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Biology as a second-language: the immersion method
Language teachers say the best way to learn a language is by total immersion and even better, spending time in the country where it’s spoken conversing with native speakers.

See it, hear it, speak it, use it!

Put yourself in a position where you must do these four things to survive (or at least find the restroom) and you will learn more rapidly than by any other method.


Graduate school serves a similar purpose for scientists. You go from an environment where your fellow students and co-workers spend time chatting about TV shows and bands to a place where people debate PCR techniques and hybridization conditions as a normal part of everyday conversation and even carry issues of Science or Nature to the restroom or on the bus. It really is a foreign country.

For a couple of years or so, you speak pidgeon science, anxious that a slight mistake in speaking might cost you an hour-long lecture on something you didn’t even want to know about or force you to suffer the indignity of being treated like you know nothing – at least until you prove otherwise. Towards the end, you speak science like a native.

In your post-doc years you spend all your time with other native speakers, gradually losing your original tongue, and forgetting how to talk to non-scientists. After all, when it comes to science, why would you discuss it with other people anyway? They’d think you were strange. In my neighborhood, people are much more interested in whether all the houses are going to get converted to condos and whether the construction workers are illegal immigrants than the outcome of my latest SNP-finding project. Science? Sorry, that’s so not on our radar.

All of this sheltered sort of communication can make your first teaching experience an incredible shock. I remember my first microbiology lecture after I left my post-doc position. Someone asked me what a molecule was. I was stunned. Partly because I thought the chemistry prerequisite was supposed to take care of those kinds of questions, partly because even though I knew what a molecule was, I was at a loss for how to explain it in a way that made sense to this particular student (she didn’t know what chemical bonds were either).

Sure, I was a native speaker, but that didn’t mean I could translate anything.

Someone would ask me a question and I’d respond like a nervous parent whose child has asked where babies come from.

Too much information, too little common sense.

I’d start at the very beginning, trying to consolidate ten years of college into half an hour. My victim’s eyes would glaze over; they’d cautiously scan the room for the nearest exit, and politely glance at their cell-phone hoping someone would call and save them, oh please, oh please!

I suppose all scientists need a good editor.

How do you learn to speak biology if you don’t have five spare years to invest in graduate school?

Did I mention that learning a new language is kind of painful? And sometimes embarrassing?

In fact, I think it’s so embarrassing that some scientists resist collaborating with people in other fields because when they talk to people in other fields, they know they’re back to speaking “pidgeon science” and if there’s anything that scientists hate, scientists hate to sound stupid. I’ve heard computer scientists apologize to the audience before giving seminars related to biology (I think they got tired of being corrected and decided it would be safer to set expectations up front.) We feel the same way when we talk to computer scientists about data persistence and hierarchical data formats.

Well, I found a way to simulate listening to science-speak and even learn something in the process. Lately, we’ve had to take long car trips through radio wasteland. To kill time, I stocked up on podcasts. At first, I only collected episodes from “This American Life” and “The News from Lake Wobegon,” but in the last trip I decided to branch out.

In our last trip, we listened to some podcasts from Nature. The production quality isn’t always the greatest when you’re listening in a car, but the content is wonderful! I think podcasts can be a truly great way to augment whatever you’re learning about in science because they give you a chance to hear how the words are spoken out loud. Granted, the Nature announcer does pronounce some of the words in a kind of an amusing way (It’s not his fault, it’s just that I’ve been conditioned by years of Monty Python, to expect that anything spoken with a British accent is funny. And Chris Smith does sound a little like Eric Idle.)

One segment that I really enjoyed was from March 16, 2006. This podcast featured Joshua Finkelstein talking about luciferase, (warning – this is sound only, if you’re in a library use earphones.) how it fluoresces and why some mutants of luciferase make a red light instead of other colors.

I don’t know how many teachers are using these resources, but I found them to be quite enjoyable. Plus, when the announcers and scientists talk, their descriptions tend to be less dense than the descriptions that you get when they write. They speak in a friendly, conversational tone and sound more like a friend over coffee than a lecturer who uses every bit of jargon they know in a single sentence. This makes the stories much more interesting and far easier to listen to then than they are to read. Plus, unlike the journal, the podcasts are free. You can even subscribe through iTunes.

Check it out! Here’s the archive of Nature podcasts from the last 3 years. I’m sure you’ll enjoy them!

Comments

  1. #1 Anne-Marie
    September 25, 2007

    I agree, science podcasts are great, I subscribe to at least a dozen! The Nature podcast is one top pick, some other favorites are Science Friday, The Naked Scientists, This Week in Science, Science Magazine (the podcast of the journal Science), Science Talk (from Scientific American), etc etc etc. A lot of times they will discuss a paper/story I’ve read elsewhere, but it’s always refreshing to get a new perspective on it, and I have non-science friends that listen to them occasionally as well when a topic of interest is featured.

    Some universities also have entire courses available for download through iTunes, I’ve gotten “taken” an animal behavior course (I believe it’s from Berkeley, maybe Davis?) three times now because the lectures were so interesting. ;)

  2. #2 Scotty B
    September 25, 2007

    “…anxious that a slight mistake in speaking might cost you an hour-long lecture on something you didn’t even want to know about…”

    “I’d start at the very beginning, trying to consolidate ten years of college into half an hour. My victim’s eyes would glaze over…”

    Full circle?

  3. #3 Jason Adams
    September 25, 2007

    My favorite way of learning biology at the moment is by posting comments on topics relating to biology that I think I know something about (but actually don’t) and then having people correct my ignorance. It’s passive and informative. Perfect! I guess that means I’m in the somewhere in the fledgling pidgeon science phase (no pun intended).

  4. #4 Sandra Porter
    September 25, 2007

    Said to say, Scotty, it would seem that history repeats itself.

    I can do magic, too! I can make a 13 year old child disappear in seconds by explaining a math problem.

    Anne-Marie – thanks for the recommendations. Now, I have to go download a bunch of Science Friday episodes!

  5. #5 Sandra Porter
    September 25, 2007

    Don’t feel too bad about that Jason, sometime I blog about topics that I think I know something about and get lots of people correcting me :-)

  6. #6 Scotty B
    September 25, 2007

    I agree, podcasts are great. And not just for science. I started out just listening to various NPR shows, but soon discovered that pretty much anything you’re interested in can be found on a podcast somewhere.
    For instance, I started homebrewing last year and found podcasts to be indespensible (basic brewing radio/video, brew bubbas, brewcrazy, etc). Later, I came across the Skeptics Guide to the Universe and was introduced to the skepticism community (SGU, skeptoid, skepticality, logically critical, etc) and atheism (MN Atheists, infidel guy, dogma free america, etc) and language (word nerds) and of course science, many of which were listed above.
    My biggest problem now is finding time to listen to them all.
    Anyway, if you have any other good suggestions, please post!

  7. #7 Sandra Porter
    September 25, 2007

    I’ll do that. I’m teaching an on-line course from January to May for Austin Community College, so I have a bit of incentive to find some good stuff to complement my class.

  8. #8 Bonnie
    September 25, 2007

    I am a new science librarian with a masters degree in Geology. I am slowly trying to learn the language of the other sciences (esp. Chemistry, Biology and Physics) as I work with those departments, and it is definately tricky.

    I remember the first time I read a paleontology paper – I understood about 10% of the words used, mostly a, and and the.

    Podcasts (and ScienceBlogs.com) have helped me learn the other languages I need to know.

  9. #9 Chris
    September 25, 2007

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you mean pidgin science.

    If you like science podcasts, check out Quirks and Quarks, the Canadian version of Science Friday. I’ve also heard good things about Radio Lab, but haven’t had a chance to check it out yet.

  10. #10 Sandra Porter
    September 25, 2007

    Chris: yes, “pidgin” does seem a bit better. I guess that’s what I get for using Google to check my spelling.

    Thanks for the recommendations, too! With all these recommendations, I’ll have to see if I can listen to podcasts while riding my bike to work and not just while driving to Portland.

  11. #11 Spaulding
    September 25, 2007

    Someone asked me what a molecule was. I was stunned.

    Yeah, that’s the proper reaction. How can a person make it even to High School without knowing what a molecule is? I’m hoping that this was a foreign student whose native language just uses a different word for “molecule.” Your patience is admirable, but it really sounds like the student’s in the wrong class. The same would be true of a literature student who asks “what’s a story?” or a business student who asks “what’s a business?”

  12. #12 Sandra Porter
    September 25, 2007

    Spaulding: This student wasn’t that unusual.

    I ended up explaining the concept of a molecule many times during my tenure at the community college. Most students don’t admit that they don’t know because they also, believe that this is something that they should know, but…..often, they don’t.

    Even students that came to our program with bachelor’s degrees in hand were a bit shaky on the subject. In our classes, however, they spent a year having to calculate things like picomoles of DNA fragments and the molecular weights of proteins, so they were forced to come to terms with concepts like molecules, moles, whether they wanted to or not.

  13. #13 hip hip array
    September 26, 2007

    You go from an environment where your fellow students and co-workers spend time chatting about TV shows and bands to a place where people debate PCR techniques and hybridization conditions as a normal part of everyday conversation and even carry issues of Science or Nature to the restroom or on the bus.

    If you’re lucky. I spent three years as a postdoc trying to ignore nonstop nattering about baseball, Star Wars movies, and every detail of an overly loquacious technician’s unhappy dating life.

  14. #14 Anonymous
    December 22, 2007

    I remember the first time I read a paleontology paper – I understood about 10% of the words used, mostly a, and and the.

    Podcasts (and ScienceBlogs.com) have helped me learn the other languages I need to know.

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