Science Job Hunting – Part 2, Resumes

All right science readers, you’ve decided you want a new job (or like me, that decision was made for you). You’ve identified some positions you’re interested in. It is time to start writing your resumes. Here are a few of the tips that I have learned on how to write resumes for science jobs, from both a job hunter and as someone who has been a hiring manager.

Note: these are tips for getting an INDUSTRY position. I have never applied nor hired for academic positions so these tips are unlikely to help you get a job as a professor.

#1 – Your resume is the trailer, not the feature film

Ask yourself: what is your goal with your resume?

Did you answer “to get a job”? If so, you’re missing the purpose of the resume. Your resume will NOT get you a job. No hiring manager is going to read your resume and say, “let’s offer her the position.” They will, however, say, “call this person up, I would like to meet her. She has some of the skills we are looking for.” That’s your goal with your resume: to get that call back from the hiring manager.

The purpose of your resume is to introduce yourself. It should give a brief overview of relative experience and skills, but it should be NO MORE THAN 2 PAGES. Seriously. I should be able to print it out on single page.

You need to make sure that everything you include is relevant. This means that you should axe the “objective section”. I have yet to ever read an objective statement on a resume that gives me some meaningful piece of information about the candidate. They all say something to the effect of “gaining meaningful employment…” blah blah blah. Of course your  objective is to get a job, why else would you apply? This statement offers your potential employer no insight into who you are and takes up valuable space.

The other common section that you can do away with is the skills section. It tends to look like this:

  • GCMS
  • LCMS
  • NMR
  • IR
  • XRF
  • Microsoft office

Does that look like a list of techniques that any undergrad with a BSc in Chemistry would possess? Yes! It tells me nothing about your experience with those skills, or the depth to which you understand them. Did you learn how to operate an LCMS in an undergrad lab class or did you spend years studying the technique? (Also, it is 2018. You don’t need to state you understand Microsoft Office.) Cut this section – it doesn’t add anything.

You can whittle down your past jobs and publications etc. by stating things like “selected experience”, “related experience”, “selected publications”. You usually don’t need to include references on your resumes, you will likely be asked for this near the end of the hiring process. Most of my job offers were made contingent on employment reference checks. So well past the resume reading stage.

#2 – Resumes not resume

You need a different resume for every position that you apply for. The meat is likely to be the same, but there will be subtle changes in each application that demonstrate the skills that each posting requires. Keep in mind that many companies use HR software to screen through the hundreds of applications that they receive. This software is looking for key words that are used in the posting. Does the posting say “client” or “customer”? Do they use “KPI” or “key performance indicators”? Mirror the language in your resume to the language in the posting. This will likely ensure that you are hitting the key words the software is searching for. Also, do remember that if you’re successful, your resumes will be read by real, human people, so make sure that they still coherent to human not just a robot.

#3 – Achievements not duties

Remember, you are trying to sell yourself, and demonstrate why you are better than the 399 other folks that applied for the position. This is where you want to give examples and demonstrate you have the skills listed in the posting. You want to state “you did [x] which resulted in [really awesome thing] [y]”.

For example:

Business Development Representative, Environmental Laboratory
  • Sold multiple lines of environmental testing in accordance with Alberta Tier 1 and 2 regulations

This is a perfectly fine description of what a BDR would do for an environment chemistry laboratory, but it does really say anything valuable. Compare it with:

Business Development Representative, Environmental Laboratory
  • Built strong relationships with environmental consultants which resulted in a 300% increase in sales over 3 years.

The second case says a lot more about the skills. You have demonstrated that you have sales skills; you have demonstrated that you have relationship building skills.

By framing your skills and experience in this way, it will also help you really evaluate how your work contributed to the team and prepare you for your interview.

You can also adjust these accomplishments to match the job posting. I have 4 years of business development experience but I have applied for technical chemistry positions. I gained skills in business development that are applicable. I highlight those accomplishments rather than my cut-throat sales accomplishments. This will also allow you to apply for jobs where you know you have the skills, but maybe you didn’t have the specific job title they were looking for. For example: I applied for a position in a non-profit as a fund developer. There is a lot of overlap in necessary skills for business development and fund development. I was a top candidate for this job, up against someone who had worked for non-profits in the past because I focused on the what I achieved which demonstrated I had the necessary skills.

#4 – Read the instructions and spell check

It may seem minor to throw out resumes for spelling errors; however, when grabbing from a pile of hundreds, you need to cut out a lot of people, and this is one way to do so. Make sure you spell check. Have someone else read it to be sure. This is especially important if you are applying for a position in a language where you are not a native speaker. These spelling/grammatical errors won’t be a big deal once you’re interviewing or even in the job, but it can make a difference in the application stage.

For the instructions, do what the positing says. Do you need a cover letter? Should you apply directly to a hiring manager? Should it be one document or two? Word or PDF? Make sure you follow the instructions.

#5 – Some random things

This is my experience of what makes for a strong resume. There may be more details out there from other hiring managers and other scientists. I hope you find it useful. But I won’t be hurt if you don’t.

I can’t stress enough about making the resume short and obvious. I have had to sift through 200 applications. If I can’t find what I need, I toss your resume. I will not read past page 2. If what I need isn’t up front and centre, I am very unlikely to get to it. Short and sweet.

Put your education near the end – I want to see your relevant experience and skills before seeing your education.

If you’re a student, I caution you on applying for industry using your boss’s academic CV as a template. Just as I can’t help you get a job in academia, your graduate supervisor may not be the best resource for how to get a job in industry. What your graduate supervisor can do, however, is put you in touch with former students and other people in their network who can help you. I know that I will personally be happy to help any student that any of the professors from my alma mater put me in touch with. That’s what networking is about.

Good luck and happy job hunting!

 

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Science Job Hunting – Part 1, The First Day

I have a confession: 3 months ago, I lost my job. I joined the ranks of THOUSANDS of Calgarians who had to have that dreaded conversation with their boss that is basically summed up with “sorry, your job doesn’t exist now”. This represented one of the WORST days for me professionally. As the primary wage earner for my family, I became very aware of the two other people who depend on my paycheque, and was hit with the feeling that I was somehow letting them down. I liked my job. I liked my coworkers. I liked my clients. I even liked my boss (I still do). Having to leave was so difficult and shocking. There is no other way to express that experience other than

IT FUCKING SUCKS!

However, I am the eternal optimist. Let’s find the positives and look at what I have gained from the experience. Here are a few of the things that I learned from that experience:

First – check your emotions.

I am not generally an “angry” person. It isn’t my first reaction to a situation, though I do have a well-known, slow-burning temper. But there is a lot in this situation that can make you angry.

“I came back from maternity leave early for this job!”

“I met all of my KPIs!”

“We are sitting at my desk! This is so humiliating!”

There’s a reason that every HR policy says that these types of situations should happen at a different location, when a lot of other employees are not around etc., because people are likely to get mad or upset and you don’t want that at the office. Also, it is humiliating, no matter how you try to mitigate that, and having an audience of now former coworkers really ups that “humiliation” factor. Of course, I worked for a company that didn’t do that. We were in fact in my office, at my desk, with my team members all going about their normal work day.

BUT I did check my emotions. There were no tears, no anger, though there was obvious disappointment. I am so glad I did because the result was that I did something that not many people had ever seen before: I announced my own termination to my staff. I was actually the person that rounded up my team, explained the situation, thanked them for their work, and wished them the best of luck. It couldn’t have been a better way for me to walk out: my head was held very high.

Checking your emotions also helps you make sure that your positive references remain intact and you can genuinely say that your boss was just acting in the best interest of the company, because that’s their job. I am now at that place where I can genuinely say, without malice, that my boss was doing his job. And if getting rid of my position saves the jobs of the other members of my team, then that’s the best decision for the company and I can’t fault him.

You may not get over the anger right away, and you don’t have to. But keeping it in check until you leave the building can leave a lasting, positive impression on the people who worked with you. No one can take that away from you. You may even surprise yourself with your mettle.

Second – reach out to your support system/network

Once I was in my car driving home, that’s when I began to cry. I knew EXACTLY who my first call needed to be – it was to my dad. Why? Because 20 years ago, the same thing happened to him: after 20 years working at the bank, he was laid off during a merger. I was 15 at the time and I remember the look on his face when he came in the door that day. I can hear his voice. He was the primary wage earner for his family. 4 other people counted on his paycheque. He understood. He knew where I was coming from. He knew the shock, the anger, the outrage, and disappointment. But he also reminded me that it ended up working out way better for him to lose that job. He went on to one that was significantly more rewarding and enjoyable.

During the job hunting process, I began to reach out to my network (more on the importance of building your network in a later post). As I began talking to key contacts in my network, I discovered something I hadn’t considered before in the importance of keeping a network: support. Every single person I talked to had been laid off at some point. They were understanding. They knew the anger and sadness I felt. And every single one of them confirmed: don’t worry, you’ll find something else that’s great. I began receiving ideas of next steps, other references of people to talk to, and general support and encouragement. This is something that nearly everyone in my network had experienced at least once. I was not alone and definitely shouldn’t be embarrassed.

Third – everything is negotiable

When your position is terminated, you will likely receive some sort of severance package. Generally this package is designed to be just enough to make litigation not a worthwhile pursuit. Doesn’t mean you can’t ask for more*. To do this, it helps to know the specifics of your contract and your rights.** Several years of Business Development experience gave me that courage, and I walked away no longer bound by a non-compete clause.

Get your contracts in writing ALWAYS. Read them carefully – do you have a non-compete? How does that impact you if you are terminated? Get the terms of your severance in writing. Don’t settle for any “handshake agreements” with your now former employer. You are in a position of little power here, but you can still ask for things. Does your termination package address all of your questions? If not, ask for clarification.

*Note: don’t be unreasonable or an asshole here. You still want positive letters of reference. Think of doing this the same way you’d negotiate a job offer.

**I am not a lawyer. Don’t take this as expert advice on detailed contract negotiation. I am just saying that you are having a conversation with your employer – you get to say things and ask things too.

Fourth – It gets better

3 months have passed and I now have job offers. YAY! I don’t harbour anger toward my former boss. I look forward to the next time our paths cross and we can chat as colleagues. I learned so many skills while I worked for him and I now have the opportunity to take those skills onto the next chapter of my career. There is something better waiting at the end of this experience.

Curious how a scientist goes job hunting? Well check back soon where I will share my experience on how to get a job in science.

Tomatosphere and Epigenetics

Have you heard of Tomatosphere™? This is a really cool program operated in Canada through Let’s Talk Science. It is a free program offered to students from Kindergarten to Grade 12, where these students can study the effects of “space” on the germination of tomato seeds. Participating classes receive two packages of tomato seeds: one is a package of seeds from tomatoes that were sent into space or treated to space-simulation conditions, i.e., the experimental group; the second package contains seeds that spent time on plain old Earth, i.e., the control group. Students the study the germination of these two groups of seeds, expanding on the basic experiment depending on curriculum and grade level.

As a scientist and a gardener, I am in LOVE with this program. But I have a question for Tomatosphere™: I want to know if anyone is looking at the possibility of EPIGENETIC changes to the tomatoes. This begs the next question: what is epigenetics? That’s the question I am hoping to answer for you today.

Tomatospher Question

My tweet to Tomatosphere

 

To begin our understanding of epigenetics, let’s do a quick review of the central dogma of genetics and inheritance. The traits that make us a human (or a gorilla, or a tomato plant) are coded in our DNA. To express the trait, the DNA is transcribed into messenger RNA (mRNA), which is in turn translated into amino acids that are then put together to build the necessary proteins for each trait. We inherit these genes from our biological parents: one gene from the egg and one gene from the sperm. The trait that is expressed is the dominant gene. Differences in expression generally mean differences in the genes, or the specific DNA code.

For example, let’s look at blood types. Let’s say you inherit the “A gene” from your dad and the “O gene” from your mum. Your genotype will be AO. But since the A gene is dominant, you will only express this gene and you will have blood type A. This is called your phenotype. To change your blood type, you would need to change your genotype. That is the basics of inheritance.

Epigenetics throws a wrench into this understanding of genetics and inheritance. Epigenetics means “outside genetics”, and refers to changes in gene expression that are not a result of physical changes to the DNA sequence. In other words, changing our phenotype without changing our genotype. Epigenetic marks control the expression of genes, which ones are turned on, when, and how much. One of the most interesting things about epigenetics is that we can start to see how the environment plays a role in gene expression. Our lifestyles, our preferences, our exposures to certain environmental factors can all contribute to variations in how the same gene can be expressed across individuals. What’s more, is that it has been discovered that these changes in epigenetics can be inherited. What this means is that if you exposed to something in your environment that causes a change in how a gene in your DNA is expressed, this change could be passed on to your child, and even to your grandchild. This is referred to as transgenerational epigenetics. It is an emerging area of research and the exact mechanisms of how this works is being widely studied.

This brings us back to Tomatosphere™ and my question. In the experiment we have tomato seeds that were exposed to space conditions. These conditions may not have changed the gene sequence, the genotype, of the tomato, but they may have caused epigenetic changes. It has been shown that changes in the gene that controls ripening in tomatoes is impacted by epigenetics, so do we see changes in other factors with these space tomatoes? AND, what about the progeny? Do the tomato plants grown from the seeds of the space tomatoes also show epigenetic changes?

Epigenetic tomato experiment

A sketch of my proposed Tomatosphere experiment.

 

For more information on transgenerational epigenetics, check out this Nature article.  I also recommend the website What is Epigenetics for a more detailed description of epigenetics.

 

Bill F*cking Nye?! Seriously?

Last week, March 6th, Canada’s Liberal Party was out promoting Budget 2018. This budget has Canada’s scientific community pretty excited because of the huge investment that the Canadian government is making in fundamental research. I am no exception. So last week, the Liberal politicians were out making the rounds to promote the budget and its impact on Canadian science: there was Navdeep Bains visiting Memorial University; there was Finance Minister Bill Morneau at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health and Brain Behaviour Laboratory; and there was Science Minister Kristy Duncan was over at the University of Waterloo. But all eyes were on Canada’s mascot, I mean Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. See Trudeau did his post-budget armchair discussion at the University of Ottawa with none other than Canada’s most prominent scientist and science educator…oh no wait, he sat down with Bill Nye. That’s right, American engineer and television host, Bill F*cking Nye. This pissed me off – so much that I actually had a Twitter rant about it. Bill Nye tweet

I am not one who is usually given to ranting my feelings on social media. I don’t feel that 280 characters is enough to fully express nuanced thoughts, and much of the time it feels like I am trying to talk in a room of 1000 other people all talking at the same time. But here’s my top 3 reasons why I am incredibly disappointed in the PM’s choice to have this discussion with Bill Nye:

1) Bill Nye IS NOT CANADIAN

I don’t think I can stress this enough. Bill Nye isn’t Canadian. He wasn’t born in Canada. He wasn’t educated in Canada. He never worked in Canada. He hasn’t lived in Canada. He has never paid taxes in Canada. Other than clips of Bill Nye the Science Guy showing up in Canadian science classrooms, he doesn’t have a Canadian connection. He is simply not a stakeholder in Canadian federal budgets.

It is deeply disappointing that of the THOUSANDS of Canadian scientists, myself included, that would have happily discussed the benefits of investing in STEM and research, that of the THOUSANDS of Canadian scientists who could have connected to Canadian taxpayers why it is so important for the government to spend their money on research and innovation even if they themselves aren’t scientists, the Canadian Prime Minister chose an American. Trudeau took away an opportunity for a Canadian voice to be on that platform. He allowed an American, someone who doesn’t benefit from the budget, and doesn’t have to answer to the consequences of the budget to speak on behalf of Canada’s scientific community.

That’s the thing about federal budgets: there is only a limited amount of money to spend. I know as a taxpayer that for every dollar the government spends on research and innovation, that is a dollar that isn’t getting spent on health care or infrastructure. Not to mention that with deficit financing, I will also be the one to pay off that debt. For me, that investment is worthwhile. And I am prepared to champion that to my fellow Canadians as to why they should also feel that matters, regardless of whether or not they are a scientist themselves. How can Bill Nye, an American, speak to any of that? He doesn’t qualify for NSERC grants. He doesn’t have to worry about Canada’s deficit. He’s not looking for jobs in Canada’s oil and gas industry. He doesn’t have to worry about under-funding some other Canadian program in order to fund science.

2) Bill Nye is Not the Only Voice

Okay, I know I have come off pretty hard on Bill Nye. I don’t hate Bill Nye. He’s done a lot for promoting STEM. But science has basically had one spokesman (two if you count Neil deGrasse Tyson) for the last 25 years. That’s not a lot of diversity. There are millions of scientific voices out there. I am personally tired of hearing Bill Nye’s perspective on science. I want to hear more of Jillian Buriak’s, Bonnie Schmidt’s, or on the more famous side Jay Ingram‘s. If I am going to hear about science from an American prospective, how about Raychelle Burks? My point here is that there are a lot of different science voices that can offer insight into why investing in STEM is a great choice for Canada. Bill Nye’s isn’t one of them.

Here’s another thing: Bill Nye’s version of science communication has actually done some damage to science itself. His willingness to entertain non-scientific individuals in debates about creationism or climate change, he has given these science deniers an elevated platform that they wouldn’t normally have. It puts creationism and climate change denial on the same level as scientific fact. It suggests that their beliefs they are passing off as fact are on the same level as scientific data. After all, debates are about two perspectives on the same set of facts right? Thanks Bill, but this wasn’t helpful. Actually, it made it harder for every other scientist trying to promote scientific literacy in the fields of climate change and evolution. This Scientific American article basically explains what I am trying to get at here.

3) The Kinder Morgan Thing

Or as Bill Nye called it “Morgan Kinder“. Pipelines and oil – this is contentious. I don’t want to get into all the science about oil or its impact on the environment. Yes, we know it is bad environmentally; yes, we know it is contributing to climate change; yes, we need to regulate and fix this problem. BUT that doesn’t happen by simply turning off the pipes. (Hey Bill, how’d you get to Canada? Did you like that jet fuel keeping the plane in the air? How about that car from the airport to the University of Ottawa? Was that water bottle you were drinking from plastic?) If you’re in Alberta right now, like me, you know that there is a lot going on in respect to the Trans Mountain Pipeline. The fact that this particular issue is so contentious that British Columbia and Alberta are having to go to the federal government to solve the damn issue should probably say to anyone, especially an American outsider, that maybe this wasn’t the best venue for discussing pipelines and what they mean. (Also, where is Bill discussing American shale gas production?) I go back to my point about Bill Nye not being Canadian. The pipeline is more than a scientific issue in Canada, with stakeholders in many sectors of the Canadian economy. Bill Nye is not one of those stakeholders and his woeful ignorance about this issue’s complexity was on display.

Now, I have ranted on Twitter. I have shared my thoughts here. But none of this is really going to create that much action. I am just not that important. But I believe that by taking action we put more meaning into our words. This is why I actually wrote a letter to the Prime Minister. I doubt that I will get a response, but I couldn’t very well complain about his choice on Twitter and not write to him to share my incredible disappointment in his decision to take away a great opportunity for Canadians to meet their amazing scientists and instead give it to the tired voice of science’s mascot, Bill Nye.

*Full disclosure: I have been a supporter of the Liberal Party but my previous political support does not mean an unconditional support of all their choices. That’s the fun part about democracy.

ASTech Awards

Hello Alberta Science and Technology Community. Did you know that the deadline to nominate a fellow Albertan for an ASTech Award is quickly approaching? You have until May 31st. Go here to learn more.

For those of you who are not familiar with the ASTech Foundation, let me give you a quick introduction: Alberta Science and Technology Leadership (ASTech) Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation that is committed to showcasing substantial achievements in science and technology in Alberta. Every fall, finalists in the nomination process are honoured at an awards ceremony. I have had the pleasure of attending the awards ceremony for the last 3 years and I can say that it is a great event for anyone interested in innovation. It is tremendously fun to be in a room with so many like-minded individuals.

With all of these great things going for ASTech, I have to say that the awards remain plagued by one key problem: a lack of diversity in their award winners. In 2015, only one of the 15 award winners was female. Further, not a single award presenter was a woman. In a discussion about diversity, I brought this point to the ASTech Foundation. Let’s just say their response wasn’t quite as convicted as “because it’s 2015”:

(I’ve done sales/customer service. “Thanks for your feedback” is right up there with “I’ll take that under advisement” for the polite, if not passive aggressive, dismal.)

I began digging into ASTech’s history a bit: in the last 5 years only 9 women have been named winners of awards, with another 3 women being the representative (CEO/Founder) for companies that have been award winners. This means that less than 20% of the award winners are women.

At the 2015 awards, I discussed it with a couple of individuals on the Board of the ASTech Foundation and they expressed that they get a notable lack of female nominees, making it difficult to ensure that there is equality in award winners. This may explain, at least superficially, why there are so few female award winners, but this hardly does anything to explain why award presenters and evening MCs are all still male.

Sausage

Here’s the thing, I am not in anyway suggesting that the men who have won an ASTech award are not deserving. In fact, in 2015, TWO members of my PhD committee, Drs. Jonathan Curtis and Todd Lowary, accepted awards. These are two individuals who had a profound effect on my career and I count them among a list of wonderful mentors I have worked with over the last fourteen years.

That being said, I have also worked with an innumerable number of women who have also changed the landscape of science and technology in Alberta. I am currently involved in two Alberta-based start-ups where the Founder/CEO is a woman: Stephanie Hoeppner of Life Science Forensics and Donna Mandau of Graphene Leaders Canada. The scientific leads, operational leads, and other senior management roles in these companies are also dominated by women (myself included). I work with female vice presidents, female lead researchers, and female project managers every day. I DO NOT accept that there are not enough women contributing to science and technology innovation in Alberta as an explanation for the lack of female nominees. I call on my fellow scientists and innovators to no longer accept this either. When you make your nomination for the 2016 ASTech, do not forget about all of the brilliant women you know who are also changing the Alberta science and technology landscape.

The mission of the ASTech Foundation is “To identify and celebrate outstanding achievements in science and technology in Alberta and to inspire the next generation of innovation and leadership.” It is difficult to inspire the next generation of innovation and leadership to embrace diversity and new ideas, if we aren’t demonstrating, and celebrating, diversity today.

 

An Africat Honeymoon

IMG_1234

This was where I took my morning coffee – often times there would be animals there too.

I have found my happy place! It is at the Okonjima Nature Reserve in Namibia. This is where I spent six nights of my honeymoon. Now you might be wondering who opts for a honeymoon in Namibia and what this has to do with a science blog. Well, the Okonjima Nature Reserve happens to be home to the Africat Foundation, a not for profit organisation committed to the conservation of Namibia’s large carnivores.

Science lovers, animal lovers, and travellers of all kinds NEED to travel here at some point in their lives. First off, the accommodations are top-notch (just check out the Tripadvisor reviews). The staff have to be some of the most helpful and friendly people I have ever met (and I am Canadian; we are proud of our long-standing, widely accepted stereotype as a friendly and helpful culture.) Now, Husband and I were there for 6 nights during our entire time in Namibia. Apparently this is super rare. Most visitors only stay a couple of nights, which is NOT what I would advise. Yes, all of Namibia is beautiful and there is plenty to see, but you are doing yourself a disservice not to spend several days at Okonjima. You have the opportunity to go out tracking the large predators on the reserve, and while the guides (who are just tremendous) will do their absolute best to ensure that you see a leopard (or cheetah, hyaena, or wild dog) there is no guarantee.

IMG_1500

But when you see one, they will take your breath away.

Anyone who has ever owned a cat will understand how uncooperative they can be. The more time you spend there, the more chances you have to see a leopard. It was a pleasure to accompany our designated guide,  Richard Zaayman. He worked tirelessly with the rest of the staff to give us the most unforgettable honeymoon. But what his work really did was create two lifelong supporters of Africat.

Conservation: we, as a species, should perhaps see ourselves more as guardians and stewards of the Earth, rather than those exalted and meant to take from the Earth to serve our own needs. As an Albertan working in the environmental field (an environmental chemist specifically), much of my focus is on pollution and the impact that oil mining has on our environment and our health. But we are part of an ecosystem. Other creatures are depending on the environment. We have heard that wolves change rivers, and no doubt so do the cheetahs, leopards, and lions of Namibia. What I love about Africat, and how I know that I found a group of kindred spirits, is that their motto is “conservation through education”. By focusing on educating the next generation on the importance of conservation and why Namibia’s large carnivores play an important role in the ecosystem it is hoped that a sustainable solution for the future can be made. The concept of education and curiosity is why I write this blog. By giving everyone the opportunity to explore science, making it accessible to all, hopefully we can give the next generation the opportunity to explore the mysteries and wonders of nature, whether they are exploring the spaces between atoms, the spaces between continents, or the spaces between planets.

“Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” -Nelson Mandela

Thank you Richard, everyone at Okonjima and Africat for making our honeymoon so perfect!IMG_1353

 

An Ode to Math

I think we need to talk about an important component in the sciences, one that gets a terrible reputation, is often scorned, and legions of people claim hatred of or ineptitude at: it is math. Poor math. But you know what? Math is actually pretty cool and there are so many different aspects of it. There is something for everyone.

Let’s start with this article where it seems that Canadian students are no longer leading the way in math. Alberta, where I live, used to be the country’s leader and is now struggling to perform. This breaks my heart. Math is so critical. I don’t really understand this “discovery based learning” of math. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of making sure that people understand there is more than one way to skin some sort of animal and that there are limits to what rote memorisation can get you. However, there are certain things that do need to be committed to memory because they will form the basics tools for more complex learning later on: notes on a scale — you cannot memorise every possible combination, but you do need to know what is in an octive to play music; words in a language — again, you cannot memorise every sentence you will ever need, but you will need to memorise the various words that make up your vocabulary; the alphabet and the sounds the letter make — imagine trying to learn to read if you can’t remember what sound the letter “t” makes? I equate that memorising multiplication tables is the same. By knowing that 3×9=27 it is much easier to solve 99 x 3. (99×3=297)

I know that math is difficult

Here’s the thing: math is critical to life. Okay, so you may never have to solve the Schrödinger equation for the hydrogen atom, but I bet you will have to figure out a budget. Whether it is a household budget or the billion dollar budget of a province, it is kind of important to make sure that your math is correct.

How about this: my mother is one of the greatest math whizzes I have ever met. Does she use her prodigious skill in putting together new designs for military jets at an engineering firm? Not so much — instead she uses those skills to further a hobby that keeps us all warm: she makes quilts. (She even made me one with a double helix on it in celebration of my PhD.) If you ever want to meet someone who can add quickly in only fractions, talk to a quilter. Each seam has to be 1/4 of an inch. You are making four squares made two 4″ right angle triangles. How much fabric to you need? My mother probably wouldn’t ever consider herself to be on the level of John Nash, but I have watched her add up everything she needs for these patterns in such a quick fashion that even Euclid would have to take notice. I am happen to be a pretty deft hand at math, and I found it hard to follow her calculations, she’s that good.

Just an example of one quilt she made.

Just an example of one quilt she made.

Quilt making is just one example of how you can use math in a very not boring way. Look at how pretty the geometric patterns of a quilt are. Here’s another way you might need to be good with math: baking or cooking. Ever need to double a recipe? Ever need to cut it in half? Ya, that is all math. Delicious math, but still math.

I will admit, despite being good with math, I did find math class a little dull. Probably because it lacks context. But put me in a chemistry class where I need to figure out the quantity of an analyte in a solution through a series of back calculations, I am hooked. It is so neat that knowing this concentration and that volume, this molecular mass and that dilution factor, I can tell you how much calcium was present in a water sample. That math never “feels” like math. It is seems so straightforward and easy; after all, it is just multiplication and division, set up using the same principles that I learned when memorising my multiplication tables in fourth grade.

That’s the thing about math: it is everywhere. It is hiding in your budgets, lurking in your kitchen, sneaking in your job, but it is always there, giving you a helping hand when you need it, making sure that life makes sense. Imagine getting on a plane without math. How safe would you feel if some of those calculations about lift and drag weren’t quite right? Or imagine getting surgery. The calculations that the anesthesiologist uses are very precise-ensuring that you remain unconscious but not dead. (That would be why they are paid A LOT of money.)

Math is your friend. You don’t need to be Stephen Hawking to enjoy the benefits of math. And I bet that most of you, in your own way, are pretty good at math. Let’s change the reputation math has and start giving it the credit it is do. From music to planetary movements, math is pretty cool.