Author: Chris Holdgraf

What we could learn from industry

You have probably heard a lot of articlesblog posts, tweets, and facebook rants lately about the abysmal state of the job market for aspiring academics.  You’ve probably heard stories (the Berkeley Science Review even ran one last semester) about the shifting reality for graduate students, and about the needed focus on non-academic careers for graduate education.

I’m not here to debate any of this, but there’s plenty of material out there if you’re curious.  However, there’s a really important point in this discussion that almost never gets voiced: learning about the non-academic world is not only about getting a non-academic job, it also makes us better scientists. 

Now, I can see you all rushing to your keyboards to rise up in protest, so let me make this clear: I’m not saying that academia should be a “business” in some sense, and I understand the importance of keeping conflicts of interest out of science (though last time I checked the simple desire to publish can be, itself, a conflict of interest).  What I’m saying is that we have a lot to learn from the non-academic world, about how to interact with our peers, how to work together as teams, how to manage projects, and how to communicate with others.

In my most cynical moments, I view “business” as a relatively simple game: how can the right collection of people make as much money as humanly possible?  This may sound like a critique, but it’s not. It is just a goal (in reality probably only one of many). And guess what businesses are really good at doing?  Making money, and accomplishing that goal.  They’re clearly doing something right, so what is it that we can learn from them?

Let’s take a moment and think about what being part of a successful business generally entails: you need to get a group of people together with a wide range of expertise and experience.  You must define a common goal, and make a plan to accomplish that goal.  Moreover, you need to split up chunks of that plan and assign each of them to people in your group, making sure to pair the right job with the right person.  In so doing, each individual contributes their own skills to the project, and they learn a lot in doing so.  At the end of the day, the team achieves their goal, and everyone shares in the riches gained.

To me, this sounds a lot like a science lab.  Labs tend to be focused on a single “theme” of scientific question (e.g., “we study visual processing in zebrafish”).  They’ve got a bunch of graduate students and post-docs, all of whom bring something unique to the table, and each of which is involved in asking a different question related to the “big picture”.  Finally, you’ve got the PI at the top, pulling the strings and making sure the machine runs smoothly (ideally anyway).

The only problem is that even though the task that academics and businesses must accomplish is quite similar, they take very different approaches to solving it.  The business world has a tendency to emphasize interpersonal relationships and “teamwork” as attributes that it admires.  It gives credit to those who can work with groups, and who learn to share the load and the glory.

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

Academia, on the other hand, runs on a sort of “wheel and spoke” model in which each graduate student is expected to be the sole lead in “their project”.  Post-docs may have a few people working underneath them, but it’s rare to find a lab that truly distributes the workload.  And why should they?  Academic publishing incentives encourage the outdated picture of a lone genius toiling away in the lab until the wee hours of the morning.  How many of you remember the last names of all those middle authors?

Another lesson we could all learn from the business world is communication.  What’s the single most important thing that you can do after discovering something amazing about the world?  Tell people about it.  Unfortunately, many academics seem to have an aversion to speaking in “layperson’s” terms, and do little more than pay it lip-service in trying to tailor their writing and speaking to be understandable by the average person.

In the non-academic world, communication skills are one of the most important abilities that anyone can have.  You must be able to make other people understand what you’re talking about, whether this means presenting to others on your team, potential partners, or even your boss(es).  Businesses understand that image and presentation are incredibly powerful tools in persuasion, and academia would do well to take a lesson from this.

To this point, many researchers say “but our job isn’t to speak to the average person, it’s to speak with other scientists who take an inherently objective approach to everything!”  Perhaps they’re right (that’s a point we can debate another time), but at the risk of insulting our fellow academics, there’s a good chance that those fancy experts in the audience are just as swayed by a well-crafted presentation, and that they probably have no idea what you’re talking about.

In reality, scientists are humans just like everybody else.  They don’t have super-human intelligence or the attention spans of an owl, and just like everybody else they respond to material that is clearly presented, well prepared, and above all interesting.  If you’ve ever said to yourself “well, this slide is full of jargon, but the audience is pretty well-versed in this field so it’s OK”, then you should stop right there and read journal abstracts until your eyes bleed.  Then, rewrite your presentation with the goal of not inflicting the same kind of pain on your audience.

So, do I think academia should be run like a business? No. We study far more interesting problems that (for better or worse) most companies are never going to be interested in.  That said, we have a duty to do the best possible work with the resources that we have.  To me, that means looking towards other industries, learning about what they do well, and incorporating this wisdom into our own scientific culture.  I dream of a world in which scientists are viewed like entrepreneurs: masters of many trades, steeped in charisma, making connections where none existed before and forging a path into the unknown.

Author’s Note: Some people have excellently pointed out that my use of “average people” comes across as condescending.  I want to reiterate that by “average”, I do not mean inferior or less intelligent in any way at all.  By “average”, I simply mean people with less specialized, domain knowledge than someone with scientific training in a particular field might have.


Chris studies cognitive and computational neuroscience, attempting to link higher-level theories of the mind with information processing in the brain. He’s also an avid science communicator – check out his posts on the Berkeley Science Review and follow him on Twitter at @choldgraf

Category: The Student Blog | 1 Comment

A Touching Evening

This post is cross-posted on Berkeley Science Review

For those of you who read the BSR blog, you may have noticed that we’ve been a bit obsessed with “touch” of late.  So interested, in fact, that we decided to have an entire evening of events, interviews, and demonstrations to dive into one of the most fundamental senses that we all possess.  Touch Me was the first BSR “live event”, an event that was hosted by the fantastic Dr. Kiki Sanford in collaboration with the Bay Area Science Festival.  It was a real-time exploration of the many facts and facets that underly the sense of touch.


So why touch?  Well, for starters, imagine a world without sight.  Seems pretty easy—just close your eyes.  Imagine a world without hearing.  Yup, hands over the ears, not too tough.  Now imagine a world without touch? Pretty hard huh?

We often take it for granted, but touch is fundamental to any living creature.  It is perhaps the first method that we have to interact with the world, and it is often the last thing that remains before we leave it.  Touch allows us to communicate with others, to navigate, to give and receive comfort.  It is one of the most intimate acts we can perform, informing someone that we are here, with you, right now.

It also makes a pretty great interpretive dance.  But more on that later…

A nose for touch

So touch is pretty important, but is it interesting? Turns out that the answer is yes. Perhaps due to its fundamental role in living systems, you can learn quite a lot about a species by understanding the role that touch plays in their life. For example, take the star-nosed mole.  Burrowing underground in rural Pennsylvania, this little creature has little use for eyes and ears.  So how do you navigate without seeing or hearing?  You evolve one of these:


This is a nose. I swear.

This appendage is an incredibly sensitive organ that the star-nosed mole uses for touch.  During our evening of touch, we spoke with Lydia Thé, a graduate student that studies touch mechanisms at UC Berkeley.  Her lab uses the Star Nosed Mole as a model organism to dive into the low-level tools that our bodies use to interact with the world.

The trick lies in turning a physical movement (such as stretching, bouncing, pushing, etc) into electrical code that our nervous systems can understand.  By studying organisms such as the star-nosed mole, we’ve discovered that there are actually relatively few ways that our bodies accomplish this at the molecular level.  I could explain this to you, but why use words when you can use the universal language of interpretive dance…

(For this one, a big thanks goes out to Kyle Jay, a graduate student in the Blackburn lab at UCSF. I’ll never look at an ion channel the same way again.)

Touch, it’s not just for sentient beings

It turns out that touch is also important for artificial life too.  Just as people have to feel their way through the world, so too do robots. We heard from Benajmin Tee, a graduate researcher at Stanford that is working on engineering touch-sensitive robotic skin.  It turns out that biological skin is quite useful—providing a flexible, self-repairing material that can transfer information about things like touch with relative ease.

Tee mentioned that one of the biggest challenges to building electronic skin is finding the right balance between durability and flexibility.  Sure, we’d be nearly impenetrable if our skin was made of something like metal, but we’d also be far less sensitive to physical changes in the world around us.  Roboticists such as Tee—having the freedom to choose any material they want for their creations—must understand the importance of sensitivity and the role that touch plays in our lives.

Communicating through touch

To cap it all off, the evening got a bit emotional with Daniel Cordaro explaining the power of touch in conveying ideas and emotions.  It turns out that touch is incredibly important in developing relationships and bonds with those around us.  It’s even essential to have physical touch in a developing infant.  However, this doesn’t mean that all people touch equally—Cordaro also noted a few fascinating studies that found huge differences in the amount of touching between different cultures (and potentially explained why Americans are so awkward about physical contact sometimes). Did you know that French people touch one another several times more often than Americans do in everyday conversation?

Dr. Kiki and Dan talk touch and emotion (photo credit Jane Hu)

Dr. Kiki and Dan talk touch and emotion (photo by Jane Hu)

We left the evening feeling gratified (touched, you might say), by all of the amazing people that came to our event, both to present as well as to learn.  Whether it was researchers from top-notch universities, science enthusiasts from all over the Bay Area, or even roboticists attempting to give humans superpowers, the evening was full of the science awesomeness that the BSR lives for.

However, perhaps most incredible is that our speakers for the evening—from touch biology to touch emotions—were graduate students.  As an organization that is itself organized by graduate students, we’re continually amazed at the amazing things that our nation’s next best and brightest are able to accomplish.  It was because of all of you that Touch Me was such a success, a testament to the incredible potential of our nation’s student scientists.

Finally, we’d be silly not to recognize the single most important person involved in Touch Me.  Georgeann Sack, fellow BSR editor and post-doc at UC Berkeley, took the seed of an idea and grew it into the wonderful event that I’m talking about here today.  Thank you so much, Georgeann, for all the deal-making, brainstorming, event-planning, and drink-procuring that made Touch Me so special.  And all while doing post-doctoral research…that’s what science is all about!

If you’re bummed that you couldn’t come to Touch Me, fear not!  We’ll have audio versions of the event broadcasting over the next few weeks.  Check out UCSF graduate student-run radio program Carry the One Radio as well as KALX’s science program Spectrum for the podcast.
Last thank you…we promise.  The Bay Area Arts and Science consortium (known as BAASICS) was also incredibly important in making this event happen.  This group is amazing, blending the hard facts of science with the beautiful fluidity of interpretive dance.  Check them out on facebook to hear about their latest events!


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Announcing Touch Me – a BSR event exploring the fascinating world of touch, on October 27th

Imagine the first organisms that ever existed.  Single-celled, incredibly simple, skirting about in whatever primordial ooze they found themselves in.  Those little cells had to move around, find food, and reproduce, and this was all in an era before the evolution of complex biological organs like eyes and ears.  How do you operate in a world without sight, without sound?  How do you survive?

You touch things.

That’s right, touch. The most fundamental, yet often overlooked ability of all creatures evokes some of the most interesting questions that we can ask. How can we distinguish “ourselves” from “other things” without touch?  What are the basic components of touch, and how could we use them to allow robots to navigate the tactile world?  How can touch influence the emotions and thoughts of others?

Well, we at the Berkeley Science Review are tired of leaving such questions unexplored, which is why I am proud to announce Touch Me, a BSR-hosted event on the complex and fascinating world of touch sensation.

Touch Me. Well, metaphorically anyway.

Come to the David Brower Center (map) on Sunday, October 27th for a night including touch-insensitive mutant worms, tingling spice infused cocktails, and a touch booth that demonstrates the critical role touch plays in our social and emotional lives.  We’re even bringing an impressive (and slightly terrifying) touch-sensitive robot for you to enjoy, really.

We’ve also partnered with BAASICS – the Bay Area Art and Science Interdisciplinary Collaborative Sessions – to bring you artistic and creative depictions of nature’s most complex neural mechanisms.  And yes, there will be interpretive dance.  Oh, will there ever be interpretive dance.

In anticipation for the event, the BSR blog has posted a few short pieces that explore how touch impacts our lives and plays a crucial role in nature. Learn about the sensational ability of the star-nosed mole, and the futuristic world of electronic skin.  Then grab some tickets for our live event! You can also check out our sweet audio plug right here:


So how does a brain touch the world?  How do robots touch the world?  How does a star-nosed mole touch the world?  Well, you’ll just have to come to Touch Me, and see for yourself.

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On being ‘right’ in science

This post will be cross-posted on Berkeley Science Review

The other day I was standing around with a few friends arguing about ergonomics  (these are the things you do when you’re a graduate scientist). At one point, my friend referenced a presentation that was chock full of the worst kinds of sensationalist science writing (it said that the act of sitting was literally killing you).

As a scientist and writer myself, I jumped all over the presentation, calling it sham science, and pointing out the many ways in which it was confusing or obscuring the truth. Expecting to be met with nodding approval, I instead faced several annoyed looks and the strong feeling that I was being wished out of the room.  I didn’t understand what was wrong – they had presented a piece of evidence, and I had summarily shot it down.  Isn’t that what arguing is all about?  Instead of feeling right, I felt like a jerk.

And then I realized something: it didn’t matter whether I was right; nobody was listening to me anymore.

Many scientists run into this situation on a daily basis, but understanding this problem digs into one of the biggest crises facing scientific research today: there’s a difference between being right and being persuasive.  The first entails having the facts straight, and the second means convincing someone else to believe them.

These facts say something, but I have no idea what it is.

These facts say something, but I have no idea what it is.

As an academic, I’ve often heard that “the facts speak for themselves”, or that one need only to “look at the data” in order to see the truth.  Unfortunately, experience has taught me that neither of these statements is correct.  Facts are always colored by the context in which they are presented, and data can be massaged and molded to tell almost any story you want. And so what if you’re correct, if nobody will pay attention to you in the first place?

This brings me to a saying that one of my advisors is fond of sharing with his students:

Never hesitate to sacrifice truth for understanding.

Let me take a second to tease this sentence apart.  On its surface, it would seem that this is an almost heretical idea in the world of science—we’re all pursuing truth, not trying to hide it.  However, as anyone who’s read an article full of confusing scientific jargon will tell you, incomprehensible truth is just that: incomprehensible.

As a scientist, our job is not only to make discoveries about the world, but also to share  our experience and our findings with those around us.  That’s where the persuasion comes in.

Let me give you two sentences, and you tell me which one is better:

  1. Neurons are composed of a lipid bilayer with embedded trans-membrane proteins for the purpose of transmitting ions across the cell membrane.  Upon firing an action potential, electrical and chemical gradients cause an influx of sodium, causing a spike in membrane potential. Calcium channels open and an influx of calcium cleaves SNARE proteins, releasing vesicles containing neurotransmitters.
  2. Neurons are cells in the brain with tiny “channels” embedded on their outside.  These channels allow electrically-charged chemicals (called “ions”) to go inside and out of the cell.  When sodium ions enter the cell in large amounts, neurons will “fire” in an event called an action potential. This opens channels for calcium ions, which enter the cell and cause the release of packages of neurotransmitter.

They’re both correct, but unless you’re a neuroscientist the first one is considerably harder to read.  If I were to give a random person the first explanation, they’d probably think: “well, that sounds smart but I have no idea what he’s talking about.”  If I gave you the second, you’d have an intuition (albeit incomplete) for how a neuron operates.  That’s sacrificing truth for understanding, and it’s essential as we attempt to make our science understandable by laypeople, politicians, businesses, and even other scientists.

Though the science communication greats are certainly astounding sometimes.

Though the science communication greats are certainly astounding sometimes.

So why belabor this point?  Because scientists are taught to speak like explanation 1, even though the vast majority of people think in terms of explanation 2.  We offload the incredibly important task of science communication to a vast army of journalists and hope that the few Carl Sagans and Neil deGrasse Tysons of the world will carry the load for us.  No wonder there’s a disconnect between the scientific community and the rest of the public.

At this point, someone usually chimes in with the “science doesn’t need the input of ‘non-scientists’” argument, suggesting that we only need to talk amongst ourselves in developing new theories of the world.  Sorry, I’m not buying that.

Consider the fact that scientific theory and uninformed hand waving are often presented as equal and opposing sides to an argument in the media.  Clearly, we are not getting the message across to the public that science is not opinion, it is an argument grounded in facts.  It’s incredibly important to think about how we phrase our understanding of the world, as well as how we can make our ideas more relevant, interesting, and clear to the public. Don’t believe me?  Just ask the climate scientists.

As a young scientist, there is a lot of pressure to focus all of my efforts on my scientific peers, to keep up with the latest computational jargon, to remember the recently created acronyms.  However, this will only make up part of my education in graduate school.  The other part, equally as important as the first, entails sharing those ideas with others, using them to better the world, and inviting those around me to forge ahead into the unknown as we take the next scientific leap.



Chris studies cognitive and computational neuroscience, attempting to link higher-level theories of the mind with information processing in the brain. He’s also an avid science communicator – check out his posts on the Berkeley Science Review and follow him on Twitter at @choldgraf

Category: The Student Blog | 44 Comments