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057: “I’m a scientist. And I’m blind.”

When we imagine what life is like for people who are blind, our first reaction might be paralysis. We consider just how difficult our lives would be without sight; preparing breakfast, dressing for work, and navigating from home to the lab sound like insurmountable obstacles.

And if those trivial tasks seem daunting, consider your work day.  Could you keep up with the pace of scientific research, running experiments and publishing papers with your eyes closed?

In our imaginary blindness, many of us would despair and find an alternative career path, but we’re missing a very important distinction between the thought experiment and reality.

The fact is, people who have been blind since birth have developed the skills to leap each and every hurdle we’ve listed. It’s a normal part of every day to commute to work or read a scientific paper.

Their biggest struggle may be overcoming the decidedly limited imaginations of their sighted peers.

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056: Team Up for Speedier Science – #modernPhD Part 3

When we think of scientists, we often think of the lone researcher plodding away at the bench late into the night.  We imagine Alexander Fleming scrutinizing his penicillium molds or Einstein pondering the latest equation he’s written on the chalk board.

We go a step further when training new scientists: we ask them to complete an ‘independent research project.’  We tacitly perpetuate this notion of the solitary scientist, making her own success or failure.

The side effects of this lone-wolf approach to research are painfully manifest: projects that stall on a single experiment, money wasted teaching everyone the same techniques, and students who burn out due to frustration, lack of direction, or just plain loneliness.

In Part 3 of our goal to modernize the PhD process, we propose a radical 180º turn from the independent project.

Let’s turn science into a team sport.

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055: Four Ideas to Modernize Mentorship – #modernPhD Part 2

Today, a graduate student will make a terrible mistake.

He’ll blindly commit to a long-term relationship that will make him miserable.  He’ll be too shy to ask his partner the painfully awkward questions that could predict their ultimate failure as a team.

Does this person have time for me?  Is she enthusiastic about helping me succeed?  Do our goals align?

Of course, this is not a romantic relationship: it’s the commitment formed between a grad student and his advisor.  And though it’s not a marriage, it can cover some of the same emotional ground.  When it’s healthy, you’ll both grow as people and you’ll achieve more than you would alone.

When it’s unhealthy, you might bear the emotional scars for the rest of your life.

With just a few simple changes to the graduate-advisor relationship, we can make sure more students, and their mentors, reach their full potential.  Why leave it to chance?

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054: The 5 year PhD – #modernPhD Part 1

Scientific training has its roots in the ancient world.  From Aristotle’s natural philosophy to the modern biomedical research lab, science training has relied heavily on an apprenticeship model.

Senior scientists take promising young students into their labs and train them, hands-on, in the practical activities of research.

The assumption has always been that the aspiring scientist will ‘grow up’ to be like her mentor – running a lab of her own someday.  And for a long time, that made sense.

But in the modern world, PhDs go on to a much wider variety of careers.  Sure, some seek faculty positions, but others teach, consult, work in industry, and influence policy.

Is it time to rethink the PhD process?  Can we modernize scientific training to support the diverse interest of today’s scientists?

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053: Why more testing from Theranos won’t prevent cancer

It’s a compelling promise: take a few drops of blood, and tell the patient what hidden diseases are lurking in his body.  If only we could have an early warning system for cancer, Alzheimer’s, or myriad other diseases, then we could treat them before they took hold.

This is the narrative of Theranos, a company that wants to make medical testing affordable and fast for everyone.  They’ve taken the notion so far that they actually publish a price list for hundreds of tests right on their website.theranos price list

Recently, the company made less favorable headlines when the Wall Street Journal revealed that many of the tests were performed on industry standard equipment, rather than the space-age technology Theranos markets.

The company’s troubles deepened when federal regulators announced plans to revoke the license of one of its lab facilities and to ban CEO and founder Elizabeth Holmes from the industry for two years.

But technology and regulations aside, there’s a more fundamental question we should all be asking: is wider access to routine screening a good thing?

The math says no.

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