Friday, January 28, 2011

Egypt, social media, and my memories of the Maleconazo in Cuba

This week I started two new courses, one of them at a new college, with all the nervousness that a new scenario brings. So far so good. I did some of the usual stuff, but also started a group project around a case study, promoted a fun discussion board in order to build community, and became a fire-breathing dragon regarding lab safety rules. I had lots of thoughts and ideas and was happily ruminating on them, planning to spend some time today reading my favorite tweets to get even more good ideas. 
Instead, I am glued to the Twitter feed and alternating with Al-Jazeera, watching the Egyptian situation unfold. I watch the police, the armored vehicles, the protesters on the street. And I am having flashbacks to 1994.
Rather recently I came across a Cuba-related question in Quora about the Special Period. I made a short comment on it, unable to put in words all the emotions that the question and the answers provoked in me. While some of the economical solutions taken by the Cuban government at the time may sound progressive and beneficial to the planet, the truth is that Cubans suffered terribly during those years. Organic farming and alternative means of transportation may sound good on the paper or for visitors, but in the reality there were years of grueling misery, a struggle to find enough food, to get to work and back, to be able to do household chores with massive blackouts and lack of most everyday objects from soap to matches. One of the answers referred to Wikipedia, and I read the entry both in Spanish (dry and conspicuously subdued) and in English, where there were two sections labeled as not neutral: "Famine" and the "August 5 uprising" aka Maleconazo.
I was there.
I lived close by.
I know it happened. 
I was ready to join the crowd on the street chanting "Freedom" but my family convinced me otherwise. Which was a good idea. A neighbor, a teenager boy, went down out of curiosity and was taken by the police. His mother raced to mobilize all the contacts she knew and managed to get him out of jail. The kid returned days later, shaken and fearful. He told stories of cells crammed with people who just happened to be close by, some beaten bloody for no reason. 
I know it happened, but I could not tell anyone. All the phones went dead.
Late at night, armored vehicles, many of them, came down San Lazaro street. During the next days you could spot people carrying weapons on the campus of the University of Havana. 
Everybody was afraid. And nobody talked about what happened. It was never mentioned in the news. In fact, the news only talked about demonstrations in favor of the government. In a way, it was only real for those who saw it, those who were there.
If we only had internet. If we only had Twitter or any other way to let others know. Watching the armored vehicles circling around in Cairo, watching the demonstrators, I feel such a sadness and also joy. I know comparisons cannot be drawn. But when I watch the Egyptian demonstrators, I cannot help but to think of the Cubans of August 1994. 
This time, the demonstrators know they are not alone. They know the world is watching. They feel connected to others, and they know that, whatever happens, it will not disappear under a deep blanket of silence and lies. 
I am thinking of you.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

No woman no cry: my teaching journey

I was much impressed by Michelle's blog posting about the personal events that brought a change to her teaching. At the end, she encourages educators to share their journey and experiences. Her post speaks strongly to me. And if there is one evidence of the power of online communities and learning networks is the fact that I feel much closer to Michelle and others out there (whom I only know through online connections such as Twitter), than to many people I have personally met. 
When I look back to my own journey, I realize that it was my thirst for communication and personal interaction that brought me to teaching. I had the usual academic career path- a bit slower and longer than usual because I had to jump through a couple of countries before I started my postdoc at a renowned institution. But I was a researcher and I knew my gig. I worked at the bench, ran my gels, and cultured the cells. I could sit for hours at the microscope searching for the perfectly stained cells. I walked the walk and talked the talk. I enjoyed it. Besides, that was what I was supposed to do. 
Postdoc time was the first time when I was not teaching. I had to teach almost since I finished college- informally first: explain the new tech or the summer student what to do. Then more formally: there were courses to organize, students to supervise, college lectures. At some point I HAD to teach- my Ph.D. program required 20% teaching load. How I managed to do that in Swedish is still a bit mind-boggling to me. But there were always students in my life until I started my postdoc.
I missed them so much. Yes, teaching was time-consuming and sometimes tiresome, and students could be annoying and demanding. But they asked the most interesting questions, they kept me updated and open-minded; and then there were those golden a-ha moments for which we educators live.
I felt lonely in the lab. Pure research is a solitary work, in spite of being surrounded by other people. I looked for teaching opportunities, and soon I had classes in the evenings. I was energized. I met with people I could have never met before in my elite research-postdoc science circle. I have my doubts if my research, supported by grants and published, has actually changed anybody's life. Teaching, I knew I touched people's lives and sometimes even made a difference. 
As my fellowship came to an end, I applied for jobs and got one in the biotech industry. For 2 years, I worked in cancer drug research. I learned a lot- not so much about research, but  organization and protocol writing, quality control, and a more systematic approach to science. 
I still felt lonely. Work was intense and often stressful, and time management was critical. There was not much time to do anything else than work, except some short and usually superficial water-cooler conversation. Besides, I was not really sure that my work was saving anybody's life.
Once settled at work, I went back to evening teaching. Two or three times per week, I would leave work in a rush to get to class, arriving home after 10 pm. I saw less and less of my teenage son. The extra money was nice, but was it really worth?
Then one day, it dawned on me: I was happier and more energized  late afternoon stepping into the classroom than I was coming to work early in the morning. I felt useful and worthy. 
It took me months to make the decision to resign. I was not alone. I had other people's examples in front of me, who defied conventions and turned their back on the rat race in order to pursue their dreams. I saw them happier and more fulfilled than many others who were doing the "right thing."
This was almost 4 years ago. Since then, I have been happier professionally than ever. I am fortunate enough to teach different classes and be involved in many different projects. I have time to pursue other interests. I have more time to spend with my family. I have time to read all the science articles I never had the time to peruse before, and follow topics out of my specialty. 
My latest revelation has been, thanks to Michelle and others, the incredible potential of social media and online community building. For the past 3 months I have been exploring lots of new tools (getting almost burned in the process) in order to improve the learning experience for my students and me. If there is something that I enjoy in my classes is how much I learn from my students. And I am doing baby-steps sharing my journey...Twitter posts....all new uncharted territory but SO inspiring. 
(I spent quite a time thinking on an appropriate title. I wrote up several but deleted them. My playlist then just started to play Bob- and I had my right title. It has been a tough journey sometimes. But it has been a joyful one: "Everything 's gonna be alright, everything 's gonna be alright")

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Lab improvisation

I will start a Microbiology course in 2 weeks at a college I have not taught before. I was hired the week before Christmas to replace the current instructor, who had to travel somewhere unexpectedly. As before any new assignment, I am a bit nervous but not too much, as I have taught Micro for several years. My main concern is the lab.
I have been thinking of the demands placed on adjunct instructors teaching labs. When I was a researcher it took usually a while to set up techniques, troubleshoot them, do the quality control, figure out the best reagents, and get comfortable enough with them. If by any chance I had to run my technique somewhere else I would take with me as many of my supplies as possible- too many important experiments had failed due to a different brand of paraformaldehyde, the recipe of PBS, or some other minor detail. 
So it is kind of interesting that lab adjuncts are expected to step in a completely foreign lab and make it work from day 1. A competent and organized lab tech makes all the difference, and I have worked with some of them: they run the lab with iron fist and high standards, they have a system and great quality control, and if something goes wrong they will explore what happened. Then I have had some sloppy ones, who did not order reagents in time or contaminated the cultures, leaving me trying to explain the students why their supposed cocci look like rods. 
At the end of the day it is mainly about experience and flexibility. I have run techniques in different ways so I guess I can learn a new one of necessary. If I need to handle an instrument or a tool I have no seen before, I guess I will wing it somehow. My first class is the first day of class in the there will be no chance for me to visit anybody else's lab. I will just have to pick everybody's brain during the department meeting and try to ask all the questions beforehand. 
There was a time when I was not as keen on teaching  labs as now. Coming from a research background, those school labs seemed simplistic and easy. However, they are often students' first or only experience of using the scientific method. I know that there are colleges where students do not follow lab manuals but do inquiry based science. But most still use step-by-step lab manuals where students try to confirm the expected results. I try to tell my students that there are no "good" or "bad" results: there are results and if they are solid we go from there to the next experiment. But it is not that easy.
Science as such requires discipline. It takes training for safety measures to become part of one's behavior, for the mind to acquire the sense of experimental design, to truly understand the thinking process when formulating a hypothesis and then testing it in a way that will yield a (hopefully) unequivocal answer. And most students care more about their grades (in the labs usually a combination of reports, assignments, and quizzes) than going deep. As I prepare my lesson plan I know I will dedicate more time to the lab, from safety to analysis. 
So it is a challenge...and especially when trying to do it in a lab where I don't know yet what is in each drawer :)

Friday, January 7, 2011

Twitter and I, part 2.

After my meltdown detailed in the previous posting, I sat down to read the almost 1,000 pages of Ken Follett's Fall of Giants. I knew that until I read it I would be incapable of doing any kind of productive work, so I sat for long hours and devoured it. It was vintage Follett, lots of details and historical information, good stories, interesting characters, some sprinkling of sex, and some not believable coincidences...but it was good.  
After that I went back to the real world as a new class started last Monday. And I also went back to the social media, Twitter included.
Something has changed, though. The laptop remains in the common home office, which lacks the view of my desk and it is also colder. I sit here and work, and occasionally check Twitter. But I have learned to close the tabs when I REALLY have to work. 
I started to play with several new tools, first of all Prezi. I signed up  to make a Professional Development Week presentation about social media (particularly Twitter) in education  in 2 weeks. I noticed that somebody else is making a presentation on Twitter...I am still pondering if I should attend it to avoid duplications or if I should jut go ahead with whatever my ideas are. I did decide that whatever I present I will do it with Prezi. I just love the way phrases fly my way and bounce around. 
Then I tested Polleverywhere and loved it. It was for a simple task, figuring out the extent of my students' microscopy experience. I projected the question while finishing the setup of the lab, and when I looked up the results were there. I am planning to incorporate them as substitutes of clickers.
Then there is Quora. I still have not figured it really out, but I found a couple of answers to some of my less important questions in life ("When will Verizon sell the iPhone?"- not that I care, I am waiting for my Nexus S to arrive) and answered a couple of questions that I felt confident about. 
However, the moment came when I had to go back to my desk and start thinking. I have been planning for quite a while to develop case studies based on those of The New England Journal of Medicine for my Microbiology classes. I have been using others' case studies but few combine the clinical part with more basic biology knowledge, like the ELVIS Meltdown case study does. I use it in combination with the microbial structure and metabolism lectures, and it works great. So I moved back to my desk and read a great case study about a cat bite and tularemia, and started setting up a simpler outline (intended for my microbiology audience, which are mainly pre-nursing students). My mind settled in its normal productive pace, and I was focused for a long time. It was nice to have some mental space away from all distractions. 
I think we have figured it out, Twitter and I. 

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Twitter and me: a story of love, loss, and redemption

While I started my Twitter account months ago, I only discovered its potential last November. I started following people, and was surprised to get followers. In the beginning I retweeted furiously whatever that sounded interesting, which expanded and shrunk my modest list of followers in cycles. I realized my mistake after I started following a prolific tweeter who seemed to RT something every minute. I understood that clogging a feed with tweets is not appreciated (especially if one is not a star-studded celebrity) and reduced my output drastically. 
I learned to follow conference tweets and was exhilarated of feeling almost present. I followed chats and hashtags. I started checking out trends and was proud to be the first in the family to hear about news and happenings. My bookmark list swelled of all the new websites and blogposts I encountered on my way (and skimmed through as I had no time to actually read them thoroughly).
Then of course it was socially fun. By following several people with different point of views from mine I got to read articles I would have never read otherwise. I connected with people from afar and enjoyed the politeness of thanking for RTs and #FFs.
After a while I realized that 1) before RTing something, I should check the original link, and 2) if tweeting about a scientific article it would be more useful for everybody involved if I actually read the material and provided the basic conclusions. 
Around Christmas I was on a family visit. Between fun stuff and fun stuff I felt compelled to check what had happened in my absence. The inability to catch up with over 100 tweets made me sad. 
On the morning of December 31st I looked at my desk. Scattered around the laptop were piles of papers, a stack of unread scientific magazines, and many post-its with lists. The day before had been a rainy day and I had sat basically the whole day "working." In fact, more than half my day was spent in following story after story that popped up through the maelstrom of social media. The state of my desk clearly showed the state of my mind: scattered, unfocused, and messy.
So the last day of 2010 I carried my laptop to the family office, leaving my desk to the traditional media. That desk has a lovely view to the backyard and I can see a glimpse of the mountains. I made a stack of the magazines and managed to select and read those articles that I found interesting to read. To the day of today I need the touch of the paper and the feeling of pages turning to make reading sink deep. I cleared my desk and updated my post-its.
Then I sat down, opened a book, and started to read.
(more to come...)