Someone in this room will have big shoes to fill...
Last June we had the one year anniversary of our Women in Science lunches and our final meeting of the year. Our guests were Pat Bronskill and Roula Andreopoulos, lecturers in the biochemistry department. Since Pat would be retiring at the end of the next school year we thought it fitting that she and Roula would join us for this celebratory lunch meeting. Over pizza and cakes, they told us about the experiences they’d had starting from graduate school and leading to their current positions.
Roula earned her MSc and PhD here at U of T. She went to Athens, Greece for her postdoc, but due to limited money for education and research there she came back to Canada. She applied for a part-time lecturer position that was posted on U of T’s biochemistry website and got the job. She was also working part-time as a postdoc at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. She was soon promoted to full-time lecturer.
She was originally given the administrative responsibilities for the second year introductory biochemistry course (BCH 210) which now has about 1400 students enrolled and says that with a PhD you can go on to teach in a course like this. She’s busiest during the fall when setting up exams and dealing with students’ concerns. Exam time can be so hectic that afterwards she sometimes falls ill and needs a few days of recovery before it all starts over again.
She also maintains the departmental website and considers it very useful to be computer literate. U of T offers a variety of computer courses for those interested. During the summer, courses are revamped and she says that a strong research base is important and will help in the redesigning of experiments.
She found it difficult to do research (during her postdoc) while teaching and admits that she misses the research sometimes, but that in the end teaching is what she really wants to do.
Pat graduated in the 60s and earned her MSc with Jeff Wong. She had her daughter while in Germany where her husband was doing his postdoc. She had her son after coming back to Toronto and returned to work in Jeff Wong’s lab as a research assistant, where she stayed for 20 years. Although she never received one herself, she helped a lot of other people obtain their PhDs, including her own daughter. She says that you can land a lecturer position with an MSc - what’s necessary is to be able to communicate and interact well with others. Her early responsibilities included a lab course in biochemical techniques (BCH 370). The 3rd year biochemistry lab course (371) and the 4th year advanced biochemistry lab (471) were later added to her job duties.
At 60 years of age and 16 years in her current position she felt it was time to retire even though she found her job very rewarding. She suggests that you need to be firm, but fair when dealing with large classes and that the 371 and 471 classes are enjoyable to teach because they’re smaller and students are more serious about their studies. As for these lecturer positions she says there are opportunities in other U of T departments, at the high school level, at smaller universities and colleges, but there aren’t a lot of them. At one time departments were getting rid of their lecturers in favor of coordinator positions, but Pat remained.
When asked why she teaches versus doing research she replied that she favors the flexibility with teaching and the time she gets to spend with students over the grant applications and 16-hour days that come with research, and the quotas inherent in the pharmaceutical industry.
Both Pat and Roula admit that you have to search for these types of jobs and that there may be better opportunities in the U.S. Both of their positions started as part-time and they recognize that these positions are mostly filled by women - a circumstance they call the “pink ghetto”, because women are more likely than men to take on part-time positions.
For those interested in teaching, there are a few training opportunities offered by U of T. Teaching in Higher Education (THE 500), is a non-credit half-course for PhD students to prepare them for academic careers. The Teaching Assistants' Training Programme (TATP) is a free peer-training programme for graduate students working as TAs at U of T. Also, there are several TA positions within the department that, in addition to a bit of extra cash, will give you teaching experience and help you decide if this is something you would enjoy as a career. Positions range from invigilating and marking exams to assisting in a lab for two days in a semester, or an afternoon every week for the entire year. Take advantage of your position as a TA to observe the course coordinators and see how much running around they have to do - could you see yourself in their shoes? To get more teaching experience outside of being a TA you could oversee a project or summer student in your lab. Also, attending conferences will give you experience with presentations and communicating your work.
Some of the more challenging aspects of these positions include dealing with unhappy students, complaints and bad evaluations. You will sometimes act as a guidance counsellor to some students - they may come to you because of a bad grade or because of personal problems. While you’re not actually allowed to give advice, you can direct them to the help they need. Students will also come to you for references, but Pat and Roula don’t give them out unless they know the student well, and feel confident giving them a good reference.
Their final advice is to be proactive - go talk to people in these positions, and to people in-the-know about the future of their departments.
The Ghost in the Machine
It’s dark, quiet – there’s a woman sitting blindfolded in an armchair. On her head is some kind of helmet. She senses the presence of others, maybe even God, at her left side even though she knows there is no one else in the room. When she tries to focus on them, they move around. Although she feels fear, she’s sad when this presence fades away.
The experiment is over.
The MacLeod auditorium was filled beyond capacity last Friday evening to hear the talk entitled, “Belief, Biology and the Human Brain: Is God All in Your Head?” presented by the Toronto Secular Alliance. A raffle held near the end of the evening promised the winner a paid trip to Sudbury to participate in Dr. Michael Persinger’s experiments.
Dr. Persinger, a neuroscientist at Laurentian University, is trying to replicate the God experience using the scientific method. He uses electromagnetic energy to induce sensed presence – the feeling that you’re not alone. He suggests that sensed presence is the prototype for the experience of supernatural beings, from gods to aliens. “Nature’s been doing it forever. We’re not doing anything fancy. All we have done like all science is simply take the scientific method, measure what nature does, duplicate it in the laboratory and then replicate it under controlled conditions.”
In the experiments, subjects sit blindfolded in an armchair in a dark, double-walled metal acoustic chamber to block out light and sound. A modified motorcycle helmet is placed on their heads through which weak, complex magnetic fields are delivered. The fields are first exposed to the right side of the brain, followed by bilateral stimulation. The intensities of the magnetic fields are not the critical factor (they’re well below those produced by the earth), but the content is. The more these fields simulate natural electromagnetic patterns displayed by the brain the lower the intensity required to produce the effect.
As with the woman at the beginning of the article, stimulating the right side of the brain elicited a sensation on the left side of her body. When she tried to focus on the presence it seemed to move because the act of focusing changed her brain activity and how the fields interacted with her brain. When the fields were stopped, the presence disappeared.
Persinger reported that about 80% of subjects experienced a sensed presence. This experience was rarely reported for the control group – people exposed to sham-field conditions. Subjects consisted of students enrolled in first year psychology classes who participated in exchange for extra marks, but the same results have been reported by other volunteers including self-labeled psychics and brain-injury patients. With the latter group, it helps them to realize that presences that have appeared since the injury, which are often thought to be a deceased family member or cultural icon, can be replicated in the lab and do not mean they are “going crazy” as they often feel to be the case.
The sense of self is associated with the left hemisphere of the human brain and by applying a magnetic field with a certain pattern to the right side, Persinger hypothesizes that the right hemisphere also produces an equivalent sense of self. When this is detected by the left hemisphere – this cross-talk between hemispheres is normally inhibited, but bilateral stimulation disrupts this inhibition – the person then experiences a sense of a presence.
A volunteer who had experienced a “haunting” was exposed to specific magnetic field patterns. Persinger’s group was able to replicate the experience, as well as detect a sudden outburst of electrical activity they believed came from the right temporal lobe, an area linked to religious experiences. The right hemisphere is often associated with artistic ability and Persinger pointed out in his talk that introspective individuals are more sensitive to electromagnetic activity. This may be the reason that throughout history creative individuals from different cultures have more frequently reported the presence of a Sentient Being, such as the Muses in Greek mythology.
“Myths are good for learning moral codes,” said Dr. Robert Buckman, the other speaker of the evening, “but we shouldn’t take them literally.” Dr. Buckman is a medical oncologist at the Princess Margaret Hospital and is troubled by the number of people who claim they’d kill if God told them to. In his book, Can We Be Good Without God? he says “Believe whatever you wish but behave as if there were no supernatural beings to sort out our problems.” Whether God exists or not isn’t the issue for Persinger – what is important is that this technology may help identify the area of the brain that generates the experience. Dr. Buckman agrees, “Some people have said that God has developed the right temporal lobe – you can either have it turned on by God or by Persinger.”
Buckman believes it’s important to be aware of the results of Persinger’s research so that you know your right temporal lobe can mislead you. He says that if you know these messages from God might be a product of your brain, you might think twice before picking up a weapon in His name.
From Stingers to Gryphons, Blues and Rams
One of my former professors from undergrad, Dr. Kimberly Gilbride, joined us for lunch on April 29th and told us about her journey to becoming a professor at Ryerson University. She had originally planned on going to the Unversity of Guelph with the intention of becoming a veterinarian. Nearing the end of her bachelor’s degree at Concordia University, she developed an interest in molecular biology research and this, combined with receiving an NSERC in her final year to do a master's degree, veered her off the vet school path and towards a career in research. With her early interests still in mind, she completed a master's degree in veterinary microbiology at Guelph. Having just conducted independent research for two years, she decided that she wanted to end up with a career where she didn’t have a boss – this meant earning a Ph.D. She obtained a Ph.D in microbiology from the University of Toronto.
She was unsure about what to do next. She had been a teacher’s assistant during graduate school, but was terrified to teach in front of a class, which would be required as a professor. So she applied to all the pharmaceutical companies in the area between her two thesis defenses that were required to finally graduate. An unexpected opportunity came when an undergraduate student told her about a job posting at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute requesting a faculty member with a focus on microbiology. After a bit of hesitation she decided to apply, and three days later she received a call from the chair of the department she’d applied to asking if she could come by that afternoon for a chat about the position. She took a quick look at her outfit and decided she was dressed appropriately enough for the meeting. It turned out they’d already hired someone for the position, but they needed someone for extra teaching duties on contract. She was still going for an interview at the pharmaceutical company Connaught Laboratories so she agreed to TA one afternoon per week.
How to Decide?
After the interview with Connaught she returned there to give a seminar on her Ph.D. work, and admitted being terribly nervous for this. At around the same time there was a new posting at Ryerson for a microbiologist. She talked to someone there that had just been hired and he said the hiring package was good and the position was unionized (unlike at other universities, including U of T). She applied for this position and had her interview two days before her final thesis defense. She was required to give a lecture about what she would bring to the department – Ryerson at this point was just starting to move more towards research. She presented in front of a panel of six people and one of their questions was, “What came first, DNA or RNA?”. She countered with, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” – they seemed satisfied. The next day, while still waiting for the Connaught offer, the chair of the department at Ryerson called to offer her the position. She had planned to say, “I need two weeks to think about it” but her excitement got the better of her and she jumped in with a “yes” right away. Two weeks later while visiting her old lab at U of T Connaught called with a job offer. She turned them down.
She feels that joining Ryerson was a good decision for her in the long run. The school’s research program was just starting to build and the institute became a university in 1993. It was less competitive at the time to get tenure, compared to other universities, but that has since changed. The research progressed more slowly than at bigger schools because there were no graduate programs, but they did have undergraduates doing some of the research. In 2000 they introduced their own graduate programs, but not in microbiology – the closest was a master's program in environmental and applied science management. They’ve since introduced two new master's programs (pending final approval) in biomedical physics and molecular science to begin in the fall of 2006, which means the hiring of more professors. The school still did not have the resources and research infrastructure inherent in larger universities, but despite this most of the professors at Ryerson had NSERC grants and Dr. Gilbride learned to conduct microbiology research with few resources.
In her department (Chemistry and Biology) people are hired with either a research focus or a teaching focus, but the people in the research stream still do a significant amount of teaching. She teaches three courses per year (also coordinating the labs related to these) and coordinates a fourth year thesis course. She once told me that to this day she still gets nervous before a lecture, but as a former student I’d have to say I never would have guessed it. The average class at Ryerson in the 2nd year has about 80 students and in 4th year about 40 students. 250 students were admitted into 1st year last September – they later split off into the different programs within the faculty. The school itself has 20,000 day students and 50,000 continuing education students.
How About Ryerson?
Even though Dr. Gilbride got a position fresh out of grad school, these days Ryerson likes to see Postdoc experience with relevant research on a CV. They used to look for industry experience, but not so much anymore. The department has a large environmental focus (air, water, soil etc.) and a focus on surfaces (cellular, wood, adhesives etc.). If you’re thinking of applying one day, keep an eye on the changes at Ryerson through their website and other news sources. If they’ve not placed an ad, they’re probably not looking to hire anyone at the moment, but if you send a resume anyway it’ll get filed and they’ll pull it out when they are looking. They post for positions in the Globe and Mail, but the careers page on the Ryerson website might not get updated fast enough, so keep your eye on the newspapers. To get an idea of your chances, there were 80 applicants for the last position posted – five people got interviews and one got offered the job. The second favorite got offered a limited-term faculty position. So, as in Dr. Gilbride's case, if you don't get the first position you tried for, be patient - the next one could be for you.