RADIO Frontier Channel Episode 07

RADIO Frontier Channel Episode 07 Cover

“An Interview with Becca Walker” – In this seventh episode of RADIO Frontier Channel, I speak with Becca Walker, a graduate student in the geosciences program at the University of Arizona. She has been researching the interactions between scientists and teachers in hopes of better understanding how geology is taught to children. Some scientist/teacher partnerships succeed, and some fail miserably. What are the factors involved? We also discuss women in science, public interest in geology, overcoming obstacles, past volcanism in the Tucson, Arizona area, and much more.

Article: “An Interview with Becca Walker

An Interview with Becca Walker

Gender issues such as the role of women in science and technology were brought to a head recently when Lawrence H. Summers, president of Harvard University, suggested at an academic conference that intrinsic differences between males and females may explain why there are fewer women in science, mathematics and engineering. Summers, according to his defenders, intended his statement as merely one of several hypotheses to explain this obvious and little researched discrepancy.

I recently interviewed Becca Walker, a geosciences graduate student at the University of Arizona, and I asked her why she thought gender is still even an issue. “You tell me,” she laughed while shaking her head. “I think one of the things that’s being investigated right now is why the gender ratio in graduate programs is essentially 50/50, and actually even leaning now more toward women, but when you look at who is getting these academic positions, women compose, you know, a very small minority.” While there seems to be no obvious answers, Walkers suggested further research might be helpful, such as surveys and interviews with faculty members, staff members and graduate students from various colleges and universities about their perception of these gender issues in academia. “I think there needs to be a lot more consideration of this issue.”

In the geosciences, Walker says she has not faced explicit sexism while a graduate student, although she knows of other women who have. She believes she was able to prove herself as a woman in geosciences by being physically fit and keeping up with “the guys.” She expects these issues to be more difficult for women graduate students as they attempt to enter the work force when their education is complete. “One of the major issues is, if you’re applying for a tenure-track position, what about children? […] Is it possible to do cutting-edge research, do excellent teaching, have a service component, and have a family? […] If you have a child, I mean, that is a major chunk of your time budget.”

Facing Challenges

If anyone is up to the challenges that these issues present, it is Becca Walker. In 2003 she was diagnosed with hepatitis, likely brought on by a soil microbe she caught during field work or other outdoor activities. “It’s probably a microbe that everyone in the population gets exposed to, but for some reason my immune system reacted really strangely to it.”

Although she was able to recover from the hepatitis quickly, her immune system also attacked and destroyed her own bone marrow. She was not a good candidate for a bone marrow transplant so doctors turned to immunosuppressive therapy. This therapy purposely killed her immune system in the hope of also killing off the particular cells that were attacking her bone marrow. After the therapy, her immune system and bone marrow needed time to grow back, but challenges remained. Becca had to protect herself from illness until her immune defenses returned. She took time off from school for treatment and recovery.

Walker is still in recovery, but she has returned to school with a vengeance. “I think that being back here and teaching and getting back into my research was one of the most important elements in my recovery.” It may be too dangerous for her to return to outdoor field work, but she has found a different environment to research: kindergarten through 12th grade classrooms.

Scientist/Teacher Partnerships

Many K-12 teachers instruct courses on subjects in which they have no formal training. To address this issue, several programs around the country partner scientists and other specialized experts with teachers to enhance the teachers’ abilities and knowledge in the natural sciences, technology, and mathematics. In return, scientists can come away with more effective teaching skills.

The “Collaboration to Advance Teaching Technology and Science” (CATTS) program is “a partnership between the University of Arizona and local school districts to improve science, mathematics and technology teaching at all levels” according to the CATTS website. This unique program brings CATTS fellows from the University of Arizona into K-12 classrooms. The working theory is that teachers will learn from the research experience of scientists, and scientists will learn from the pedagogical experience of teachers, benefiting school children in the process. While programs such as CATTS are created with the best intentions, not all scientist/teacher partnerships are successful.

Walker has been researching these partnerships to look for those factors that lead to success, and those that do not. She has spent time in K-12 classrooms observing scientist and teacher interactions. She also collected journals, conducted surveys, and interviewed the participants. In her research Walker has identified successful partnerships as being marked by specific shared goals, expectations, and labor; well-defined roles; equality; good communication, and an honest investment in learning from and teaching each other. She recently presented her results at GeoDaze 2005, an annual symposium at the University of Arizona of undergraduate and graduate research.

When partnerships failed, Walker found that negative factors such as intimidation and lack of communication were involved. For example, teachers were sometimes intimidated by the scientists, while poor communication regarding goals and roles led to confusion and conflict. Walker observed fellows that focused on teaching the students rather than the teacher. She also observed teachers who took breaks and conducted unrelated work while the fellow was left to lead class lessons alone.

Fortunately, even these ineffective partnerships could be turned around if negative factors were recognized and the partners invested their time and effort to resolving their differences. Sometimes it was as simple as someone finally speaking up. Walker described one situation in which the fellow approached the teacher and expressed his frustration with her lack of involvement and the need for them to plan their lessons outside of class. “He hadn’t communicated that need up until that point, and when this teacher realized ‘oh, […] I didn’t think this was one of the important criteria for us working together. Of course I’ll set aside time,’ the partnership evolved very successfully after that. So it’s definitely…it’s possible to overcome the majority of these barriers as long as there is honest communication about what needs to be changed.”

The work Walker has done is also applicable to the relationship between scientists and the general public. She hopes that her work will highlight these issues for scientists, teachers, and the public alike, leading to more effective partnerships in the future.

Looking Ahead

As for her own future, Walker will soon have a Masters degree and will eventually pursue a Ph.D. She plans to continue teaching and conducting research, including a possible return to outdoor field work. “I think that the further away I get from this illness, I might be a little bit more ballsy and decide, you know, I’m really going to have to be more careful, but I’m going to re-initiate doing field work.”

Which leads me back to my original question…why is gender still even an issue? With grace, intelligence, and passion, Becca Walker belies any suggestion that intrinsic differences between males and females explain why there are fewer women in academic positions.

RADIO Frontier Channel Podcast

Episode 07

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Organic Compounds Discovered in Titan’s Upper Atmosphere

The Cassini space probe has discovered a variety of complex hydrocarbons and carbon-nitrogen compounds in the upper atmosphere of Titan. Described by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as an “organic ‘factory’ of hydrocarbons” the upper atmosphere seems to be an unlikely spot for such high levels of these compounds, since they should condense and rain out on the moon’s surface. The mechanism by which these compounds are created likely includes ultraviolet radiation from the sun, although the exact details are not well understood.

The graph below shows the presence of compounds containing 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 carbons in their molecular structure, some of which are hydrocarbons (carbon combined with hydrogen) and others that are carbon-nitrogen compounds. Titan’s atmosphere is composed mostly of nitrogen and a significant amount of methane (CH4).

This discovery is not that same as discovering life, but complex hydrocarbons are known precursors to the building blocks that somehow lead to life. Scientists hope data about organic chemistry on Titan will give them a better understand of how life may have started on our own planet.

Robot Insects Invade Finland

The invasion of Finland by giant robotic insects has taken an ugly turn with reports of forestry workers being swallowed whole. The unfortunate victims are visible through the insect’s clear head/stomach and look strangely industrious even while being slowing digested.

The six-legged freaks march through the forest like locusts, eating trees and unwary John Deere employees with an unsightly single mandible erupting out of the top of their head. Witnesses have reported surprising agility. Pursuit is difficult; the beasts leave no tracks. Green and black with yellow highlights on the mandible, the menace threatens the forestry industry with their automated efficiency. Experts worry that it is only a matter of time before the workers are gone. And after the robotic insects take over Finland, will they set their malicious sights on the world? Stay tuned.

What I Want – Automated Internet TV

There are a great many video weblogs and Internet television series available now that are interesting and better than most of the crap on over-the-air, cable, and satellite television. Unfortunately, you have to download episodes of each show manually (a few weblogs can be automatically downloaded through videocasting which is similar to podcasting), find them in their individual folders, watch, and then click too damn much when one ends and you are ready to watch another.

What I want is an Automated Internet TV platform that automatically downloads and stores episodes of my favorite series and creates a channel that randomizes the shows while keeping the episodes in order. For example, I want a channel with “Star Trek: Hidden Frontiers”, “Rocketboom”, “The Scene”, and independent films, but set on shuffle, with episodes of each show coming in the right order.

There IS Winamp Internet TV, which you can surf through like regular television channels, but the content is generally poor and you cannot mix up shows by individual episodes from different channels into your own playlist. A couple of organizations, Brightcove and Participatory Culture Foundation, are working on improved Internet TV platforms but little is known about their user interfaces and features.

Once this dream platform is created then I want it to become so incredibly popular that television series created for the networks and cable jump ship and become available over the Internet. I’ll even pay a fee. How about US$1.99 for each new episode, US$0.50 for older episodes, or a $19.99 yearly subscription with unlimited reruns of all episodes prior to the latest?

Of course, once that becomes incredibly popular, then prices will start falling and packages of several different shows will become available for less than $19.99 a year. By then, there will be many more shows available than now, a level playing field for independent, public, and corporate-funded programming, and little need for the middlemen networks and cable companies. While we’re at it, throw in the entire movie, television, video, and DVD library since each were invented and make the Internet the ultimate video storage and jukebox.

Oh, believe you me, an exhaustive Automated Internet TV platform IS coming, no matter how hard the middlemen try to fight it. Unfortunately, I wanted it now. Now I have to wait, and that makes me a little angry. Time to watch more “Rocketboom” and decide whether or not I have a crush on host Amanda Congdon.

Skype Looms

It is interesting that a review of VoIP services by Associated Press writers does not include any mention of Skype. The writers claim that their phone costs have been cut in half by moving to VoIP services such as Vonage, but somehow their excitement rings hollow when Skype is free. $19.95 for unlimited calls anywhere in the United States and Canada versus free unlimited calls to the world? One-time fees to add additional services versus no such fees? 4 cents a minute for long distance calls within the United States versus 2 cents a minute to many countries around the world and only for calls from Skype to their phone (it is always free Skype to Skype)? Perhaps the writers feel their readers are only ready to make the leap from their local telephone lines to VoIP services that emulate traditional telecommunication business models. Maybe they believe Skype is too technical for their readers.

Maybe they just do not take Skype seriously, like the customer service representative I talked to earlier this week when I called to cancel my cell phone service. She kept warning me to “read the fine print!” Something just didn’t sound right to her, despite the fact that I have been closely following the progress of Skype for awhile now and am now saving nearly $50.00 a month.

Skype does not currently offer emergency 911 service, but this and other limitations will quickly vanish as the software becomes more sophisticated, arrangements are made, and third parties jump into the fray. Vonage’s recent talks with Qwest to use their 911 infrastructure promise a day when this service is integrated with VoIP. Soon videoconferencing, 411, social networking, education, radio and video broadcasting, and much more will become available for Skype, taking the service far beyond the limitations of traditional land-based telephone line and other VoIP services.

For now, if I have an emergency, I can call family or friends via Skype, knock on my neighbors’ door, use a calling card at a payphone, or, if I become worried enough, buy one of those disposable cell phones. Oh, but wait. I don’t have to rely on any of those options. Cell phones can reach 911 even when you don’t subscribe to a service package. Good thing I didn’t throw it away like I intended.

Who Are You?

Who are you that you can tell me what to do? Who are you to tell me that I cannot pirate my digital content, take drugs, have sex with whomever I choose, dress how I want, color my hair how I want? Who are you to tell me that I cannot experiment with myself?

Who the hell are you?

I know who you are. You are the person that thinks my freedoms will give you more freedom than you want to handle. You are the person who thinks that careful regulation of every aspect of a person’s life will somehow protect you. You are self conscious. You think I am looking at you. You are that person who wants to hold on to their own power at the expense of others. You fear change. You are nosy. You have to be involved in other people’s lives. You cannot live on your own. You cannot imagine more. You fear yourself.

Who the hell are you to think you have any power over me? Why do you think I grant you any say over my life? I could care less about you and I care more for you than you will ever know. It is humanity that I love, and not you, and who do you think you are to expect my respect, my love?

I do not answer to you and I do not acknowledge your right to regulate my life. Take your laws of fear and stuff them. LEAVE ME ALONE!

Stratellite Unveiled

The Frontier Channel first covered “Stratellites” in our August 2004 edition. With ambitious plans to replace cellular towers all over the world with balloon-lofted platforms in the stratosphere, Sanswire Networks officially unveiled their prototype vessel to investors yesterday. They plan public unveilings and a flight test as soon as they can get FAA and NASA approval.

One robotic stratellite will float high above a city and offer a wireless broadband and cellular footprint the size of the Texas. Stratellites will be rotated every few months for maintenance. Competitors have similar plans, but Sanswire Networks has a good head start. As soon as the company releases images to the public, The Frontier Channel will provide a look. The image currently available from Sanswire Networks is concept art for the stratellite.

RADIO Frontier Channel Episode 06

“Landing On Mars” – Finding a place to land on Mars is harder than you think. In this sixth episode of RADIO Frontier Channel I’ll tell you about a class project to pick a landing spot for the 2009 Mars Science Laboratory. Sounds easier enough, until you add some engineering constraints, massive databases of Mars images, and conflicting scientific goals. Wanna try? I’ll provide online resources so you can put together your own proposals and send them in to The Frontier Channel. Other listeners can then vote for the best proposal and I’ll announce the winner in a future episode.

RADIO Frontier Channel Episode 05

RADIO Frontier Channel Cover

“Life Extension: Sooner Than You Think” – This fifth episode of RADIO Frontier Channel is all about human life extension, starting with new drugs coming out very soon that may have unexpected benefits beyond their advertised indications. Will these drugs really extend our lives? Some people are excited, but others want to ban life extension research and treatments. The ethics involved are about to get really complicated. Think life extension is science fiction? I’ll tell you about a million dollar wager that you are wrong. Finally, you may never have heard of it, but there is actually one diet that has been shown to result in longer life in various animal species. Human trials began recently but there are some people who have been on the diet for years. I’ll tell you about them, and the pros and cons of “calorie restriction”.