Week 9- Clinical Psychology

I quite like this week’s session, because it was alot more interactive, and because of the subject. I also preferred the smaller group/pair discussions in contrast with the large group discussions we usually have.

The focus today was on how we perceive people with mental illness(es). 

What do you think of a depressed person? A person with severe anxiety? Bipolar? Anorexia? PTSD? Schizophrenia? Tourette’s? ADHD? Autism?

Each of these can be classified as a mental illness, although some are probably more harmful than others. We are familiar with these terms because these illnesses are commonly seen.

Personally, what I think of the person depends on how similar their situation to mine is. I have anxiety and mild ADHD, so I might relate better to those with similar disorders, and feel more empathetic to them. However, I have no idea what it is like to be schizophrenic, so I tend to be more fearful than empathetic of a schizophrenic person.

An issue mentioned today was the classification of something like depression as a mental illness. Originally, the purpose of this classification was to increase the awareness around something actually being wrong with the person, and that they are not just ‘imagining it’. However, the classification of having an illness is a two-edged sword: while it increases awareness, it also seems to increase the negative social stigma around those with mental illnesses. Before, the ‘normal’ people are trying to convince others, who don’t feel fine, that they are normal too. Now, with a category to put these people in, the ‘normal’ people can easily differentiate themselves from the group who are ‘ill’.

The ‘normal’ people no longer try to protect those who they thought truly were in their group. The sense of disconnection increases the social stigma against those in different groups, and it’s difficult to understand if you haven’t experienced anything similar in the first place. If we see someone getting a major flu, then we will recall the times we were ill, how it felt, amplify then empathise. This is not the same case. The only clue we have as to how they feel, is how they describe how they feel. So, I guess we better believe them? No, but some people with mental illnesses are pathological liars. No, you’re stigmatising against them..

The third case study, the one I found the most interesting, describes a man with pedophilic tendencies, who is married with a wife the same age as him, but is otherwise unsatisfied in the relationship. This man perhaps finds it embarrassing that he should be attracted to mature women but he is attracted to children instead. He has not acted on his feelings.

How different is this person from a person who is homosexual?

If we look at the world now, at least in NZ, US and some other countries, gay marriage is legal, and there is less stigmatisation against people who are gay.

How about in russia? (turn on english subtitles)

I don’t think pedophilia is legal in any country, because the child is unable to consent. While gay or bisexual people have a sexual orientation towards specific gender(s) that is different from the majority, Pedophiles have a sexual orientation towards specific age groups, different from the majority. Are the two that different?

What was interesting was when some people in the class shouted at the first person who raised the suggestion that the two are similar cases. This was an automatic reaction, because ‘gayness’ is put in to an ‘accepted’ category, for most in NZ, and ‘pedophilia’ is put into a ‘taboo’ category. We have been trained all our lives to think that pedophilia is wrong, and this training is so effective that it can elicit a reaction without us really thinking. It is difficult to change one’s perspective on a situation once they have chosen a position. What if we were all trained, from childhood, to think of pedophilia as just another mental illness? Carrying on this concept, what if we taught the future generation in a way that reduces the social stigmatisation against mental illnesses?

For a neuroscience course I hope to do next year (MEDSCI 206), real-life patients are brought into the class. It would be interesting to see my change of perspective after meeting them.

Thank you for reading!

Week 8- Big Science

This week, we had a great talk from Jim Metson, Chief Science Advisor for the ministry of business and employment.

We were told to estimate the costs of things such as an academic’s salary throughout their life time, costs for the repairs to the Large Hadron Collider, and costs of the Marsden fund per year.

Although $5 million- the estimate for an academic’s pay throughout their working lives, seems like a lot, often times, large scientific research projects can use much more than $5 million in a shorter amount of time. While research projects can keep getting funded more and more in a short amount of time, the tenure for an academic only has a slow, steady increase, and some people never reach professorship.

It is always difficult to choose what projects to fund, and because we are a small country, sometimes participation in large-scale research projects is limited (although we do ‘punch above our weight’). Big science is always associated with big money and not always associated with big returns, so we must invest in things that will bring benefits in terms of research back to our country.

One of the big science projects that NZ is funding is the Square kilometer Array.

Here is a pleasant image of space for your viewing pleasure:

All credits to hubble telescope

Although ground-based telescope systems, such as the square kilometer array, may still have some light pollutions in their images taken, the optical aperture of the Square kilometer array of telescopes is so large that it can provide super-high resolution photos of space. ‘Square kilometer’ refers to the total collecting area of all telescopes in the array.

The numerous telescopes belonging to the array are going to be built in Australia and South Africa. This is a case where NZ participates in the big science (by providing funding, computational power, and expertise) without actually hosting the relevant infrastructure.

After introductions to projects such as the SKA, we were split up into two groups. Pretending we were the Danish parliament, we had to argue for or against the statement: “We should renew our CERN membership instead of funding more academic positions”. Both sides had good arguments (some people clearly had experience in debates!), although there were only so many points to be made.

It went something like this:

For: CERN is great, to be able to participate first-hand instead of relying on open-source data is important to inspire our scientists.

Against: Yes, CERN may be great, but teaching positions are more important for inspiring our young people, so they can stay in Denmark.

For: But CERN would provide inspiration for the teaching staff, which is important for keeping their students in Denmark!

Against: But, costs better used elsewhere, like teaching!

etc etc. Although it was interesting to see who was good at speaking their points coherently and who was not (I would be in this group, although I was not picked), the debate lacked statistics to back up claims, and it was easy to make claims like the ‘For’ and ‘Against’ sides did, although they were not solid claims. How many teaching jobs can be funded? Is the issue of young people leaving Denmark really such a big problem? What does the country actually lose by not renewing its CERN membership? It would be great to see answers to these questions.

At the end, the class took to a vote, we were told to ignore the groups we were in before, but most people voted for the group they were in. I found this intriguing- why did I vote ‘For’, even though I wasn’t really sure either way? My guess would be because ‘For’ was the only viewpoint I considered, and whenever I heard an opinion from the other side, I had to think of rebuttal points quickly in case I was picked. All this made most of us biased- unless we have really thought of points supporting the other side- and when we’re not too sure, it’s easy to pick the ones we know there are good arguments for. To see a much fairer vote, we could’ve came up with 2-3 reasons ‘For’, and 2-3 reasons ‘Against’, so they can be weighed up against each other fairly.

Thank you for reading!

Week 7- Dihydrogen Monoxide

This week, we learned about a critically important substance- Water. While we can survive around 3 weeks without food, we can only survive around 3 days without water, as a general guideline.

Living organisms need water because we all evolved from aquatic life. Our internal environment is incredibly abundant with water- it is like we are carrying our previous habitat (the ocean) around in our bodies.

How much mass is in the form of water for each organ? From kangen water team

But how is water distributed around the world? While the majority of the world does have access to clean drinking water, the combination of arid conditions and lack of income means that certain countries (spread across mainly Asia and Africa) have little water to drink. Even if there is access to water, often they are contaminated with diseases such as cholera, which make the water undrinkable.

Although there is likely an adequate amount of clean water for every person around the world, it is not distributed properly. Is there anything we, as scientists, can do to solve this problem?

This is a difficult problem. A common theme across countries is if they lack access to clean water, then often they will lack access to the help we try to provide. In a hypothetical country, 20% are upper-class, 30% are middle-class and 50% are lower-class. While the upper class have permanent access to clean drinking water, the middle-class only occasionally get this access, and the lower-class almost never do.

Let’s say a solution is provided which provides clean water to an additional 30% of the total population. Who will be getting that water? I would bet that most of the water will be going to the middle-class (who can afford it) rather than the lower-class, who might not even know of the solution.

This is a case, like many other cases, where science alone does not provide a solution close to the ideal solution. Yes, as scientists, we can make recommendations to the governments of the water-lacking countries. But what if we are merely talking to the upper-class, who may be corrupt? What if the government don’t have the scientific knowledge to think of it as useful? There is a big gap between primary research and the actual global application of that research, and I have no idea how to bridge the two.

Thank you for reading!

Week 6- Eight Great Technologies

This week we got ourselves a new room for science scholars! On the third floor of OGGB, we were able to see the tennis court, domain and the harbour.

Aside from the great view, we also had a nice session. We were first introduced to the concept of ‘eight great technologies’- that is, the ones that the government are trying to fund and promote over the next 50-ish years. Then, we were told to come up with our own ideas to be funded in NZ.

Our group’s ideas are as below:

  • Cancer research
  • Obesity research
  • Antibiotic resistance
  • Climate change
  • Computer Science
  • Agricultural & food science
  • Pharmaceuticals (already funded?)
  • Genetically modified plants & animals

One issue that came up during our brainstorm was the breadth/depth of our ideas- how specific do they have to be? Each of the ideas listed above can be split into many smaller parts of a whole. When do we decide ‘this is specific enough’ without being too specific?

For our ideas, the winning group would be getting 1 Million, so the depth of the idea would be tailored around what is realistic in terms of the funds available. From my perspective though, 1 million seems quite arbitrary, since I have no idea how much things cost in research, although it seems like everyone is fighting for funding, so the answer must be a lot of money, especially if everyone is looking to perfect their research.

I don’t like how it seems like funding is so difficult it turns academics against each other, but then it was also entertaining to see how funding panels function (criticise and poke holes in every project, even the best may not get their funding). It would be interesting to see if some small tricks made funding more likely- for example, font, colour, and even a shorter title for the project. Or I could just work on making the project itself better!

Thank you for reading!