What is Bioinformatics?

One scientist might call it "intersection of biology, computer science, and sometimes statistics." Another may say it is the use of "computational methods for comparative analysis of genome data." For most people, it's just a bunch of compiling errors and pull requests. To most people, "bioinformatics" is so new and obscure that there isn't even a standardized or popularly-used abbreviation for it. ("Bioinfo"? "Bioinf" "BI"?) Fortunately this only means that you may exhaust of air when speaking about your discipline or run out of characters when tweeting about your genome-wide association results #JustBioinfoThings. But, before I dive into what bioinformatics is, let's understand a bit about the history of computer science and how biologists came to need them.

Should Competitiveness Drive Education?

The first Heraean Games began as an annual foot race of young women in competition for the position of the priestess for the goddess, Hera.
When my friends I were discussing possible medical schools to apply to, one of my friends explained how she chose not to apply to the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago after she heard stories of the "competitive" nature of the students. Speaking as a student who loves excitement and challenge of my courses, no matter how I could obtain the experience, I would definitely enjoy a great amount of competitiveness among my own peers, even in the setting of grinding doctor-hopefuls. Bear in mind that competitiveness is not the same as rigorous, and, given our dissenting beliefs about the situation, it is not immediately self-evident how competitiveness should affect us anyway. This is important because, among pre-medical students, we've become so tunnel-visioned and focused on the goal of entering a medical school that "competitive applicant" has become synonymous with "good applicant." This diction implies that a competitiveness is inherent to all good medical school applicants because we know we must compete against other amazing students. Intrigued, I wondered whether or not there was a healthy amount of competition that would produce the best doctors.

Academic Burnout: Taking Breaks and Breaking Habits

“It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.” — Muhammad Ali
Though this saying has been around long before Muhammad Ali, I think this sentiment explains the ways we forget about what's really important to us during bigger endeavors. It's very relevant to burnout that students and faculty face. When my friends and I recall the troubles and trials we have faced over our college years, we often draw upon the long nights with problem sets, lab reports, essays. I sometimes wonder that, when I feel tired after finishing a Logic proof, whether or not I will truly be able to handle much more difficult and demanding work in the future. My initial impression of future problems is that the endurance necessary for a graduate-level education or any cool career is much greater than anything I have to sit through during my four years working towards an undergraduate degree. I've even been considering taking a gap year or two before graduate/medical school. It becomes apparent, though, that, in order to prepare ourselves for challenges and problems of the future, we must learn how to adapt to the minor struggles that will continuously wear away at ourselves over a long period of time. I think Dr. Richard Gunderman put it best when he wrote, "Burnout is the sum of hundreds and thousands of tiny betrayals of purpose, each one so minute that it hardly attracts notice."

"What's in a rose? That which we call a name": Semiotics in Science

"What's the use of their having names," the Gnat said, "if they won't answer to them?"
"No use to them," said Alice; "but it's useful to the people that name them, I suppose. If not, why do they have names at all?"
"I can't say," the Gnat replied.
-Lewis Carroll 
Through the Looking-Glass 

The (Wrong) Reasons to Become a Doctor: A Medical Ethicist's Perspective

This post is written from the point-of-view of pre-medical students, but I believe the issues and topics that I discuss can be applied to any undergraduate student who has a desire to learn. 

As we search for meaning in our lives, we worry most about "Why do we want to become a doctor?" Indeed, as our fragile souls are knocked and swayed by existential crises and moments of doubt and insecurity by the overture of every Chemistry exam or weekend of volunteering, our searches for meaning and satisfaction ultimately leave us with only our constructed answers. Though it would be ridiculous to make decisions of the rest of our life in response to the temporary moodiness that mark any neophyte, whether we like it or not we, undergraduates, are forced to ask ourselves what we want to do with our lives and why. It's important to put things into a bigger perspective that, while we are here to learn about ourselves and the rest of the world, we should not feel pressured to forget about our purpose.

The Unspoken Harm in the (Pre)-Medical Experience: On History and Education

When the United States established its medical school system, we could have easily chosen to mimic Europe and create an alternative to the undergraduate degree for students who specifically wanted to become doctors. Instead, we created an idea of a "pre-medical student" who would finish a four-year bachelor's degree in addition to pre-medical requirements before entering medical school. This would allow a unique, liberating approach in which we embrace the fruits of a liberal arts education while simultaneously preparing for professional school.

Rhetoric and Models of Learning: Memorization vs. Application, Bloom's Taxonomy

I'm only four weeks into my internship at the Conte Center for Computational Neuropsychiatric Genomics at the University of Chicago, and I've already heard about three different people tell me the mathematical aphorism, "All models are wrong, but some are useful." Of course, it would be ridiculous to suggest that a model, graph, or diagram of any sort, by its own nature, should or could completely represent everything about reality. But students and researchers in areas of mathematics and statistics understand very well that data and information can often be misleading. We often look for theory in data without knowing what data actually represents, and the way we communicate scientific information can have on how another person perceives it.

A Natural Talent for the Natural Sciences

One day, during the first semester of my freshman year at Indiana University, I was sitting among a group of other students as part of a meeting for an organization. As we went around introducing ourselves, a blonde female student told us that she was majoring in Mathematics. This was met with shock from the other students, complete with audible gasps and double takes. And there's no doubt that the initial reaction from our group was at least, in part, motivated by the fact that we realized there was a girl who wanted to study mathematics.

Re-imagining the Self and Freedom from Distraction

Last Thursday, I visited the Ryerson and Burnham Library of the Art Institute of Chicago where I meandered the solitude granted by the bookshelves of cultural theory. Away from the hustle and bustle of crowded exhibits, I sat against a wall with a book on American History sitting in my lap. I savored the academic freedom of choosing what to study from a myriad of books and the personal freedom granted being far from the nature of the city and research lab. But, in the most fundamental sense, what is freedom? I personally greatly enjoy the freedom given to me by virtue of working in a dry lab. Since I perform my entire scientific research on a computer, I am not burdened by the physical limitations of experimental science, and there exist swaths of knowledge only a few keystrokes away. Does having more options and opportunities give us more freedom? Is freedom something that we should strive to achieve at all costs?

Drawing Value from our Stories; The Mark of the Mature Man

I wanted to share a small story that I recently had which sheds some light on the way pre-medical students (and undergraduates in general) perceive their education. For our medical school admissions applications, we are required to write personal statements that show more about who we are and why we are each amazing candidates for the path to becoming a doctor. Unlike the stringent requirements of completing activities (volunteering, research, extracurriculars, etc.) this gives each of us a unique way to show who we really are. But it raises a lot of fundamental questions about us.

The Appropriate Rhetoric on the Purpose of a College Education

Since I was a young high schooler, I've felt uncomfortable with the way I am expected prepare for college, and, even in college, this fear has not subsided. I've never been able to shake off the pressure to fit myself into a mold to please future admissions officers or employers and subsequently felt rather disillusioned that the things I do are only meant to fill up lines on a resume rather than give myself anything else. Surely there are reasons why, for example, medical school admissions officers would want us to volunteer and gain leadership experience. There are definitely benefits and valuable things that we can get from extracurriculars, but those details don't change the fact that there has been a distinct shift in the purpose of our education over the past several decades; we are turning the high school & college experiences away from learning how to grow as a person and towards providing a practical benefit. 

The Purpose of Art and the Beauty of Science

I've already touched a little bit about how our study of aesthetics may parallel the value we derive from other experiences, including experiences like a college student's education. From the films on the big screen to Egyptian hieroglyphics (or even the most extreme modern versions of nihilism), art has has caused an insane amount of controversy among philosophers surrounding its purpose and nature. In this article, I'd like to explore the relationship between art and science, and, specifically, how the I'm not sure how much of a parallel there is between theories of art and theories of how we approach science, but I do believe that an exploration of cultural and aesthetic value can help scientists understand what meaning they truly draw from science and, overall, help everyone take steps to determine the value of a college education.
M. C. Escher: dismissed by the art world and venerated by mathematicians

The Art of Asking a Question

I sat in front of the professor during office hours two days before the midterm exam. As I was flipping through my notes, page after page, I was searching for something that would allow me to ask a question. What were the things that I was at least a little bit "fuzzy" on? What material that we have learned could potentially be on the exam? And how could I create a question? The professor would stare at me with an earnest smile and his hands clasped together on his desk as he waited for a query. 

Myths in Medicine: The Epistemology behind so-called "Conflicts-of-Interest"

As tempting as it may be for one to believe that the medical products industry is free of corruption and that there are no people acting for heinous purposes, it's difficult for anyone to take a position on issues in the health care industry without extensive knowledge. With the negativity of the discourse and multitude of issues surrounding making sure that we can provide for the health of everyone, it would be very refreshing and relieving for one to believe that all of those are simply results of misinformation and bad statistics.

On the Value of a College Education: A Philosophy Professor's Perspective

Why do we go to college? Surely, we know that spending four years to get a degree should have much more value than just sitting through a few tests and racking up lines on a resume. We oughta learn how to think, for “an undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted.” (Deresiewicz). Are we here to prepare ourselves for a future career? Or do we need ot embrace deeper meanings behind the things that we study? On top of that, what significance does the different approaches to education put forward by professors have on the way that we think and grow as human beings? Recently, I've been speaking to a few of my professors about the value of a college education.