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Science, math, engineering and technology higher education related posts, including: post about higher education itself and research at universities.
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I Always Wanted to be Some Sort of Scientist

A nice simple post by a soon to be Dr. of Genetics and Molecular Biology on what being a scientist is like for her. I like her take, which I think is much more accurate than some of the generalities people use. The main reason people (men or women) become scientists because they want to be scientists.

photo of almost-Dr. Caitlin

Photo the almost-Dr. Caitlin

The truth is science requires you to be social. We share ideas, techniques, and equipment. A good scientist knows her limitations and uses someone else’s expertise when her own is not enough. The modern scientist communicates not only through conferences and journals, but also through blogging and Facebook.

When a non-scientist (usually my parents or some other close relative) asks me about what I do, they inevitably want to tie it back to how I’m curing a disease and saving the world. I am not curing a disease or saving the world.

I study science because it’s cool. I study basic science — asking questions for the purpose of learning the answer. That doesn’t mean what I do isn’t important. Lots of ground-breaking medical advances have been made just because someone asked a question no one else thought to ask.

To all you ladies fighting the good fight in other fields, keep at it, because the numbers are going up for women with advanced degrees.

I’ve always wanted to be some sort of scientist. When I was in elementary school I wanted to be a paleontologist because dinosaurs are awesome (and so was “Jurassic Park”). When I was 11, I read the Hot Zone and knew I wanted to be a biologist. Though there were times that I flirted with the Dark Side, i.e., medical school, but mostly only because when my teachers figured out I was good at science they said go to medical school. No one even suggested becoming a scientist.

Great stuff. Good Luck, Caitlin.

Related: Movie Aims to Inspire College Students With Tales of Successful Minority ScientistsKids on Scientists: Before and After Talking to Real Live ScientistsWomen Choosing Other Fields Over Engineering, Math, Physics and Computer Science

Molecule Found in Sharks Kills Many Viruses that are Deadly to People

photo of 3 dogfish sharks
Shark Molecule Kills Human Viruses, Too

“Sharks are remarkably resistant to viruses,” study researcher Michael Zasloff, of the Georgetown University Medical Center, told LiveScience. Zasloff discovered the molecule, squalamine, in 1993 in the dogfish shark, a small- to medium-size shark found in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans.

“It looked like no other compound that had been described in any animal or plant before. It was something completely unique,” Zasloff said. The compound is a potent antibacterial and has shown efficacy in treating human cancers and an eye condition known as macular degeneration, which causes blindness.

By studying the compound’s structure and how it works in the human body, Zasloff thought it might have some antiviral properties. He saw that the molecule works by sticking to the cell membranes of the liver and blood vessels. While there, it kicks off other proteins, some of which are essential for viruses to enter and survive in the cell.

The researchers decided to test the compound on several different live viruses that infect liver cells, including hepatitis B, dengue virus and yellow fever. They saw high efficacy across the board.

Zasloff hopes to start human trials in the next few years.

Marc Maresca, a researcher at Paul Cézanne University in Aix-en-Provence, France, who wasn’t involved in the study, agreed that the concentrations used were quite high, possibly in toxic ranges for some cells, but in an email to LiveScience Meresca also called the study “very exciting.”

Related: Alligator Blood Provides Strong Resistance to Bacteria and VirusesFemale Sharks Can Reproduce AloneMonarch Butterflies Use Medicinal Plants

Gamers Use Foldit to Solve Enzyme Configuration in 3 Weeks That Stumped Scientists for Over a Decade

Gamers have solved the structure of a retrovirus enzyme whose configuration had stumped scientists for more than a decade. The gamers achieved their discovery by playing Foldit, a very cool online game that allows players to collaborate and compete in predicting the structure of protein molecules that I wrote about before: Foldit – the Protein Folding Game. You can download it, play, and help move our understanding forward.

After scientists repeatedly failed to piece together the structure of a protein-cutting enzyme from an AIDS-like virus, they called in the Foldit players. The scientists challenged the gamers to produce an accurate model of the enzyme. They did it in only three weeks.

This class of enzymes, called retroviral proteases, has a critical role in how the AIDS virus matures and proliferates. Intensive research is under way to try to find anti-AIDS drugs that can block these enzymes, but efforts were hampered by not knowing exactly what the retroviral protease molecule looks like.

“We wanted to see if human intuition could succeed where automated methods had failed,” said Dr. Firas Khatib of the University of Washington Department of Biochemistry. Khatib is a researcher in the protein structure lab of Dr. David Baker, professor of biochemistry.

Remarkably, the gamers generated models good enough for the researchers to refine and, within a few days, determine the enzyme’s structure. Equally amazing, surfaces on the molecule stood out as likely targets for drugs to de-active the enzyme.

“These features provide exciting opportunities for the design of retroviral drugs, including AIDS drugs,” wrote the authors of a paper appearing Sept. 18 in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology. The scientists and gamers are listed as co-authors.

This is the first instance that the researchers are aware of in which gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem.

“The focus of the UW Center for Game Sciences,” said director Dr. Zoran Popovic, associate professor of computer science and engineering, “is to solve hard problems in science and education that currently cannot be solved by either people or computers alone.”

The solution of the virus enzyme structure, the researchers said, “indicates the power of online computer games to channel human intuition and three-dimensional pattern matching skills to solve challenging scientific problems.”

With names like Foldit Contenders Group and Foldit Void Crushers Group, the gamer teams were fired up for the task of real-world molecule modeling problems. The online protein folding game captivates thousands of avid players worldwide and engages the general public in scientific discovery.

Direct manipulation tools, as well as assistance from a computer program called Rosetta, encourage participants to configure graphics into a workable protein model. Teams send in their answers, and UW researchers constantly improve the design of the game and its puzzles by analyzing the players’ problem-solving strategies.

Figuring out the shape and misshape of proteins contributes to research on causes of and cures for cancer, Alzheimer’s, immune deficiencies and a host of other disorders, as well as to environmental work on biofuels.

Dr. Seth Cooper, of the UW Department of Computing Science and Engineering, is a co-creator of Foldit and its lead designer and developer. He studies human-computer exploration methods and the co-evolution of games and players.

“People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at,” Cooper said. “Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans. The results in this week’s paper show that gaming, science and computation can be combined to make advances that were not possible before.”

Games like Foldit are evolving. To piece together the retrovirus enzyme structure, Cooper said, gamers used a new Alignment Tool for the first time to copy parts of know molecules and test their fit in an incomplete model.

According to Popovic, “Foldit shows that a game can turn novices into domain experts capable of producing first-class scientific discoveries. We are currently applying the same approach to change the way math and science are taught in school.”

Related: Letter on the discoveryAlgorithmic Self-AssemblyPhun Physics Software GameCool Mechanical Simulation System

Bill Dietrich Gives Carnegie Mellon University $265 Million

Carnegie Mellon is one of the crown jewels of engineering in the USA. While we are busy squandering the economic gains gained through science and engineering investments in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s a few universities are continuing to provide huge economic benefit: MIT, Stanford, CalTech, Harvard, University of Wisconsin – Madison… Schools unfortunately seem to be wasting lots of money (on vanity projects and ever increasing administration, and huge pay to overpaid executives), but even so they provide much much more benefit than the costs. Funding from rich, successful businesspeople (Bill Dietrich was a steel executive) is now a huge reason these shiny lights of the American economy continue to shine. On Bill Dietrich’s donation:

This fund, which will become operational upon Dietrich’s passing, will serve as a catalyst for the university’s global initiatives and for its fusion of left-brain and right-brain thinking, such as studies connecting technology and the arts, as well as support future academic initiatives across the university, including undergraduate and graduate programs, scholarship, artistic creation and research.
The gift furthers the university’s ability to educate students in strong interdisciplinary problem-solving and supports the unique recipe for education offered by Carnegie Mellon’s seven schools and colleges, all of which are leaders in their fields.

Dietrich’s gift, among the 10 largest in the United States, is believed to be the 14th largest gift to higher education worldwide.

Related: Board of Trustees gets new chairperson: Dietrich (July 2001 article)$400 Million More for Harvard and MITEconomic Strength Through Technology LeadershipStanford Gets $75 Million for Stem Cell CenterGreat Engineering Schools and Entrepreneurism

The Politics of Anti-Science

In the 1960’s the USA had an unrealistic view of how much studying and learning about science and engineering could do. Investing is science and engineering is an extremely wise economic (and cultural) endeavor but it isn’t going to solve all the problems that exist. Somehow today we find ourselves with a large number of politically powerful people we take strong anti-science positions. These tactics reduce funding and support for beneficial research and are short sited approaches to public administration. This is an unfortunate turn of events that is damaging the American economy and will have huge damages going forward.

Thankfully other countries have seen how wise investing in science and engineering is and have more than taken up the slack created by the anti-science community. Two favorite tactics of the anti-science leaders is to try and create confusion where there is none and to turn the focus away from serious matters and instead playing silly political games. The silly games will draw donors and voters so if they care about those things more than the country and the future of the country it is a sound tactic. The damage it causes the country however I would hope would limit the use of such tactics however that has not been the case recently.

‘Shrimp On A Treadmill’: The Politics Of ‘Silly’ Studies

Take the case of the “shrimp on a treadmill.” Burnett says the senator’s report linked that work to a half-million-dollar research grant. But that money actually went to a lot of different research that he and his colleagues did on this economically important seafood species.

The treadmills were just a small part of it, a way to measure how shrimp respond to changes in water quality. Burnett says the first treadmill was built by a colleague from scraps and was basically free, and the second was fancier and cost about $1,000. The senator’s report was misleading, says Burnett, “and it suggests that much money was spent on seeing how long a shrimp can run on a treadmill, which was totally out of context.”

John Hart, a Coburn spokesperson, said in an email that “our report never claimed all the money was spent on shrimp on a treadmill. The scientists doth protest too much. Receiving federal funds is a privilege, not a right. If they don’t want their funding scrutinized, don’t ask.”

What the politicians are doing is exactly what this spokesperson suggests – they are withdrawing from the anti-science culture created by some in Washington: they are moving their research to countries that support rather than attack science. That is a very bad thing for the USA. There are a number of very bad economic policies a government can take. Driving scientists and engineers into the arms of other countries is one of the worst.
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Career Prospect for Engineers Continues to Look Positive

As I have written previously the career prospects for engineers are bright around the globe. Many countries realize the importance of engineering and have taken steps to compete as a center of excellence for engineering. It is a smart economic policy. Ironically, the USA, that did such a great job at this in the 1960’s and 1970’s, has been falling down in this regard. A significant reason for this is the USA can only fund so many things and a broken health care system, military complex, bailouts to bankers (trust fund babies and others) cost a lot of money. You chose what to fund, and those are taking much of the available USA funds. There are also non-economic reasons, such as the turn in the last decade in the USA to make the barriers for foreigner engineers (and others) to go through to go to school, visit and stay in the USA have all increased dramatically.

Back to the prospects for engineers: their are shortages of good engineers all over (and the future projections don’t show any reason to believe this will change). Germany Faces a Shortage of Engineers:

In June, the Association of German Engineers (VDI) reported that there were 76 400 vacant engineering jobs—an all-time high.

Policymakers in Berlin have responded to the shortage of skilled workers with a number of measures, including changes in immigration rules that allow German companies to hire engineers from other countries, including those outside of the European Union. Among them: The annual salary that companies must pay foreigners has been lowered from 60,000 Euro (US $95,000) to 40,000 Euro, which is roughly the starting salary of an engineering graduate in Germany…

To make it easy for engineers to move around Europe, engineering associations and other groups across Europe are working with the European Commission (the executive arm of the European Union) to launch the new Engineering Card. The card, which German engineers can apply for now and other countries are planning to launch, provides standardized information about the engineer’s qualifications and skills for greater transparency.

“We don’t expect many engineers will come, because among other reasons, there is a shortage of engineers across Europe,”

Related: Engineering Again Dominates The Highest Paying College Degree ProgramsS&P 500 CEO’s: Engineers Stay at the TopChina’s Technology Savvy LeadershipEngineers: Future ProspectsEconomic Strength Through Technology Leadership

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MIT Engineering Design Workshop for Boston High School Students

This summer, a few dozen Boston-area high school students chose to spend their mornings toiling away with a variety of materials to create working marvels of engineering in the Engineering Design Workshop, a month-long program that gives teenagers a hands-on experience with the joys and challenges of engineering.

None of the activities are prescribed; instead, students take part in brainstorming sessions on the first day, and things develop from there. Typically, the “counselors” — a mix of undergraduate and graduate students from MIT and other local universities — present a few ideas, and the high school students decide which projects they’d most like to work on. I really like the idea of involving the college students.

This year, the 22 students divided themselves into five projects: a modified Razor scooter, equipped with a motor and brakes; a sound system of giant tower speakers; remote-controlled “anything” (which ended up including cars, fish, birds and even a flying turtle); a mosaic tiger meticulously assembled from pieces of stained glass; and an electric cello.

Each student is allotted $100 to spend on materials for his or her group’s project; this way, projects that attract more students have a larger budget to work with. Counselors help them purchase supplies online and work with them on the construction from the ground up.

There are probably thousands of similar type activities throughout the year to help engage students in engineering. I think it is great, but we need to do more. We need to let young students know what they are missing. If people know the wonders of engineering and choose something else for their career path, that is fine. It is a shame when people don’t get to decide, because they never experience what engineering has to offer.

Read the full press release.

Related: Infinity Project: Engineering Education for Today’s ClassroomRutgers Initiative to Help Disadvantaged ChildrenInspirational EngineerWhat Kids can Learn on Their Own

Increasing the Undergraduate Study of Programing and Software

There is a role for computer science. It also seems to me there is a much larger role for some study of computing (programing, databases, software, technology) that isn’t actually computer science. Where exactly this should go into an undergraduate school, I am not sure. But it seems to me, an understanding of computing is extremely important to those that want to lead in the next 40 years and we should be able to put more of that into undergraduate studies.

Computer Studies Made Cool, on Film and Now on Campus

The number of computer science degrees awarded in the United States began rising in 2010, and will reach 11,000 this year, after plummeting each year since the end of the dot-com bubble in 2004, according to the Computing Research Association, which tracks enrollment and degrees. Enrollment in the major peaked around 2000, with the most degrees — 21,000 — awarded four years later. The number of students who are pursuing the degree but have not yet declared their major increased by 50 percent last year.

To capitalize on the growing cachet of the tech industry, colleges nationwide, including Stanford, the University of Washington and the University of Southern California, have recently revamped their computer science curriculums to attract iPhone and Facebook-obsessed students, and to banish the perception of the computer scientist as a geek typing code in a basement.

Even universities not known for computer science or engineering, like Yale, are seizing the moment. The deans of the Ivy League engineering schools recently started meeting to hatch ways to market “the Ivy engineer.”

The new curriculums emphasize the breadth of careers that use computer science, as diverse as finance and linguistics, and the practical results of engineering, like iPhone apps, Pixar films and robots, a world away from the more theory-oriented curriculums of the past.

I think the basic thrust of this move is good. I am not sure if it is really right to expand computer science to make it more attractive or to instead create something else. Computer engineering would seem to be one option, but I am not sure that is really right either. We do need computer scientists, but frankly we need maybe 100 or 1,000 times more programmers. And we need many other UX designers, program managers that understanding technology and programing, database administrators, system administrators… and really these people don’t need computer science backgrounds.

On a separate topic we also need better ways for everyone to understand technology better. We need good course for those majoring in economics, business, philosophy, English, political science… Understanding technology and how it works is fundamental to managing in the world we live in today and will live in.

Related: Programming Grads Meet a Skills Gap in the Real WorldHow To Become A Software Engineer/ProgrammerEngineering Again Dominates The Highest Paying College Degree ProgramsWant to be a Computer Game Programmer?software programming posts on my management blog

H-index Rank for Countries: for Science Publications

The SCImago Journal and Country Rank provides journal and country scientific indicators. As stated in previous posts, these types of rankings have limitations but they are also interesting. The table shows the top 6 countries by h-index and then some others I chose to list (the top 6 repeat from my post in 2008 – Country H-index Rank for Science Publications). The h-index provides a numeric indication of scientific production and significance (by looking at the citations given papers by other papers). Read more about the h-index (Hirsh index).

Country h-index h-index (2007) % of World
Population
total Cites
USA

1,139 793     4.5% 87,296,701
United Kingdom

689 465     .9% 21,030,171
Germany

607 408     1.2% 17,576,464
France

554 376     1.0% 12,168,898
Canada

536 370     .5% 10,375,245
Japan

527 372     1.8% 14,341,252
Additional countries of interest
18) China

279 161 19.4% 5,614,294
21) South Korea

258 161     .7% 2,710,566
22) Brazil

239 148  2.8% 1,970,704
25) India

227 146 17.5% 2,590,791
31) Singapore

196 .01% 871,512

Related: Top Countries for Science and Math Education: Finland, Hong Kong and KoreaWorldwide Science and Engineering Doctoral Degree Data Top 15 Manufacturing Countries in 2009Science and Engineering Doctoral Degrees WorldwideRanking Universities Worldwide (2008)Government Debt as Percentage of GDP 1990-2009: USA, Japan, Germany, China…

Engineering Again Dominates The Highest Paying College Degree Programs

As usual most of the highest paying undergraduate college degrees in the USA are engineering. Based on data from payscale, all of the top 10 highest paying fields are in engineering. The highest non-engineering fields are applied mathematics and computer science. Petroleum Engineering salaries have exploded over the last few years to $93,000 for a starting median salary, more than $30,000 above the next highest paying degree.

Mid-career median salaries follow the same tendency for engineering degrees, though in this case, 3 of the top 10 salaries (15 years into a career) are for those with non-engineering degrees: applied mathematics, physics and economics.

Highest Paid Undergrad College Degrees
Degree Starting Median Salary Mid-Career Median Salary 2009 starting salary
Petroleum Engineering $93,000 $157,000
Chemical Engineering $64,800 $108,000 $65,700
Nuclear Engineering $63,900 $104,000
Computer Engineering $61,200 $99,500 $61,700
Electrical Engineering $60,800 $104,000 $60,200
Aerospace Engineering $59,400 $108,000 $59,600
Material Science and Engineering $59,400 $93,600
Industrial Engineering $58,200 $97,400 $57,100
Mechanical Engineering $58,300 $97,400 $58,900
Software Engineering $56,700 $91,300
Applied Mathematics $56,400 $101,000
Computer Science $56,200 $97,700 $56,400

Related: PayScale Survey Shows Engineering Degree Results in the Highest Pay (2009)Engineering Majors Hold 8 of Top 10 Highest Paid Majors (2010)Engineering Graduates Get Top Salary Offers in 2006Shortage of Petroleum Engineers (2006)10 Jobs That Provide a Great Return on Investment

More degrees are shown in the following table, but this table doesn’t include all the degree; it just shows a sample of the rest of the degrees.
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Google Research Awards

Google Faculty Research Awards, support full-time faculty pursuing research. The most recent quarterly funding totals over $4 million in 75 awards across 18 different areas. The areas that received the highest level of funding for this round were systems and infrastructure, human computer interaction, multimedia and security. In this round, 26 percent of the funding was awarded to universities outside the U.S.

Some examples

  • Erik Brynjolfsson, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Future of Prediction – How Google Searches Foreshadow Housing Prices and Quantities (Economics and market algortihms): How data from search engines like Google provide a highly accurate but simple way to predict future business activities.
  • John Quinn, Makerere University, Uganda. Mobile Crop Surveillance in the Developing World (Multimedia search and audio/video processing): A computer vision system using camera-enabled mobile devices to monitor the spread of viral disease among staple crops.
  • Ronojoy Adhikari, The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, India (probably this is the person, why doesn’t google include a link to these people’s sites?). Machine Learning of Syntax in Undeciphered Scripts (Machine learning): Devise algorithms that would learn to search for evidence of semantics in datasets such as the Indus script.
  • Jennifer Rexford, Princeton. Rethinking Wide-Area Traffic Management (Software and hardware systems infrastructure): Drawing on mature techniques from optimization theory, design new traffic-management solutions where the hosts, routers, and management system cooperate in a more effective way.

Smart companies realize great research is done in universities that should be adlopted by companies. Many companies listen to fools that talk of academic research as not “real world.” Companies like Google do well for many reasons but one is they pay more attention to scientific research than wall street research. More companies would benefit from adopting this leadership style from Google. Google also continues to fund and support research.

Related: posts on science and engineering fundingEnergy Secretary Steve Chu Speaks On Funding Science Research (with Google CEO)Google.org Invests $10 million in Geothermal EnergyLarry Page and Sergey Brin Interview

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