Well Being

Genetics Interview #13: Bora Zivkovic of A Blog Around The Clock

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This week’s Genetics Interview features Bora Zivkovic aka Coturnix of A Blog Around The Clock. A self-described “Red-State Serbian Jewish atheist liberal PhD student with thesis-writing block and severe blogorrhea,” Bora is one of the most active and friendly members of the science blogging community. His interests include chronobiology, science education, and politics. He’s a fascinating character who has many insights to share on science both here in the U.S. and in his former country, Serbia and Montenegro (the former Yugoslavia).

1. You were born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia and left for the U.S. in 1991. How does science education and research compare between the two places?

I do not known if, or in what way, the situation in ex-Yugoslavia changed over the past 15 years, so I will have to work with my own experiences from when I was still living there. Also, I'll have to limit the observations to the education in large Yugoslav cities, as I am not familiar enough with the situation in the rural areas. I think I'll have to divide the answer to this question into three parts: K-12 education, higher education and general education of the public.

In old Yugoslavia, elementary school was from grades 1 till 8. Middle school was from 9th to 12th grade. High school was an equivalent of the community/art/technical college (2-year and 4-year version) for kids who could not get into the University (the entrance exams are HARD!).

There is, simply stated, a LOT of science teaching in Yugoslav schools. In first two grades, there is a general “Natural and social sciences” class, which splits into two in grades 3 and 4. From grades 5 through 8 everybody had separate classes – every week of every semester of every year – of physics, chemistry, biology, geography and technology. By the end of middle (i.e., high) school, I had behind me eight full years of study in all those subjects – more than many American college graduates, even in science majors.

I was one of the first generation swept by a reform in education which had its pros and cons. In grade 10, I had to choose betwen one of the four tracks: natural science, social science, math or languages. I chose natural science. Next year, in grade 11, I had to choose a major. I managed to get myself into a prestigious major (full of pre-meds): biochemistry and molecular biology. What this all meant is that I had courses (equivalent to US college level) in botany, zoology, microbiology, ecology, biochemistry and molecular biology (as well as the biochemistry/molecular biology/cell biology laboratory) during the 11th and 12th grade. I also had more physics, chemistry and math. But, I never had a single course in philosophy, logic, ethics, sociology or psychology – something that left a big hole in my otherwise well-rounded education that I lament to this day and try to fill by reading books.

As a result, science (and math) tracked students missed out on a lot of humanities and social sciences. On the other hand, the humanities and social science majors had already had 5-6 years of physics, chemistry and biology before they declared their majors. Thus, they know science better than I know humanities.

The emphasis on science education throughout schooling was huge. During grades 5-9, about half of the classroom time was in science classes, another quarter in math, and the remaining quarter was spent on everything else: Serbo-Croatian language and literature, world literature, English, French, history, art, music, national defense, Marxism and PE. Apart from filling everyone's heads with a lot of scientific information, this skew also had a much more subtle effect – it showed us what the society at large deemed important to teach us. Even those of my friends who hated science classes, did poorly in them, and chose non-science majors later on, still ended up with a reverence for science and undertsanding of its importance in society.

The bad side of science education in Yugoslavia is its ex-catedra style of teaching. We were fed tons of information, but we had preciously little hands-on experience with science. There was very little lab or field time. There was not, until the 12th grade (for science majors only), any attempt at actually doing a more-or-less independent experiment. Very little excercise in critical thinking. This is where science education in the US, as little of it there is, is light years ahead of my childhood experience. Here, in the hands of a talented science teacher, science can really come to life and inspire. There, it was almost designed for this to be impossible to do.

Moving on to higher education…. There is no such thing as college in Yugoslavia. With lower education being so fast and big, kids who graduate from middle (high) school after the 12th grade are at the level equivalent to a US college graduate. Having a major in something allows one to practice it (e.g., be a lab technician), just like a B.S. does in the USA.

So, at the age of 19 (or 20 if you are male and were conscripted into the Army for a year, something I managed to avoid) you start your University studies. This means no more art and PE and such stuff. You are now studying to become a physician or economist or engineer or whatever. You take classes in your area only. Usually, all the classes were obligatory, i.e., there were no electives at all. It is almost like a non-thesis Masters in the US, with a very tightly determined “core” of courses.

After four years (or 6 years for medical and veterinary schools), you graduate. This was no mean feat. With higher education being free, students were not regarded as customers, but more like pests. I am not that dumb, but it took me 5 attempts to pass histology and 4 attempts to pass pathology in vet school. Getting a D was a reason for celebration and a night of drinking! There was only one person in the 100-year history of the vet school who ended his studies with straight As! In the end, once you manage – if you manage – to pass all the exams, you get a diploma. Your diploma is a licence to practice your skill, i.e., you are now a lawyer or a doctor or an art historian.

Very few people decided to go on to post-graduate studies in order to get Masters or Doctoral degrees. Only people interested in teaching at the University did this, because that was the only workplace where this was a requirement. Many of the MS and PhD candidates were actually older people, already experts in their fields with long successful careers. They pursued higher degrees in order to become Directors of Institutes etc. or for their own vanity. Thus, being refered to as a Doctor So-And-So was a Big Deal.

While University studies certainly were tough and prepared one well for the future career, the world of research was a different story altogether. There are no granting agencies, no competition, and no publish-or-perish requirements for tenure. So, those faculty who did not care to do research, did not do any. Those who wanted to do research did it, but were hampered by chronic lack of money, space, resources and time.

Much of the scientific research in Yugoslavia took place at state-run Institutes, where, lacking money for test-tubes, people sat around drinking coffee, smoking and gossiping. While some people in some institutes did great research (e.g., the nuclear physics insitute in Vinca or the center for corn/maize genetics in Zemun), most insitututes did not really produce much. Decades of this produced an atmosphere of apathy and indifference – to the point that some people there do not want to do research even if they are offered collaboration with Yugoslav scientists abroad who promise money, equipment, and publication in big journals. It just does not matter. I hope this picture has changed over the past 15 years since I left.

Finally, how about the understanding of science in the general population? Obviously, with such emphasis on science in schools, the average scientific knowledge is much greater there than in the USA. That is also a society that greatly values knwoledge. If you go to Belgrade and enter a second-hand bookstore (or even someone selling books in the street) you are likely to find well-worn copies of translated books of Charles Pierce's philosophy of science, for an example. Books about science sell very well, and the science-related TV shows are very popular.

That does not mean that everyone there is scientifically literate, though. First, sophistication in arts and humanities is regarded even higher than that in science. Everyone there is a poet and everyone goes to see opera and ballet. Second, science is often acquired as bits of information without a coherent understanding of the method. Physical sciences are revered much above life sciences, and advances in modern technology are the best of all!

Thus, the Baloney Detection Kit is not very well developed in many people there who otherwise know a lot of scientific facts and factoids. Thus, they are as likely to buy into glitzy pseudoscience as they are into really good new scientific ideas. If it looks ‘sciency', i.e., has numbers, formulae and charts, it must be science. Thus, astrology and biorhythms are quite popular there.

On the other hand, things that have heavily religious or spiritual undertones do not fare well there. I have blogged last year about an attempt to inject Creationism into the biology curriculum. The Minister of Education who proposed this was, apparently, given that position as a gesture towards the Serbian Orthodox Church. Well, within a week, and under enormous popular outcry, the Prime Minister was forced to fire her and the biology curriculum remained unchanged – with a thoroughly evolutionary approach to all biological topics.

2. In addition to your PhD study, you also teach biology at a community college. Geneticist David Botstein has lamented the lack of real interest college students have in basic science. What are your students like? Do they enjoy science or think it's just a requirement? How might they differ from 4-year university students?

I teach adults in non-science majors. I have also taught biology majors at NCSU. There is a big difference between those two audiences. The biology majors in their early 20s are much more interested in science and, frankly, much better educated about science than the adults. Even freshmen!

The reason for the difference in background is in the changes in the science education in North Carolina. In reaction to the assault on evolution (unsuccesful introduction of a creationist bill by Rep.Russell Capps, R-Wake Co.) a few years back, the state completely overhauled the science education curriculum in NC high schools. It is now one of the best science curricula in the nation. Thus, kids coming out of NC schools and starting college today are much better prepared than their parents' generation – the people I tend to teach now.

I see quite a variety of levels of interest in my adult students. Some of them are only interested in acquiring a diploma as their promotion or raise depends on it. Often, their employer pays for their college education. Understandably, they treat college as just yet another task to accomplish – a job to do with minimal effort and maximal efficiency.

Others, though, are there because they want to be there. They are at a point in their lives when they are ready to make a career change, or a point at which they can finally afford to go to college – something they always wanted to do but could not do when they were younger. Those students, although they are also non-science majors, are much more interested in every class they take, including biology.

The way I teach biology to adult non-science majors is with two goals: first, to have them understand the way science works, to appreciate how relevant it is to everyday life and to teach them to read science reporting in the media with some critical skills, and, second, to show them how cool and exciting science is. In some cases at least, my enthusiasm for the subject rubs off on them. First time I taught the adult class about 5 years ago, a lady (I believe she was around 60 years old at the time) decided, because of my class, to change schools in order to be able to pursue a biology major!

3. As a father, how do you engage your children in science? Have any tips for other parents?

Be subtle about it! I do not “teach” science at home. Kids know I am a scientist and are proud of it. They come to me with scientific questions. They eagerly tell me what they learned about science in school or from books. Their bookshelves are full of science books – I put them there when they were very little and left them there to be discovered as they grow older. I take them to Natural Science Musems and zoos whenever possible. We have a “real” microsope at home which they are free to use – I taught them how when they first asked. We grow flowers (and ferns and such) from seed on our porch. We study the biology of cats in order to understand our own pets. When we see an interesting insect or bird, we run back home and try to identify it in one of our books. So, it's all part of fun, an integral component of our family life, not something special, separate, or imposed by me. I think that is an important trick.

4. You're very involved in the blogging community. How do you think blogs have changed the scientific landscape? Most of my scientist friends in academia seem completely uninterested in blogs. Has that been your experience and how do you think we should change that or should we even try?

Blogs are only beginning to change the scientific landscape. Humanities bloggers, medbloggers and edubloggers, not to mention political bloggers, are way ahead of us in this respect. There are probably many reasons for this reluctance to fully engage the new medium.

First, unlike humanities students, science (graduate) students are encouraged to focus, focus, focus! Everything that is outside of one's immediate research goals is seen as a poor use of time. The same goes for faculty – popularization of science is still seen as a lower-level (and egotistic, attention-grabbing) endeavor: the curse of Sagan and Gould, reviled for their popularization efforts! While I think that my advisor likes my blog (at least Circadiana before my move) and understands the utility of such an endeavor, he would much prefer if I finally sent him my finished draft of the Dissertation. Perhaps, they think, blogs should be run by people who do not do research, i.e., ex-researchers who have time to waste, just like administrators.

The second reason is the reluctance to publish, on blogs, original ideas or preliminary data. Humanities bloggers do it all the time, but science bloggers do not. After all, there may be infinite number of ways one can analyze a literary work, while only one hypothesis about the way some aspect of the world works will turn out to be correct – thus primacy is a huge concern with science bloggers. That is why most of science blogging is not original thinking, but translation of published research into language understandable by the lay audience, or analysis of the political issues in science. I hope that the concentration of many science bloggers on SEED scienceblogs.com will have a catalytic effect in moving science blogging forward into the future, with experiments in hypothesis-blogging and data-blogging as soon as people realize that a date stamp on a prominent blog is as good as a publication date in a journal – it prevents scoops.

The third reason scientists do not do much blogging is the reason many other people of all walks of life do not – they do not have interest or aptitude (or not even know what blogging is). It takes a particular temperament to be a blogger. And when one's life is busy to begin with, one has to have a huge drive to start blogging no matter what one's profession or area of expertise may be.

5. The final question should at least touch on genetics…. You once wrote a really long post about Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, former head of the Institute of Genetics of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Can you explain to readers who aren't familiar with him what the take home lesson is when it comes to Lysenkoism?

I wrote that post as a lesson in the perils of black-and-white thinking. The story of Lysenko is a story about a politically powerful pseudoscientist who devastated Soviet agriculture and sent many good Soviet geneticists to camps in Siberia. It is a warning-tale against politicization of science.

What I wanted to point out is that the story is more complex than that. In his early years, Lysenko was a very rescpected scientist, not just in the Soviet Union, but also in the West. It is only later, when he became besically an administrator, that his underlings started falsifying data because they were afraid of his political power and his unpleasant personality. The area of his research – vernalization – is not bunk. It is interesting to see how many people (including some of the commenters on my post) actually believe that vernalization is 100% bogus. It is not. I recently saw a paper on genetics of vernalization in Arabidopsis in an American journal. It is covered in good biology textbooks. It just did not turn to be as important phenomenon as Lysenko hoped, nor as important as every biologist in the world at the time believed it was. But it got tainted by its association with Lysenkos' name.

Another aspect of the Lysenko story as told in the West is an underlying Western triumphalism: “it cannot happen here”. According to the story, Lysenko was wrong in his science and the unspoken message is that the Western scientists were right. But, reading through a speech given by Lysenko at the hight of his power, one can see that Lysenko was a very smart man and a deep thinker. Yes, he was wrong, but he correctly identified what was wrong with Western biology at the time.

In other words, in early 20th century, both the Soviet and the Western biology were wrong, each in its own way, yet each compatible with the data available at the time. The mistakes of each were due to the backgrounds of its pioneers, which in turn were influenced by the geography of their study areas. Early Western evolutionary biologists, e.g., Darwin, Wallace and Bates, got their evolutionary ideas in the tropics where competition is obvious. Russian pioneering evoluitonary biologists did their early studies in the taigas and steppes where cooperation is more readily apparent. Coupled with political moods of the day, it is interesting to see in which way the two schools of biology developed, including which blind spots each developed. Lysenko was quite adept at identifying the blind spots of Western biology of the times.

It is easy to forget that the most prominent evolutionary biologists of the early 20th century America were strong proponents of eugenics. If the USA was a dictatorship and someone, e.g., Julian Huxley, managed to get the ear of the dictator, there would have been a nationally enforced eugenics program implemented in the USA, at much greater scale than what some individual states did. This would have been even more morally abhorent (and had much more lasting consequences) than what Lysenko did to the Soviet agriculture for a few years.

This story is, after all, a warning against politicization of science. Biology in the West got rid of its errors the scientific way – through new data and new ideas. Nobody was interned for challenging Fisher and Wright! Thus, the attempts to politically control science by the current Republican party are that more worrisome.

Thank you, Bora. You’re always enlightening and erudite. What would we do without you? 🙂