science education

What Would You Do for Darwin Day?

This month a lone member of the House of Representatives from Connecticut, Jim Hines, proposed a bill to make February 12th Darwin Day.  It was totally symbolic, having as much a chance of survival as the dinosaurs after the meteorite.  For one thing, we live in America and Darwin is, of course, British.    

We think it's a great idea and to support Mr. Hines we reached out to some audience members to see how they might celebrate a Darwin Day:


“Bird hunting.  Ducks, not finches.”

-Rob from Minnetonka, Minnesota


Stanford Law Graduate, Peter Thiel, again Harping on Higher Education

It’s no surpise that Peter Thiel advocates for dropping out of college.  Back in 2011 his extreme viewpoint garnered national media attention.  Unfortunately his reasoning is no clearer today than it was three years ago.  Peter lives in the Silicon Valley bubble, (or what sci-fi author, Kim Stanley Robinson, calls the Silicon Valley Fantasy Trip in today’s interview) where the final measurement for everything is financial, and it’s all about whether you got in on the next big tech company.

Peter has achieved some phenomenal financial success, and I’m enjoying some of the ideas in his new book, Zero to One.  But his rants against higher education, inlcuding the one he penned for the Washington Post last Friday, Thinking too highly of higher ed, are arrogant and misguiding.

We're all familiar with the argument that college is not for everyone.  In my case, it was that high school and college were not for everyone.  Out of my freshman class of thirty, only eleven graduated:  I came from a small rural town in Southern Utah.  Out of my graduating class of eleven, I was one of two who went on to college.  Those who dropped out went into construction or truck driving or home making.  Those who graduated high school but didn’t go on to college haven’t fared much better.  One high school graduate joined the military, was posted in Iraq, then went back home to pursue the romantic but back breaking work of being a cowboy.  Most all of my original freshman class are living in poverty with a way too many young mouths to feed.  In our town, we heard the argument constantly that “school is not for everyone.”


Peter is obviously targeting upper middle class suburban/urban America with his opinion pieces.  The America that he grew up in.  He’s talking about kids with parents who never hesitate whether to pay for their college education, and have the funds to do so.  Kids whose parents are doctors, and politicians, engineers, and accountants--college graduates themselves.  Kids who grow up with good high schools and great access to science labs and AP classes. 

Peter refers to President Obama’s recent statements that, basically, college is the new high school.  To thrive in our increasingly tech dominated economy, a young person must go to college, the president has reasoned.  This disturbs Peter.  But for the wrong reasons.  Peter thinks that we are straight jacketing young people and “funneling [them] into a tournament that bankrupts the losers and turns the winners into conformists.”  

I say for the wrong reasons because many of us have been disturbed that the president justifies things that are good to do in and of themselves with financial gain.  He’s a politician, and this argument has appeal with the Republicans and fiscally conservative Independents.  Remember the SOTU Address where Obama was justifying government investment in science with the example that every dollar invested in sequencing the first human genome yielded $140 to our economy?

As if we did the Human Genome Project solely to make money.   Sadly, gone are the days when a president argues that we go to the moon for the challenge of the endeavor itself.

An excerpt from John F. Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech:

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Peter's skepticism goes beyond claiming that college creates "winners and losers."  According to him, even the winners are losers.  

In 2011, he established the Thiel Fellowship, what he might consider his control group in an experiment to prove his thesis.   This is a program that awards 20 kids under 20 with $100K each over two years to strike out on their own.    The requirement to participate?  That they drop out of school.   But what does this prove other than the fact that seventeen year olds will take money.  Shouldn't the experiment be done without offering the $100K?  Talk about winners and losers.

All the hard work at Harvard is done by admissions, writes Peter.   Does that mean all the hard work done at the Thiel Fellowship is done by the recruiters?     Couldn't the 20 under 20 just as easily be a select group taken under the wing of some university professor and given fellowships?   A brief look at some of the videos worshipfully prepared by Wired Magazine about these fellows will show that they live together in one house, just as in a dorm.  In fact, one of the fellows jokes that he is “going from one sorority to another.”  For Thiel, everything, including Harvard University, is a software program.  Once you write the code, there’s no more work.  Does he really think that no one, none of the students, none of the teachers at a university work hard?  

A lot of money can make a man foollhardy.  I once chatted with the richest man in Utah, a Mormon, who was determined to prove with DNA testing that the Native Americans came directly from Israel, thus proving The Book of Mormon.  This, despite growing evidence to the contrary coming from many directions.  And this from the guy with 60 patents to his name, mostly medical, one of which was for the disposable venous catheter.

Peter’s assumptions are all dominated by money.  He structures this latest opinion piece explicitly around financial terms.  First, is college a good investment, he asks.  Second, is college mostly about consumption?   Oh, it's an insurance.   Or is it about a competitive tournament-style economy?  Or is it a financial bubble that has replaced the housing bubble?

You're the one in the bubble, Peter.

If I hadn’t gone to college, not only would I probably be mining shale gas in North Dakota right  now (construction was good in Southern Utah until it suddenly was not), I’d be a closeted gay creationist with a dozen kids and a headache every time I thought about reading a book.

Beyond the fact that Peter doesn’t see any value in going to college other than to better oneself financially, he doesn’t even acknowledge his own college experience.  Does he think he’d have more money today if he hadn’t got his two degrees at Stanford--one in philosophy and the other in law?  Does his radical view reflect some ambivalence with his own education?  

When you look at the advancements in the life science industry--the discovery of the double helix, the use of recombinant DNA, the devlopment of automated sequencing--they happened in the academic setting where students took part.  Craig Venter, George Church, Lee Hood, Ron Davis all came into their own on campus.

Peter’s short list of examples for his “drop out” philosophy include no scientists, no biologists or doctors who have won the Nobel prize, no artists or politicians, no philosophers or intellectuals--no, it’s a short, familiar list: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg.  These are the names that will keep all American children inspired to drop out of college and cheat their future.  They are the Luthers of the new “Reformation” Peter foresees.  Wait, that doesn't work.  Luther was a university professor.  

And what about Peter’s point that as soon as a university begins teaching a subject, it’s already outdated?  In fact, I remember several professors in college reminding us of this very idea in regard to science and technology.  But what about those subjects that don’t go outdated so quickly?  I studied English literature and music.   All of the English in Thiel’s piece has been around for some time.  His grammar is nothing but standard.  There aren’t even any innovative or disruptive punctuation marks:?.!

Finally, if Ivy League universities are good, concedes Peter, let's franchise them.  I didn't attend an Ivy League school, but I spent a term at Cambridge University in England.  I resided at Trinity College, the same old structure built by Henry VIII that housed Newton and Tennyson.   At Cambridge, each student has a mentor who lives in the same college.  It's a tradition that has evolved over half a millenium and produced the likes of Charles Darwin, John Maynard Keynes, Stephen Hawking, Ludwig Wittgenstien, and John Oliver.  The idea of franchising this tradition is akin to duplicating the Grand Canyon on one of Peter's floating islands.

Peter has said elsewhere that he’s not talking about doing away with college altogether.  Whew!  You can relax Cambridge, Stanford, Oxford, Harvard.  Peter says you can stay around.  No, he’s just against a “one size fits all.”   School, or life, is like a suit.  You can get your own size.  

Thanks for telling us, Peter.  We learned that back in college.

Faces of Leadership in Diagnostics: Mara Aspinall


Mara Aspinall, Founder, DxInsights

Bio and Contact Info

Listen (2:43) DxInsights and EPEMED

Listen (3:53) Diagnostics 5.0

Listen (2:43) International School of Biomedical Diagnostics

Listen (3:43) FDA Guidance on LDTs: the right time? the right move?

Listen (3:53) Angelina Jolie: a teaching moment

Listen (4:17) What translational gap?

Listen (1:56) Educating payers

You could call her Ms. Dx Education. Mara Aspinall has served as CEO of diagnostics companies big and small, but she’s also spent a great deal of time building a diagnostics community. Some of the early meetings of the Personalized Medicine Coalition took place in her home.

Recently Mara has stepped up her efforts in diagnostics education: that of the industry players, of physicians, and also of the next generation. She’s a co-founder of DxInsights, a new non-profit focused on better education that has already put on their first conference. DxInsights recently announced a partnership with EPEMED, or the European version of the Personalized Medicine Coalition, to create a new Knowledge Center. She is perhaps most proud of helping to create a new International School of Biomedical Diagnostics which has enrolled their first graduate students this year. This school is a first of its kind, pulling faculty expertise from various organizations in Southern Arizona as well as Dublin City University.

“We have medical school students requesting that sequencing--and what I call “Diagnostics 5.0”-- be a part of their curriculum, and it has not been,” she says in today’s interview.


Mara is a supporter of the FDA’s recent move on LDTs, saying that the current system for diagnostics has not been working. She thinks new regulation that levels the playing field among the various players will help to spur business and innovation because it offers a more predictable path to market.

We end with her thoughts on physician and payer education.

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Philosophy of Science, Part IV with Nathan Pearson: A Scientist Responds

Guest: Nathan Pearson, Senior Director of Scientific Engagement & Public Outreach, New York Genome Center

Bio and Contact Info

Chapters: (Advance the marker)

0:44 Asking the "why" questions

5:55 The biological editor

11:53 Has the language of biology limited us scientifically?

16:02 Latin vs. plain language

20:17 Presenting genomics to the lay audience

23:30 Has the reductionist approach been codified into the language of biology?

29:58 Do scientists listen to philosophers?

For the next segment of our Philosophy of Science series, we talk not with a philosopher, but with a scientist. Nathan Pearson has been a genome scientist at Knome and Ingenuity Systems, and just this month began with the cool title, Senior Director of Scientific Engagement & Public Outreach at the New York Genome Center. On today's program Nathan responds to some of the ideas that have surfaced in this series. How is the study of biology limited by language? Is a certain amount of reductionism codified right into the language of biology?

Nathan studied linguistics in college, so his knowledge of language is deeper than that of many scientists. But he's also part of the working industry of science. Starting with a discussion about the many ways language and biology intersect, Nathan explains how the history of language affected the study of biology.

Becoming aware of his own language in the interview, Nathan says that since Latin was first used as the language of science, we have always "prized the long flowery way of saying something as somehow being better than the one syllable--or beat [he corrects himself]--way of saying it."

He's against the flowery approach, and says there's a movement in science, law, and business toward using plainer language. And what is the argument against this transition?

"That it's less precise," he says, "which is fluff."

He recites several older Saxon words which are every bit as precise--and more impactful, he argues--as the latinate words. Gut vs. intestine and gullet vs. esophagus, for example.

That's all fine and interesting, but the big question is whether Nathan thinks language is responsible for an overly reductionist approach to biology?

The culprit is more math than language, he says. We end with a discussion about whether scientists even listen to philosophers.

While chatting about philosophy of science at a recent conference with Nathan, industry veteran Lee Hood walked by, and we threw some ideas at him. Always focused and in a rush to somewhere with a retinue following him, Lee nonetheless stopped in his tracks and demonstrated some enthusiasm for the topic.

"Scratch a scientist and you get a philosopher," quipped Nathan.

So we put Nathan in front of the camera and scratched him.

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Christophe Lambert Tackles the Bioinformatician Bottleneck


Christophe Lambert, Professor at MSU, Founder, Golden Helix

Bio and Contact Info

Listen (6:00) Not nearly enough bioinformaticians?

Listen (7:23) Are students customers or products of the university system?

Listen (2:40) Computer Science not a science?

Listen (3:47) Are biologists becoming mere technicians?

Listen (7:17) Theory of Requisite Organization

Listen (6:02) Applying cybernetics to biology

We can always count on Christophe Lambert to come on the show and raise some tough questions and even make a stab at answering them. Christophe is one of those early pioneers of bioinformatics. Getting an undergraduate in Computer Science at Montana State and then a PhD in the same at Duke back in the 90's, Christophe was intrigued early on by biology. This led him to found Golden Helix in 1998, one of the oldest bioinformatics companies around.

This year Christophe hired a new CEO to replace him at Golden Helix which allowed him to transition back into academia at Montana State. He's currently developing the computer science program there, and this has him questioning not only how we go about education, but also how we are bringing information science to the complexity of biology.
After a few questions to get him warmed up, such as "Is Computer Science really science?" Christophe goes on a run, tackling some difficult topics. Are biologists in the IT age becoming mere technicians? Christophe turns to the Theory of Requisite Organization, saying there are many different kinds and levels of biologists. There are those doing classification, or naming, all the way up to those working on universal laws. What universal laws about biology has he probed, we ask.

For more in-depth presentation on the ideas Christophe presents here, we suggest his Vimeo channel.

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How Much Bioinformatics for the New Biologist, Asks Educator Moray Campbell


Moray Campbell, PhD, Assoc. Professor, Roswell Park Cancer Institute

Bio and Contact Info

Listen (5:35) How much bioinformatics does the new biologist need?

Listen (7:51) Biologists need to be asking smarter questions

Listen (4:28) The right ratio of dry lab to wet lab

Listen (5:48) Going back to school for the bioinformatics degree

Attend any conference on genomic medicine today and you’ll hear about the $1,000 genome and the $100,000 analysis. What must happen for the interpretation of genomic data to keep up with the output?

Moray Campbell is an associate dean at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, one of the nation's oldest cancer research centers. Through an alliance with the University at Buffalo and other regional colleges, the institute offers training to the next generation of cancer researchers. Moray is part of the team responsible for designing the curriculum and is wrestling with the question of how to keep up with all the biological data. Furthermore, if the answer to this lies in the education of the next generation of research scientists, what should be the ratio of dry lab to wet lab work for the new biologist?

As the study of biology becomes ever more complex in the world of big data, this question is a critical one. We will explore it in a new series beginning today, The Bioinformatics Bottleneck.

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USF Engages Bay Area Life Science Community with Three Symposia at New Lo Schiavo Science Center

Interview with Chris Brooks, Associate Dean of Sciences, USF

We’re very happy to be partnering with University of San Francisco on the opening of their new John Lo Schiavo Center for Science and Innovation. The new building has been constructed to high environmental standards and is completely dedicated to classrooms and lab space. USF has recently launched a new masters program in biotechnology and are using the opening of the new building to reach out to the Bay Area life science community through three panel discussion/networking events this fall.

When we talk biotech education in SF, we are usually talking about the biomedical giant, UCSF, which caters mostly to graduate students. The smaller USF is actually the oldest university in San Francisco with 75% of its students being undergraduates. Attending a smaller liberal arts university gives USF students much more intimate class sizes with an attractive teacher to student ratio of 1:16. Now, with the new incredibly modern center built over the past 26 months, students will have state-of-the-art classrooms and labs.

The new center is a big deal for the university, which is located not far from Golden Gate Park and hasn't seen construction on this scale for many years. Limited from expanding outward due to real estate prices in San Francisco, and from going upward due to zoning restrictions, the designers of the new center went downward with a building that boasts a highly coveted LEED Gold designation, an impressive feat in keeping its environmental footprint to a minimum.

“The new Lo Schiavo Center itself is a teaching tool as well as a place to learn,” says Chris Brooks, the Associate Dean of Sciences at USF in our interview. (Listen to the full interview with Chris above.)

For example, the building collects rainwater and channels it for use in irrigation and steam to power the building. Floors are radiant and windows open and close automatically depending on the ambient temperature in the building. And, appropriately for a building in the high tech city of SF, all the building data, such as power usage, temperature, etc., are captured for student use.

“The building is really a lab for our students of environmental science,” says Chris, a computer science engineer by training who has been deeply involved in design, construction, and opening of the building.

Promotional video put out by USF on the new Lo Schiavo Center

Three Panel Discussions Welcome Bay Area Science Crowd

To show off the building and better engage with the Bay Area’s vibrant science community, USF is hosting three symposia this fall at the new center.

Sep. 19: Women Changing the World Through Science and Innovation

Oct. 17: Changing the World Through Life Science Innovation

Nov. 14: Big Data Symposium

The first panel set for 5 p.m. on Sept 19th will be moderated by Margaret Tempero, Director, UCSF Pancreas Cancer Center, USF Trustee.

Confirmed panelists include:

Divya Nag, Founder, StartX Med

Gini Deshpande, Founder/CEO, NuMedii

Nola Masterson, Managing Director, Science Futures

Ellen Daniell, Author, "Every Other Thursday: Stories and Strategies from Successful Women Scientists"

Juliet Spencer, Assoc. Prof., Biology, USF

Associate Dean Brooks says that USF has a high number of women faculty and bringing more equality to women and underserved minorities into STEM programs has been an important goal for the university. The Bay Area boasts some strong women in science, and the panel will bring them closer to the students. Attendees will also be invited to tour the new building at any of the three events. We're excited to see USF beef up their biotech and science programs. These panel discussions will bring more awareness to a place in the Bay Area which until now has been a well kept secret.

We’ll see you on Sept 19th to see the new building and enjoy listening to a star panel of women.

Register here for free.