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Seeing the World with the Eyes of…

I don’t know about you, but when I study a particular subject in depth, my view of the world changes… literally!!! It has happened to me before, but now that I am studying medicine, it is happening again.

During my first degree in chemistry, I spent four years looking at chemical formulas learning about the molecular make-up of the world. Since then, without intending to, my brain has tried to identify chemistry everywhere, most commonly on car license plates:

During my PhD in Biochemistry, I spent day and night analysing NMR data, i.e. looking at spectra with different constellations of dots, in order to identify amino acids and their close neighbours in a protein sequence (for more detail on how this works, see here). After doing this for a while, my brain automatically tried finding protein sequences everywhere. I could no longer look at the night-sky without seeing amino acid side-chains:

This year I have been studying anatomy. My colleagues and I have spent more than 50 hours in the dissection room, cutting into cadavers to explore the human body. I have seen a lot of organs, nerves, muscles and tendons. The other day I was in a place where they did some building works, and my brain identified the cables hanging out of the wall as the flexor compartment of the forearm:


With this little presentation, I acknowledge these perceptual changes, but hope they won’t extend too far. Some things are better appreciated as they are… 😉




SCHI again, and my Behaviour of Secondary Deviance

Tomorrow is our SCHI exam (social context of health and illness, see an older post), and so I’ve spent some time reading about medical sociology. It’s really interesting to get to know the different way of thinking in this field (perhaps something to blog about another time), as well as to see how medicine and science are perceived from an external point of view.

I’ve been reading quite a bit about “deviance”, the sociological term for behaviour outside society’s norms. Deviance describes any type of criminal act, but also includes generally strange/morally flawed behaviour – anything that sets you apart from “normality”.

Once deviance has occurred, let’s say a person’s lie has been discovered, society has certain preconceptions about what the deviant person is like… in this case the “liar”. A “liar” will then be treated in a particular way, for example he/she will no longer be trusted. There are many such stereotypes, even for people with red hair (like me)… 😉

Sociologists further distinguish between two types of deviance: primary and secondary.

Primary deviance is the initial instance of deviance, i.e. lying, stealing, looking different, being ill, etc… Secondary deviance describes additional deviant acts that are a result of the first. For example, someone who lied once may eventually become a a liar, act like a liar, because he/she knows that others think of him/her as such now. Secondary deviance is to behave according to the stereotype associated with the deviant act. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Having this stuff in my head, I’ve noticed over the past few days that I display behaviour of secondary deviance, too!

Many have heard me whinge in the past few months about how I’m annoyed about how the students are treated around here (see previous post). On many occasions here in Cambridge, students are not taken seriously, not treated professionally, easily patronised or talked down to. According to the SCHI teachings, being a student is the primary deviance.

Now onto the secondary deviance: When I arrived here fresh from the real world, I treated the people I encountered in my new student life just as professionally as I was used to deal with people in my previous job. This week I noticed that this has changed…. I found myself acting like a stubborn teenager! I arrived late, refused to cooperate and was intentionally unprepared, so that I could be “as dumb as they want me to be”… really, why bother?

Then it dawned on me: this is definitely secondary deviance – I was treated like a child, so why act like an adult?

Of course, I put a stop to my secondary deviance at once. After all, I should try to keep up the standards.

But nevertheless, I acknowledge the sociologists for giving me this insight – thank you SCHI!!!

About Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg cheating in his doctoral thesis.

I wrote a letter to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel today, who used to be a scientist before her political career, and has a PhD in theoretical chemistry. The German Minister of Defense, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, has cheated in his PhD thesis, he copied large passages of other people’s scientific writing without citing it (apparently even in the introduction!). Since the beginning of this week, he now no longer carries the doctoral title. Somehow however, his actions are merely seen as a “mistake”, and he remains in office. I find this very strange, so I wrote my first ever letter to a famous person. (Actually that’s not true, when I was six years old, I once wrote a letter to the Hoff…. ;-))


Sehr geehrte Frau Dr. Merkel,

Ich schreibe Ihnen, weil ich sehr besorgt bin über das Signal, welches durch die Nichtentlassung des Ministers zu Guttenberg an die Öffentlichkeit gesandt wird. Ich selbst habe im Jahr 2008 meine Promotion als Biochemikerin in Oxford abgeschlossen und erlaube mir deshalb die Meinung, die Tragweite der Situation relativ gut einschätzen zu können.

Der heutige Verteidigungsminister hat bei seiner Doktorarbeit von anderen verfasste Textpassagen übernommen und nicht als Zitate gekennzeichnet. Leider sind diese Textstellen so ausgiebig und zahlreich, dass ein einfaches Vergessen der Kennzeichnung oder Übersehen der Passagen als Erklärung keinen Sinn ergibt. Es ist leider nicht nachzuvollziehen, wie eine solch weitreichende Unterlassung ohne das Bewusstsein über eine Täuschung zustande gekommen sein kann. Meiner Meinung nach gibt es dafür nur zwei Erklärungen: entweder war sich Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg beim Verfassen der Arbeit der versuchten Täuschung bewusst, oder die Arbeit wurde von einer anderen Person verfasst, deren wissenschaftliche Standards leider nicht den Maßstäben entsprechen, die aus guten Gründen an jegliche wissenschaftliche Veröffentlichung angelegt werden. Ich bin sehr enttäuscht, dass dieses Vorgehen des Ministers für ihn selbst, sowie auch für viele Partei- und Regierungsmitglieder ein entschuldbarer menschlicher Fehler zu sein scheint, denn dies ist leider nicht der Fall. Plagiat ist kein Kavaliersdelikt; vor allem, wenn man auch als Vorbild in der Öffentlichkeit steht. Der Doktortitel ist einer der höchsten akademischen Auszeichnungen; wenn es ohne Konsequenzen bleiben soll, diesen durch Betrug zu erlangen, was gilt dann für alle anderen schulischen und universitären Leistungen, die ein Bürger in seinem Leben zu erbringen hat?

Ich kann es leider nur sehr schwer nachvollziehen, wie Sie als promovierte Wissenschaftlerin die Schwere und die Auswirkungen der Fehlhandlungen Ihres Ministers nicht zu erkennen scheinen. Gerade als frühere Wissenschaftlerin müssen Sie die Konsequenzen ziehen, ansonsten ist auch Ihre Glaubwürdigkeit gefährdet. Ich kann sehr gut verstehen, dass es aus machtpolitischen Erwägungen heraus nicht einfach erscheint, einen bislang so beliebten Politiker aus dem Amt zu entlassen. Sie müssen jedoch handeln, ansonsten senden Sie ein Signal, das langfristig sehr negative Folgen für unser Land und das Ansehen der Politik mit sich bringen wird.

Ich hoffe, dass Sie nach gründlicher Überlegung zur selben Schlussfolgerung kommen werden.

Mit freundlichen Grüßen,

Dr. Christiane Riedinger.


… maybe I will get a reply! (PS. …. never did!)

Was wollen Sie!?! … The Experiment “Stick-in-Hand”

during my undergraduate degree, my professor of organic chemistry was quite the character. he was an expert in the synthesis of squaric acids and also convinced that his discipline was the only true chemistry (hence he called any other chemistry “pressing buttons”). he was very old school, meaning that he was not very approachable and would normally greet you with the phrase “WAS WOLLEN SIE???” or “GEHEN SIE!!!” (i.e. “what do you want?” or “go away!”). if you wrote something in an exam that he did not like (for example superfluous explanations about reaction mechanisms), he’d take a thick marker pen and write “prose” across the page or even cross out the entire answer. he was famous for drawing “chaos-snakes” too, highlighting the point at which your answer had become too complicated and he would not read on any further. admittedly, his many quirks could be quite entertaining, but if you were on the receiving end of it, then it could become quite difficult.

one of his favourite stories was to tell us about the experiment “stick in hand”, that every chemist has to perform at some point in his life. to phrase it more clearly, every lab chemist one day accidentally sticks some kind of glass item into their hand or other body parts, resulting in injury. in his eyes, this was essential chemistry.

i have to say that he certainly wasn’t one of my favourite lecturers, so i never really think about him much any more. except from today, when for the first time, i performed the experiment “stick in hand”! i was simply putting a pipette aid onto the top of a glass pipette (those 30cm long ones for NMR tubes), and somehow it ended up jammed in between two fingers of my left hand. there wasn’t much harm done, so the experiment was a full success… somewhere in chemistry-heaven where my professor is synthesising squaric acids for all eternity, someone is laughing in confidence that he is always right!!! 😉

Pogo, the Somerville College Cat.

pogo is our college principal fiona caldicott’s cat. he’s a beautiful black tomcat wearing a red collar with a little bell on it, so when it’s very quiet you hear him approaching even before you see him. pogo is well known and loved amongst all college members, especially the porters who feed him every day. pogo even has his own facebook page with 179 friends! obviously, many people would really like to pet him when they see him strolling through his territory or sleeping at his favourite spot, the radiator in the green room. unfortunately though, pogo prefers to keep to himself, and he either ignores you or walks away when you approach him. when he’s in a particularly bad mood, he’s even been known to go after people and scratch them. so it’s not surprising that you can consider yourself very lucky if pogo does allow you to play with him.

when my friend steve simon told me that pogo had once jumped onto his shoulders, i have to say i was a tiny bit jealous that he would like steve so much!!

after dinner today, i walked through the green room and saw pogo on this usual spot, the radiator. when he saw me, he jumped down and approached me. surprised about so much attention, i knelt down next to him and guess what: he jumped onto my back!

i feel so special after this event that i have to tell the world about it. i even have a picture as the ultimate proof!!!



The First Day of Relaxation.

yesterday was my last day at work. my next day at work will be the 22nd of september 2009!

i left work excited and happy, but today i woke up a little scared: what am i going to do with all of this free time?

i’ll tell you what i am going to do. in this roof-top blog.

have a nice summer.

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