Teens and risk taking… a path to learning.

I read an article on the web the other day, in which it was described that teenagers have a different weighting of risk and reward than either young children or adults due to a chemical change that emphasizes the benefits of the rewards, without fully processing the risks.

The idea is that the changes in the adolescent brain emphasize the imagined reward for achieving goals, but fails to equally magnify the resulting negative impulse for the potential outcomes of failure. (I suggest reading the linked article for a better explanation.)

Having once been a teenager myself, this somewhat makes sense to me in terms of how I learned to use computers. A large part of the advantage of learning computers as a child is the lack of fear of “doing something wrong.” If I didn’t know what I was doing, I would just try a bunch of things till something worked never worrying about the consequences of making a mess of the computer.  I have often taught people who came to computers late in their lives, and the one feature that comes to the forefront is always their (justified) fear of making a mess of their computer.

In fact, that was the greatest difference between my father and I, in terms of learning curve: when encountering an obstacle, my father would stop as though hitting a brick wall until he could find someone to guide him to a solution, while I’d throw myself at it till I found a hole through it, or a way around it. (Rewriting dos config files, editing registries and modifying IRQ settings on add-on boards were not for the faint of heart in the early 90’s.)

As someone now in my 30’s I can see the value of both approaches. My father never did mess up the computer, but managed to get the vast majority of things working. On the other hand, I learned dramatically faster, but did manage to make a few messes – all of which I eventually cleaned up (learning how to fix computers in the process). In fact, learning how to fix your mistakes is often more painful than causing the mistake in the first place, so my father’s method clearly was superior in sheer pain avoidance technique (eg, negative reinforcement).

However, in the long run, I think there’s something to be said for the teen’s approach: you can move much more agilely (is that a word?) if you throw yourself at problems with the full expectation that you’ll just learn how to solve them in the end.  One can’t be a successful researcher if fear of the unknown is what drives you.  And, if you never venture out into the fringes of the field, you won’t make the great discoveries.  Imagine if Columbus hadn’t been willing to test his theories (which were wrong, by the way) about the circumference of the earth – and no, even the ancient Greeks knew that the earth was round.

Incidentally, fear of making a mess of my computer was always the driving fear for me when I first started learning Linux.  Back in the days before good package management, I was always afraid of installing software because I never knew where to put it.  Even worse, however, was the posibility of doing something that would cause an unrecoverable partition or damaging hardware – both of which were actual possibilities in those days if you used the wrong settings in your config files.  However, with a distinct risk/reward ratio towards the benefit of getting a working system, I managed to learn enough to dull that fear.  Good package management also meant that I didn’t have to worry about making messes of the software while installing things, but that’s another story.

Anyhow, I’m not sure what this says about communicating with teenagers, but it does reinforce the idea that older researchers (myself included) have to lose some of their fear of failure – or fear of insufficient reward – to keep themselves competitive.

Perhaps this explains why older labs depend upon younger post-docs and grad students to conduct research… and the academic cycle continues.

The small things that matter…

I’m sure you can take that title in many different ways, but I have a specific thought in mind – which is probably not what you expect.  And yes, it does eventually come back to science.

About a year and a half ago, the Genome Sciences Centre renovated its lunch room and took out the ping pong table.  Having lost my best procrastination tool, and probably most of the exercise I was getting, I decided it was time to return to fencing, which I’d done in high school and my first year of undergrad.  There’s a fencing club about a 10 minute walk from my house, which makes it pretty convenient too.

After about a year of participating in the intermediate classes on Mondays, I’ve now started going to the free fencing sessions on Thursday.  What’s immediately obvious is that there are two groups of fencers – generally those that are young (<20 years old) and have been fencing for probably less than 5 years, most of whom show up on Mondays, and the older group, most of whom have been fencing more than a decade or two and clearly don’t need lessons anymore. I usually do reasonably well against the younger group – and I’m absolutely slaughtered by the older group.  No surprise.  The older fencers have better technique and that will always win against speed and agility.

In my first match last night, I was devastated 5-1 by a guy who offers private lessons.  No big surprise really, but, in sheer frustration, I stepped back and spent a few minutes watching him in his next match.  Superficially, we do the same things, but upon careful observation I noticed that the biggest difference was simply that he held his blade 15 cm lower, covering his lower body more efficiently.  That’s it.  Just a tiny change in how you stand.

With nothing to lose, I switched my position to mirror his and immediately went from outright losing my matches with the older group to tying them.  I even saw frustration on my opponents faces now and then…. and I held the Monday evening instructor, who always wins against me without breaking a sweat, to a draw. (Normally you don’t draw in fencing, but the wire in my blade broke when we were tied at 4.  Good enough for me!) All in all, I’m thrilled with the change – and have fewer poke marks to show for it today!

Of course, I frequently use fencing as a metaphore for science, so I’ve been thinking an awful lot about mentors and having good examples to follow today – and how that fits into my future career.  I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be thrust into an environment where I’m surrounded by people who excel at their field.  Now, I think it’s up to me to watch and learn.

For me, this translates into a question of what guidance I’m missing.  The process of writing and planning papers is always done behind closed doors and is hard to watch – and is something I would really benefit from being seeing how other people do it.  When it comes to thesis writing, or application notes, I’ve got a few under my belt, but for some reason, I find papers more daunting.

To get to my point, All of this had me wondering what other small details graduate students are missing.  What are the tiny details that you’ve discovered that can make all the difference in getting things done right?