College Admissions: Acceptance or Rejection?

A blog article in today’s New York Times‘ parenting blog, “Motherlode,” has provoked some strong comments from readers–and raised a whole host of feelings and questions in me. In the article, “Waiting for College Decisions,” a father discusses his complex set of feelings and hopes for his only child on the day she receives her decision letters from various prestigious colleges on the East Coast.

Because two of my children (a high school senior and a college senior) are going through the very same process right now for college and medical school, I know that the decisions stir up strong emotions in both children and parents.

I admire the author of the blog article (his name is Charles Whitin) for his honesty and for his self-reflection.  I especially admire his final point that we should appreciate our children at this moment in time, while also being aware that change and growth is inevitable.  (For me, a similar moment happened when my oldest son started college.  Here’s a link to an essay, “Suddenly,  It’s Time to Say Goodbye,” I wrote about that experience.)

I’m sorry he got lambasted by several early comments.  I hope he has thick skin and keeps writing.

Here are some of the questions that come up for me on this college admission issue:

1) Is it wrong for parents to want the best for their children? (No)

2) What is the “best for their children”? (That’s a much trickier question.)

3) Which type of college provides the best education? For what kind of student?

4) Does a “big name” college make a difference in the direction of one’s life?

5) How much money and how big a financial sacrifice is a college education worth?

6)  As parents, we take pride in our children.  Isn’t that OK?  When does “taking pride” turn into “getting enmeshed”?

7)  Where are the boundary lines between caring too much, caring, and not caring enough?

I’m glad there is a place online where people are debating and discussing these issues.

Published in: on March 31, 2009 at 10:09 am  Comments (2)  
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Periodic Table in NY Times

The level of chemical literacy in the New York Times is definitely “on the rise.”  (He, he, he.)  (Pun intended. )  See the graphic accompanying this article.

In addition to looking at the graphic, you might want to read the article…. But don’t believe a word that is written.

I take strong exception to the author’s belief that a pun is a tawdry form of humor.  He’s obviously never spent quality time with a bunch of scientists in a bar.  (Oh, look at the author’s bio…. He’s a law student.  He probably doesn’t even like jokes about bar exams.)

I and a number of my scientist colleagues are inveterate punsters.  We have no shame.  No pun is too low.  And if it elicits a groan from the audience, that’s even better.  (Here’s a link to some really bad chemistry puns. And here’s another link to more bad chemistry puns.)

Why am I writing about puns in a blog supposedly devoted to science and/or parenting?  Is there a link between science and puns?

Perhaps.  The kind of thinking required for both activities involves looking at an object or a word from several perspectives at the same time.   The mental agility required to play with words (while punning) is not that different from the mental agility required to play with molecular structures (while visualizing chemistry in your head).

One of my favorite parts of organic chemistry was learning about the concept of chirality and stereochemistry.  Two molecules with the same formula and the same configuration of bonds can actually be quite different, because they can be “mirror images” of each other. In my memory, I can still see my St. Olaf College chemistry professor, the legendary and iconic Wes Pearson, holding up his left hand and right hand to introduce the concept of “handedness” as it applies to many organic molecules.

One of the most dramatic examples I recall from that college class is the anti-nausea drug, thalidomide.  Wes Pearson showed us that there can be two stereoisomers (also called “enantiomers”) of this chemical compound.  One version of this molecule is effective in treating morning sickness.  The other version, however, is teratogenic, which means it can cause birth defects.  The tragic story of thalidomide (used in more than 40 countries in the late 1950’s) certainly got our attention during that lecture, and I’ve been fascinated by the concept of stereochemistry ever since.

So, the moral of this blog post is that puns are linguistic enantiomers.  (No pun intended.)

(Part 2 of this article will consider the relationship between puns and parenting.)

Published in: on March 28, 2009 at 9:05 am  Leave a Comment  
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Don’t Forget the Boys

Don’t forget the boys.  That’s the message in Kathleen Parker’s op-ed piece, “Bring the Boys Along: The White House Council Obama Forgot, in the Washington Post.

Although she makes a few snarky comments along the way (that’s one of the things that columnists need to do to keep up their readership), I agree with the main theme of her article.

As a society, we’ve done an excellent job in the past generation of increasing opportunities and expectations for girls.  Now it’s time to realize that boys need our help, too.

Parker refers to suicide rates, which are much higher for boys than girls, as one indicator of the need for attention to boys in our society.  She could also have pointed to graduation rates, incarceration rates, and lifespan statistics.

The author who has done the best job documenting this issue is Dr. Warren Farrell. His books, such as The Myth of Male Power, are thought-provoking and should be required reading in any class that addresses gender issues in American society.

The topic is fraught with political correctness, myths, and ideology, so it’s one that I rarely bring up.  As the father of four boys and as a man who’s spent quite a bit of time in a non-traditional role (i.e., primary parent), I have strong opinions on the subject.

However, it really would take an entire semester-long class to begin to explore the issue in a way that does justice to the topic.   It would take an entire lecture to just lay out the caveats, the apologies-in-advance, and the careful definitions of terms.  Only after that opening lecture would many listeners begin to put aside their ingrained beliefs and open their ears and minds.  (Just remember what happened to Larry Summers, then-Harvard-President, when he clumsily raised some questions about women-men differences in math and science.)

As a scientist who’s written frequently on the subject of women in chemistry, I’m well aware that there are many subtle societal messages that represent barriers for girls and women in science.  And some of the barriers aren’t so subtle.

Any good discussion needs some statistics, so here are a few for the chemistry profession:

  • The percentage of bachelor’s degrees in chemistry earned by women has risen from 29% in 1981 to 55% in 2007 (statistics from the National Science Foundation and  Chemical & Engineering News, 12/3/07). During the same period, the percentage of Ph.D.s earned by women increased from 16% to 38%.
  • The median starting salaries for women and men bachelors-degree chemists are essentially equivalent ($36,300 vs $37,000), as are the salaries for women and men masters-degree chemists ($49,000 vs $46,000).  (These 2007 statistics come from Chemical & Engineering News, 6/2/08.) The data for doctoral-degree chemists are more difficult to interpret, with some years showing parity and some years showing significant disparity.
  • These significant increases in the number of women studying chemistry have not yet translated into comparable numbers among the leadership of the chemistry community, especially in academe. According to 2007 statistics, just 15% of chemistry professors at the top 50 universities are women. (The breakdown by rank is 11% full professor, 22% associate professor, and 22% assistant professor).

Another good place to go when starting a discussion is to consult some of the scientific leaders who have thought deeply on this subject.  Among the scientists who have impressed me with their thoughtfulness and shaped my thinking are Geri Richmond, Dick Zare, Helen Free, and Jo Handelsman.  If you get a chance to hear or read their thoughts on women and science, I highly recommend it.

While there’s still plenty of work to be done in making the world of science more friendly for women (and for men who want to be involved parents), an even more important issue in the coming years is going to be finding ways to advance the education and opportunities of both girls and boys in American society.

Published in: on March 20, 2009 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Scientists are human, too.

One of the themes of this blog is that scientists enjoy (and suffer) the same emotions, illnesses, ecstasies, depressions, and everyday life experiences as every other human being.

The process of science—with its values of measurability, repeatability, objectivity, logic, and skepticism—does an admirable job of dampening the “non-scientific” influences brought by a human being. But those values can’t be ignored or eliminated. And if it were possible to eradicate those pesky human qualities, we’d also have to eliminate curiosity, the search for meaning, the appreciation of beauty, the desire to make the world a better place, and the drive for truth—the very motivations that underlie science itself. That wouldn’t be a good trade-off.

Just remember that science is a process. A scientist is a human being.

In today’s Washington Post, an op-ed piece by endocrinologist David Shaywitz, “When Science is a Siren Song,” forcefully makes the same point.

Published in: on March 14, 2009 at 7:45 am  Leave a Comment  
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