A quick look at where we pull in graduate students from shows that the US does a reasonably good job at this relative to other places, a fact that I think is related to many of this country’s successes.

As I said before in the context of grad admissions, if you want to figure out who runs the fastest, there are a couple ways of going about it. You can measure foot size and muscle mass and whatever else to try to predict who will run fastest a priori–good luck with that. Or you can just have them all run in a race and see who runs the fastest. And if you want to make sure you don’t miss the next Usain Bolt or Google billionaire, better make the race as big and inclusive as possible.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Greatest molecular biologist of all time?

Serena Williams just won her 18th grand slam title, and while I’m not a super knowledgeable tennis person, I think it’s fair to say that she’s the best female tennis player ever. Of course, in these discussions, it always comes down to what exactly one means by best ever. Is it the one who, at peak form, would have won head to head? Well, in that case, I doubt there’s much contest: despite whatever arguments about tennis racket technology improvement, Serena would likely crush anyone else. Is it the most dominant in their era? Is it the one who defines an era, transforming their sport? (Serena wins on these counts as well, I think.)

“Who is the greatest” is a common (and admittedly silly) pastime that physicists and mathematicians tend to play that has many of the same elements as sports (Newton and Gauss, respectively, if I had to pick). Yet curiously, molecular biology doesn’t have quite as much of this. There are certainly heroes (mythical and real) in the story of molecular biology, but there is much less of the absolute deification that you will find at the math department’s afternoon tea. Why?

I think there’s a couple of reasons, but one of the big ones is that the golden era of molecular biology has come much more recently in history than that of math and physics. And recent history is different than ancient history in one very important respect: there are just WAY more people. This means that it’s just that much harder nowadays for someone to come up with a good idea and develop it all entirely by themselves. In the time of Newton, there were just not a lot of trained scientists around, and even then, Leibniz came up with calculus around the same time. Imagine the same thing today. Let’s say you formulated the basic ideas of calculus. Your idea would travel across the internet instantaneously to a huge number of smart mathematicians and for all you know, all the ramifications would get worked out within a very short period of time, perhaps even on a blog. Indeed, think about how many mathematical results from the old days would be worked out by one person: Maxwell’s equations, Einstein’s theory of relativity, Newton’s laws of motion. Nowadays, mathematical ideas tend to have many names attached, like Gromov-Witten invariants, Chern-Simons theory, etc. Einstein’s general theory of relativity is perhaps an example of this transition: I think I read somewhere that Hilbert actually worked out all the math, but waited for Einstein to work it out out of respect. Similarly, quantum mechanics has so many brilliant names associated with it that we can’t really call it “Dirac theory” or “Feynman theory”. It’s just very hard for any one person to develop an idea completely on their own these days.

This is the era that molecular biology came of age in. As such, there are just so many names associated with the major developments that it’s impossible to ascribe any one big thing to any one person, or even a small set of people. And I think the pace is accelerating even further. For instance, consider CRISPR. It’s clear that it’s something that’s captured the attention of the moment, and I’ve been utterly amazed at how quickly people have adopted and applied it in so many clever contexts seemingly instantaneously.

I think this is actually a wonderful thing about molecular biology and modern science in general. I think the excessive focus on the “genius” deemphasizes that scientific progress is a web of interconnected concepts and findings coming from many sources, and I love thinking about molecular biology in those terms. Although I have to admit that a good old fashioned Newton vs. Einstein debate is a lot of fun!