The following are bits of writing from many sources such as personal correspondence, posts to on-line discussion groups, notes, and occasionally even some journaling. All of this is informal in nature, but contains some interesting and/or useful information.

Brain research?
[Posted to the neuroscience group on]
There are a lot of people who mistakenly include a lot of things under the neuroscience umbrella. For instance, the teaching profession has shown a lot of interest in what they term "brain research," yet they include work that treats the brain as a black box or ignores it entirely. There's nothing inherently wrong with research of this sort (e.g., you can study behavior without framing things in terms of neuron function), but it doesn't qualify as "brain research" if you don't bother to actually research the brain itself.

I gave up talking about my research to people years ago. If they aren't in something related, there's too much background to go through and I just lose them. I also just tell people I'm a biologist and leave off anything about neuroscience. The narcissist I told you about a while back used to tell people she was a neuroscientist all the time... especially when it was irrelevant to the person she was talking to, and I realized that if I was studying this for my ego, I was doing it for the wrong reasons.

Honestly, I think most scientists sound a bit cold.  They aren't emotional, so they just wish people would look at the facts.  They're more exasperated when people don't understand because, after all, the facts are right there.  It isn't in their nature to make an emotional plea and they feel put out to have to explain what (to them) is self-evident.

One of the disappointing things about scientific research is that a keen intellect is not really a measure of success. I'm bright, but too flighty. I learn what I can, then loose interest, regardless of whether I've published on it or not. However, someone methodical who plods along and does his/her work without giving it much thought (you can become an expert without understanding... see the medical profession, for example), can be successful by more traditional measures. That's kind of lame, but I don't know any way around it, so don't aggrandize me on the basis of esoteric knowledge. It's a little more complicated than that.

Two sides
There is a major schism between researchers and practitioners. The medical community is *programmed* to act. Researchers spend forever thinking about things and testing alternatives.

I don’t foresee any *direct* application resulting from my thesis research. My work will be only part of figuring out this problem of neurons generating bursts. Eventually a model of bursting behavior may be generated. This will be a mathematical description describing the influence of the different charges entering the cell. Eventually this will be entered into a computer model. This could be used to predict the action of different drugs affecting, for example, the motor system. One eventual application could be to use this model to send electrical signals into the nervous systems of paralyzed individuals in order to simulate the signals that should be arriving from their brain. That’s a good way into the future.
Regarding the issue of patent sharing, generally universities share ownership as an incentive to productivity. There are other studies possible which could lead to patents. However, the area with the greatest potential for profit would be drug discovery. However, in order to access all that money, one would have to go through clinical trials in order to obtain FDA approval. I can’t accomplish that with cultures of a narrow class of cells.
As far as the dissemination of this information: It will eventually be published in a neuroscience journal. While they still print physical copies, for the most part articles are made available electronically. Thus, they are searchable in a number of ways (titles, abstracts, keywords, full text, etc.), so it is very easy to find what you need if the work has been performed by another lab somewhere.

Advice to potential grad students
The most general advice I can give someone looking for a graduate position would be to balance at least two major concerns in deciding a lab:
-Find a lab whose content area(s) (and more importantly the tasks associated with discoveries in that area(s)) is (are) something(s) you can stay interested in for a couple years at a time.
-Find a major professor who seems level-headed and compatible with your personality (or at least someone who you feel you could tolerate you and the converse is equally true. It would be a good idea to talk to graduate students already in his/her lab. Graduate programs are not terribly structured, thus, personality is often a determining factor in navigating this relationship.

More experimenting
Regarding the long hours devoted to this disciple: There are periods that will allow lulls, but when you are experimenting, you generally want to go after all the data you can get from a preparation while it is still viable. At a party the other night I was talking to one of my professors about some classic experiments recording from live cat brains (they were still in their owners’ heads). I asked her how they were able to use the cat again. She said they couldn’t; they generally continued experimenting around the clock for 2 to 3 days until they were completely exhausted or the brain would no longer yield any meaningful results.

Me and neuroscience
One of the reasons I went into neuroscience was to better understand why people (myself especially) end up thinking the way they do. We’re still a long way off from understanding the reasons why chemical changes result in behaviors. We know that the presence of certain chemicals influences thoughts and behavior in one direction or another, but the mechanisms of these influences are unknown. As a result I’m stuck with introspection and opinions off of the internet for all my answers.

Say what?
Being a scientist means never being able to explain anyone what you did today. It isn't that what I'm working on is so complicated; it just takes a couple minutes to explain things at each stage. If it was a joke, you wouldn't remember to laugh by the time I got to the punchline.

>How and why did you get into studying neuroscience?
Well, like the basis of the title of the book/movie "The Perfect Storm," there was a conspiracy of synergistic elements that shoved me in this general direction. Rather than attempting to string them into a more contrived sounding narrative, here are some of said elements in no particular order:
-I had an excellent neuroscience professor as an undergrad. He presented difficult material without watering it down, yet made it very accessible.
-I ended up with a master's in education, and much of what I studied during that time dovetailed with psychology and neuroscience in that it examined perceptions of people, particularly at developing ages. Many of the questions and concerns of these fields (as well as my job as a teacher) are to think about how information is processed, and what are the fundamentally best approaches for delivering it or making it as accessible for the learner (newspaper writing addresses this constantly, and usually has it down to a science itself).
-While I was teaching high school (which I did for two years), I was separated from sources of information that would allow me to develop my own ideas or read about others. I really couldn't advance myself while I was working full time, and that bothered me. This was clear enough to my students that they wondered aloud why I wasn't in a lab somewhere, even though it was obvious I did enjoy teaching.
-My second year teaching was under a new administration that was pretty terribly (to give you an idea, about 75% of the staff quit; yes, I did the math... we couldn't keep the phone directory current). This presented an opportunity to get back into academia, which I might otherwise had passed over.
-The lab I am in now, that I found while searching the web, works with small groups of neurons. I had hoped this work might yield information about the mechanisms of thought processing, etc., but it really hasn't to the extent that I had hoped (although my coursework has told me much more).

The future
Neuroscience will eventually achieve its implied promise to understand (and, where necessary, control) the processes of the mind. However, scientists are notoriously conservative where their results are concerned, for fear that they are over-extending phenomena seen under a microscope to a whole organism. The struggle continues.

Boggle as I.T.
Well, humans tend to "see" things one way at a time. You know how you can see a line drawing of a transparent 3-D cube two different ways (which corner is closest to you)? That's a problem, and it's the basis of Boggle. You have to track down one word at a time, but the whole thing simply "is." If you physically pull out a word, now you've taken away parts of the other words, so now you have reduced the complexity of the whole by "highlighting" a part. This has major implications for experimental design since you try to control for everything except for the one thing you're manipulating. The part of the Boggle metaphor I just outlined touches on issues of the Hawthorne Effect (i.e. the general form of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle) and the generalizability of results generated outside of a "whole" system (e.g. cell cultures vs. intact organisms). Granted, science is self-correcting, but can you ever really "know" if there is no other method? This is a problem. Okay, that's just a piece of my view of it. Another chapter some other night. I'm sure there are even larger metaphors borne from chess fanatics.

Majoring in Neuroscience
[Posted to the neuroscience group on]
While neuroscience is undeniably a broad discipline by almost any measure, I question it as an undergraduate major. I don't know that there are that many applications of it as an undergraduate degree. It's something like pre-law or pre-med in that you are obligated to pursue additional schooling in that field in order to use it as such... and there are alternative degrees that would prepare you for graduate work already.
In contrast with a B.S. in neuroscience, more generalized majors such as biochem and general biology look better on a resume if you ultimately chose to take a different course in life. By that, I mean that you might end up seeking employment in a non-neuroscience institution. For example, say you want to work in a biomedical lab or for the EPA or for any number of other places. An applicant with a general degree might receive preferential consideration because, "Well, we aren't looking for a neuroscientist here."
I recognize that courses specific to neuroscience have their own attraction since that's what anyone reading this would likely want to study, but that might be a short-sighted approach during your undergraduate years.
Of course, it could just be that I'm jealous that this degree wasn't an option when I was an undergrad.

Neuro development
[Posted to the neuroscience group on]
>Just random wondering about what interests people about studying the brain/ the CNS/ neurons/ cognitive theory/ etc. what was it that first sparked an interest?
There are several influences that interacted that left me driven to learn whatever I can. Here are the two big ones.
1) A terrific undergraduate neuroscience course at LSU by Dr. John T. Caprio. It was one of the best-organized and best-taught courses I have ever had. Dr. Caprio made difficult material accessible and interesting, and he made certain that we understood the science underlying what we were learning about (i.e., how do we know what we know?). We never used a textbook. Instead we worked from the relevant journal publications so that we could see exactly what was studied rather than a summary of it. However, unlike many neuroscience courses that try to tackle the entire brain, this one constrained things to the level of axons, synapses, and (finally) to the senses. The implicit message was that it all starts here, has a physical/biological basis, and there's a lot to know just from these fundamentals before you ever get to the big picture and start talking about how the brain works.
2) Next I went into education for a number of reasons that I won't go into. During my M.Ed. program, we looked at learning and understanding from a number of different perspectives (e.g., everything from prescriptive teaching methods to rather abstract and esoteric philosophy). It seemed that a lot of what it came down to was understanding cognition and information processing, and there was a relative dearth of understanding of that in the realm of teacher education.
>what is it that keeps you interested in studying it?
In part, probably the lack of conclusive answers. We're all sort of left hanging here. Every new piece of information is a little more to the puzzle, but we still have a long way to go.
My goal for the present is to ultimately move back toward education and to synthesize a lot of what we know about how the brain works with what we know about effective teaching practices. There's a lot that these two areas could offer to one another, especially seeing as how both neuroscientists and teachers spend their days manipulating brains.

So you wanna be a neuroscientist?
[reply to a student I met online]
> Im a little clueless on specific classes I should make sure I take.
I would recommend following the basic biology curriculum, but focus more on the molecular/biochem type classes than the ones on animal diversity (e.g., ornithology, herpetology, etc.) or environmental science. (However, *do* take ecology just for your own benefit; that was one of the most informative classes I had as an undergrad.) Now, for electives, take as much psychology as you can squeeze in. After the general psych class, be sure to take a class that specializes in behaviorism (mine was called "The Psychology of Learning" or something like that) since that indirectly gets at things like Hebb and Kandel have studied for decades now.
Ironically, you won't here much about the connections across disciplines, as self-evident as they are; Academics tend not to swim in one anothers' pools. It's pretty sad. I only discovered a lot of this because I went into science education and so I tapped into a broader range of knowledge than I would have encountered in any one track.

The pipeline
I read the following in an interview about apoptosis with Professor Seamus J. Martin. I liked how he put things concisely here, and thought you might enjoy this for your "why do science?" files.
Q: What impact might your work and research advances in your field have on the general public?
A: I am convinced that discoveries in the apoptosis field will have a major impact in cancer therapy within the next 5-10 years. Work in this area has thrown up a lot of drug targets that should yield drugs for many other conditions: stroke, inflammation, sepsis, hepatitis. These drugs will be discovered by major drug companies (for that is their job) and they will take all of the credit and quickly forget why they targeted these molecules in the first place. People in industry and many clinicians often forget that this is a pipeline of which we are all a vital part. I hope the general public appreciates this also.
The rest of the interview is here:

Reality tv
I like reality tv, but not the poorly designed (read: flawed!) social experiments they air now. It's sad when network tv is ripping off Mtv's sorriest material (e.g., The Real World and Road Rules). I would prefer to see short segments where they play a prank on someone.
Candid Camera satisfied a number of criteria for a scientifically valid experiment. First, they controlled the situation by typically choosing scenarios in which we knew how the mark would have responded in *normal* circumstances... Then they changed one thing (e.g., which direction the people in the elevator face) while keeping everything else constant. Further, they showed most of the results in their entirety, including a few of the "failures" (e.g., people who were unphased or who realized they were being put on). "Reality" shows today draw maybe 40 minutes from several weeks of tape, thereby removing things from their context, typically to (false) dramatic effect. Finally, Candid Camera would perform the same "experiment" repeatedly so that you saw a sample of the population, not just the most extreme (although, admittedly, they were biased toward these in what they aired).
Shows like The Bachelor and the rest make one pass and change the rules at every turn. That's manipulative, but not in a very productive way.

Observations and Conclusions
In Cosmos, Carl Sagan related the early history of observations of Venus. When people started looking at that planet, they realized they couldn't see any surface features. They surmised it must be covered with clouds. They soon got to thinking, "if there are clouds, then there must be water, right?" And if there's water, there were probably swamps. And if there were swamps, then the planet must be covered with dinosaurs! Observation: Nothing. Conclusion: Dinosaurs. The reality was that the clouds were sulfuric acid, thoroughly inhospitable to anything they could dream up. It's scary how often I hear of parallel assumptions made in everyday life.

[Posted to the neuroscience group on]
Here is a far-from-all-inclusive list of guidelines to the decorum of the neuroscience discussion group:
-Truth comes first. If I catch you in a lie, then the only honorable thing for you to do is commit harakiri. Or you can spend your days stoned watching Cheech and Chong movies. That equates with death in most biological definitions.
-Opinions have to be grounded in science. If your opinion runs counter to the literature published, then it is flawed and should therefore be recalled and scrapped. If it is founded on nothing to begin with, then it is raw sewerage and is a heath hazard. Clean it up!
-Sources should be cited. If you can't cite something to back up a generalization, them I'm going to call you on it. If you can't follow through on that request, your brain will be collected for the purposes of studying microcephaly.
-Speculation should be labeled as such. If you do not know how to do this, just indicate the color of your aura when aliens planted this idea in your head.
-Your motivations will be questioned. If there is a conflict of interest, you will state it clearly or I will run a wedgie right up your longitudinal fissure to your corpus callosum.

More about neurodiscussion
>I think that a lot of people don't understand just how for away we are from answering some of these topics/questions - and ones much more trivial!
One of the things I used to get my students to do when they asked general questions was to design experiments that would address it scientifically. Invariably, the experiment would only reveal a facet of the phenomenon they inquired about (e.g., memory or emotion were popular topics). It's frustrating not to be able to nail things down after just one trial, but at the end of it, you do at least have that one finding. That's more than you had at the beginning. Those who never do any experiments at all (nor bother to review those that have been conducted previously) have nothing.
>In fact, I think a lot of people don't understand just how little we know about the brain in general. They don't understand its complexity, which is ok because grasping just how complex the brain is turns out to be difficult no matter how advanced your level of expertise is.
True enough! The brain is aware of itself, so it thinks it understands itself. That's a mirage.
Understanding the brain is like building a complete model of the universe that is smaller than the universe... You basically used up the universe to build it if you want to capture every detail and make it accurate. If you have a complete representation of your brain in your brain... you don't have any room for anything else. And that doesn't even take into account the fact that non-cognitive areas (in the general sense), by definition, aren't even involved in that understanding, so the internal model of this neural "universe" is actually larger than the universe itself. Paradox! It's easier to stick with the mirage and go watch tv for a while.
>It is even more upsetting when people get their information from media outlets and google.
You can get good information from these channels, but you have to be able to evaluate their quality and establish their sources. For example, Angry's post of erroneous quotes about science from a creationist working in retail may have been among the funniest things George Carlin and I never wrote. Unfortunately, you have to fact-check her after the fact of her post to catch her in a lie. In the case of the posts in this thread, most of the fallacious statements have been so patently wrong that no one would believe them, but a casual reader probably wouldn't bother to double-check while skimming for references to his favorite recreational drug.
>Can this catfight be turned into an intelligent debate?
Probably not in the ideal sense. That would require both parties to bring to the table information gleaned through careful study to support opposing arguments. Angry is outgunned in that department and has a history of presenting assertions as facts (even in the absence of supporting documentation), so I don’t think she’s capable of pursuing that route without much prodding.
An alternate course for her would be to address open-ended questions that are difficult to address experimentally. I posed ten of those and she didn’t bite. I suggested she provide others. No luck there either. I thought it would have been right up her alley to speculate beyond the edge of the frontier, but maybe she has even less imagination than knowledge. I wouldn’t have thought that possible.
I've defaulted to using threads like these as Socratic dialogues in which one person pretends not to understand and the other explains it in elementary terms. (Sadly, the ignorance is rarely feigned in these exchanges.) This is a more entertaining approach than a lengthy missive on a particular topic and it provides most readers an emotional buy-in to the cross-fire that would be absent in more sterile transfers of information. I don't like lecturing, that's why I tend to break apart posts like this and respond to them piece by piece like a spoken conversation. This is a much more natural way of processing for most readers as it creates something of a narrative. Like I said earlier, I think this thread finally earned its name.

MD vs. Ph.D.
There's a different mindset between doctors and medical researchers. Doctors are forced to act prescriptively. There are procedures drilled into them that when a patient presents with a set of symptoms, then act as though it's *this* disease, even if there is the possibility that it's something else. Many do not like to go the route of test, test, test, deduce, treat the disease they've excluded all the other possibilities down to. Obviously the drawback of this approach would be several weeks of tests and experimental trials with meds for what may be the wrong condition before they ever give you what you really need, but the approach you're getting is largely based on the assumption that they're right at the start until there's some evidence to the contrary (that they, of course, aren't going to themselves seek out)..

What do you do?
It's hard to explain my research, so I usually just avoided the topic. It's like telling a joke with a really long set-up and a punchline that makes you go, "All that for... what?"

>Honestly, though, the protein-interaction topic is only a few years old, so maybe they haven't worked out the applications yet.
Interestingly enough, a technology like this will suddenly find a lot of unexpected uses. For example, there was a story on NPR a couple weeks ago about the first case in which they used a DNA sequence amplified from PCR to establish paternity. They just tried to answer the question of whether you could establish lineage between two individuals. You would think that that being a basic assumption of DNA, that would be the first application they thought of, but not so.

Grant writing
>Of course, it's easier to get good publicity if your company says they're working on cancer treatment.
Good point. Eric Kandel (winner of the Nobel prize for his work on learning and memory) always used to write grants such that he connected his work with this obscure sea slug creature to things like Alzheimer's disease, education, etc. In reality, there wasn't a lot that could connect this to the rest in the beginning, but he made his case based on the hope he would be able to get something applicable eventually. (Incidentally, no, he really hasn't yet, but the work is pretty impressive.)

>Today in my research group meeting, the students were making fun of some papers coming from Berkeley that kept getting published, even though their results weren't that great, because this one famous guy put his name on them. It was like, no matter what the paper was about, if this one guy put himself as an author, it would get published.
This happens a lot more than it should. Apparently, journals want the prestige of saying "We published something by so-and-so..." even if it's crap. Several Nobel winners went on to be highly visible complete idiots. For example, Linus Pauling got the whole thing started about vitamin C curing everything from the common cold to cancer, etc. Amount of evidence to support this: None. Is that science? Hardly.
Similarly, James Watson (of DNA fame) went into cognitive science in spite of having absolutely no training in that area. He was a visiting "researcher" (I saw this in quotes because he did no actual lab work there to my knowledge) at a university when one of my professors was a grad student. She said in lab meetings he would just offer wild speculation about things that were completely untestable. She said he had absolutely no sense regarding how to experimentally approach things. He just wanted to make it all up, and unfortunately he had the clout to get people to listen to him spout nonsense.

The big questions
>What do you all think are the most important, unresolved questions in Neuroscience?
Here's a big one for me. I don't know that there's a name for it, but I've always wondered about developmental microanatomy. In other words, how does the developmental and/or learning process create these small structures that make us who we are. This is one of those questions that is sometimes addressed by studies of learning that look at the cellular level, but most structure-function relationships are described in terms of entire brain regions.
I would like to understand how knowledge/behavior/whatever is stored in just a few neurons.

Personality and Career
The pre-med people I've met always seem like they're coming from somewhere else compared to the rest of the science research people. There is a major schism between researchers and practitioners. The medical community is *programmed* to act. Researchers spend forever thinking about things and testing alternatives. There are a lot more differences in personality than that. You probably see a lot of that just moving between departments and looking at the way they view things and interact with you.

Near. Far.
>You know so much weird stuff.
Thanks! Actually, neuroscience is interesting because it's simultaneously esoteric and deals with central issues of human experience. I can talk weird things about so many aspects that are universal to us all.

Emergent properties
>It seems that we've done nothing but show that humans are nothing more that cells and molecules.
That's only composition, not interaction. It's from the interaction of the components that emergent properties spring forth. That's the interesting stuff. I mean, my computer is just a pile of plastic and metal with a little bit of sand, but it is capable of far more than a paper weight. And that's hardly a worthy comparison when you're talking about things with much more interesting capabilities like bodies and brains. Honestly, did you quit watching sports after your first semester of physics? Did music loose its appeal after you learned it was nothing but vibrating air? Did you lose interest in food after you took microbiology? Okay, that last one is a bad example. Yuk!
>We're now discovering why our brain works the way it does, and why we feel and think the way we do. The human brain, which practically constitutes who we are, is nothing more than a mass of cells (a very complex mass, but still cells none the less). It seems the only thing that separates humans from other organisms is our complexity.
Maybe I missed it, but I couldn't find anything in there to be despondent about. In fact, that's all pretty interesting to me.
>The only thing that differentiates humans is their genetic code and their life circumstances. There no longer seems to be a reason to believe that humans have a soul, or a driving spirit of any sort.
Only if you remove the dynamics from the equation. The mass of cells that is you happens to be alive. A girl I dated for a while used to say, "Life is a bunch of cells that got together to be 'me' for a while." The "me" part of it is what's really interesting, not the cells themselves. Just how did "I" come out of this little convention? (Actually, the cells are kind of interesting as well.)
>Is everybody happy with this?
You mean replacing misplaced hopes with informed worldviews? Definitely! It means that the possibilities we consider are valid ones rather than imaginary and, therefore, untestable (unrealizable) ones. In fact, there are more possibilities available to us when confronted with the complexity of nature than our limited imaginations could otherwise invent.
>I used to think i was [happy], but i'm not. I want to believe that there's something more to life than that. Maybe i just want a fairytale to believe, but since i have no proof for anything that isn't science, i can't seem to make myself believe anything differently.
I can't tell whether this nihilism is borne out of the "grounded" realizations of science or the fact that science has effectively displaced the "fairy tales." Rather than a worldview, it sounds like you are searching for purpose in the facts, and that's something that you'll have to find for yourself in your more educated vista. Science can inform that, but it won't dictate it. Alternatively, you could try skydiving. Once again, it's just physics, but people find it life-changing.
>What's you're take on life? --are we just a mass of cells, or is there something more?
It's what happens when the cells come together that is, for lack of a more informed word, magic. Just as importantly, who you are is almost infinitely interesting. I went through a(n on-going) phase of self-discovery a few years ago and found out that you could live with a person all your life and not really know a whole lot about him, which is kind of odd when he's you. He/I is/am/are the same mass of cells (actually, probably fewer if anything), yet I'm still finding things in this mix that I didn't know were there.
>Are there many other scientists who believe that there's more to life than what we've proven, or does the vast majority believe only what is proven?
I would word it differently. Rather than "proven" and "unproven," I would say "discovered" and "undiscovered." There's always more over the horizon. It sounds like you're falling into the trap of thinking you are at the edge of knowledge, that there are no surprises left. Well, there are, even if no one has published them yet. That's what keeps us all going. In fact, we would be out of a job if there weren't any more mysteries.
>What do you think is the reason to study neuroscience?
There is more than one. For one thing, as we understand how we work, we can begin to optimize ourselves and enrich our existence. We can't even begin to guess at where that will lead. One aspect of this that has interested me is the concept of transhumanism. (See for an overview.) Neuroscience in particular can figure into shaping our capabilities in the future and that means shedding many of our limitations. Part of that is understanding how we work and how to eliminate diseases, but what we have yet to discover will inevitably lead to paradigm shifts that we cannot predict. That's just one piece of what keeps me interested.
Kara, you got into neuroscience earlier and more intensely than most people I know, so what got you started? What did you hope to find? Personally, I found that many of the things I came into this looking for haven't been successfully addressed yet. But I didn't come away empty-handed. I may not have all the answers, but I have much more refined questions and even more than a few new ones I never thought to ask in the beginning.

[Posted to the neuroscience group on]
This line of thinking isn't unique to the biological sciences. I know a lot of people reject the behaviorist branch of psychology for similar reasons since many find that it portrays humans in mechanistic terms. The thing is, we *are* mechanistic and predictable at some levels. You can despair over it and push it out of your mind, but it doesn't make that view less valid. However, like so many other frameworks, behaviorism is accurate, useful, but, ultimately, limited.
Like neuroscience, it doesn't assign meaning to behavior; it merely describes (to some extent) why it occurs and how one might change it. It doesn't say whether or not a given behavior is good or bad in moral, ethical, or aesthetic terms. This framework informs who we are, but I don't know that it takes anything away from us. As was stated above, we just understand ourselves more specifically. That's additive to the human experience; I don't know that it can really take anything away from it except assumptions that were never valid in the first place.

Pale Blue Dot
I remember watching the movie "Contact" (which is one my all-time favorites, so shut up already), and they got to a scene (no, not the very memorable opening shot) where they looked down at the whole Earth. There was a cacophony of radio signals as we listen and see all of us on our little planetary island. At that point the "signal" from outer space comes booming steadily in.
I guess the parallel with this question of looking for high meanings in facts is that one could view that image in a positive or negative light. You might look at it and say, "That's it? We're all so small and limited. Each of us is a tiny individual in a huge throng of voices in a great big universe. We don't amount to anything in the grand scheme of things. Oh, I give up."
Alternatively, you could look at the same scene and think, "Wow, for all we think we know, there's so much out there that we don't yet that we'll always be in a state of absolute wonder."
Now, I don't know how much the concept of "free will" figures into this, but if you think you have a choice in the matter, then make the positive one.

Pre-med vs. research cont'd
I think the differences between those who enter MD/Ph.D. programs are more fundamental than their academic interests. It seems that they represent completely different and mutually incompatible personality types.
The pre-med students who have done a turn in our lab tend to look for definitive answers. "What's the right way to do this?" "What's the accepted explanation for this?" Of course, research by its very nature is cutting edge. Quite often there are no right answers because you're the first one doing something. The pre-med types tend to want to be *programmed* to act. And this makes perfect sense.
An MD who studied in a neuroscience lab down the hall said medical professionals are trained to respond prescriptively. They don't have time to tinker and try out dozens of hypotheses when a patient comes in. They just follow the most clear-cut course of treatment pretty much right away, especially if they're working in the ER.
By contrast, everything the research types think ends with a question mark. Every time I discuss some new finding with a friend or professor we don't go, "Oh, another piece of the puzzle! Yay!" Instead we think for a second and go, "I wonder if they tried it this way what would happen..." Researchers are never completely sure of anything. We're always digging deeper and looking for more evidence on which to base even "accepted" conclusions, and there are always unknowns at the periphery. Every discovery results in more questions, and it seems like it never ends, but that never really bothers us.
A friend of mine who got his masters before moving on to med school said that this inherent ambiguity used to drive him nuts. One of his professors said she had never seen anyone work so fast in a lab. He never tinkered or explored any tangents. He just did what he needed to do to get his results and he moved on.
In deciding which course of study you want to follow, it would seem that the questions you have ask are more internal than external. Which environment is most compatible with you?

>how many responses do you need to be statistically significant?
Statistical significance depends on the results, not just the sample size. You could have a sample of n=1,000,000 and it might not be significant.
What you're really asking is what is an appropriate sample size for this to be a valid experimental design. A rule of thumb (which really isn't very popular) is that you should have 30 statistical objects per block. In this case we have 12 astrological signs, so n=360 would be desirable so long as we averaged around 30 responses per block. Of course, if we found that we collected 360 responses and one or more of the signs was not represented, then, hell, I might even believe there was something to astrology.
What we're going to do (provided we collect enough data) is to run this through a Chi Square goodness-of-fit test. This will compare the frequencies of the actual astrological signs (based on the birthdays reported by the participants) to their presumed sign based on the personality description attributed to it by astrologers and provided by Jonatron (who is the exact opposite of an astrologer). Presumably, Jon can run this test at any time, but a large sample is obviously more desirable.
There are obvious flaws to this design, but they can't really be avoided in this medium. For example, as Jon mentioned at the outset, someone who is familiar with astrology could pick their sign based on the description if they happened to recognize it from another source. Another flaw (as much with astrology as with this design) is that astrologers don't agree with one another about which personalities to attribute to which sign. Why should they? They're all making it up as they go along. And they'll decry negative results as incompatible with their unique (and wholly imaginary) worldview.

Free will
One of the things I went into neuroscience to find out was how much is "free will" vs. how much was hardwired into us. I'm of the mind that a lot of who we are comes out of modes built into us. For example, one of the incidents of "completion" I experienced was back in high school when I had all the Pink Floyd albums. There was no "next step" on my musical horizon, so I was despondent. There was so much music that was disappointing whereas PF's stuff was just plain weird and unpredictable from one album to the next (especially the early stuff). So I just wandered around music stores looking for weird things that would shake me up. I didn't chose to have that drive, and I don't know that there was anything in my past that imbued me with it. In that case, it's a great thing to have had, but not to have all the time. If that makes any sense.

>People are easily persuaded by rhetoric, it seems. How else can you explain Rush Limbaugh?
Yeah, you have to touch on a lot of different parts of the brain to get a message through, and the form of the message is more than its contents. There's a good book called "Data Smog" that looks at, among other things, how politicians get substantially more votes by framing things in terms of anecdotes rather than presenting facts. And speaking of statistics, consider this one: Half of all people have below average intelligence.

Statistical software
[Posted to the experimental psych group on]
Two others I have tried are:
-SAS - This is a great one to learn on, but it requires you to write a "program" (just syntax really) to describe what you want it to do which which variables, partitioned how, in what order, etc. You have the flexibility to specify a lot of things, but it is tedious unless you use it almost all the time. It is also DOS-based (or at least was maybe three years ago when I used it last), believe it or not. I don't recommend it, but if you know someone using it already, then you have an "in" to get you started and to troubleshoot if you can't get it to run properly.
-SigmaStat - In contrast with SAS, this one is really easy and gives you just what you want... as long as you aren't too picky. Everything is accomplished via pull-down menus, so it is possible to run a test or series of tests very quickly. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of unusual tests mixed in with the standard ones.
SPSS is a good compromise between the flexibility and ease of use of these two. For one thing, you can save your "routines" as a macro if you're going to be running the same battery of tests over and over again. You can also customize things via syntax (provided you want to take the time to learn it; I didn't). I liked the ease of use of SigmaStat for getting things done quickly with an easy-to-read output, so I used that one for a lot of things I've done just for fun as well as in actual research.

Biology vs. physics
>No, strike that. Life science is my weak point.
Honestly, I'm kind of embarrassed to be a biologist. Physics is so much more tantalizing because its implications are literally universal (as opposed to describing a particular class of cells only found in one relatively small -but important- group of organisms on a single planet in an unfashionable arm of a nondescript "milky" galaxy not even close to the bright center of the universe... which is what I do in my work).

I have a periodic table t-shirt. One day I was making up a stock solution, but didn't have a table with which to calculate the weights of the solutes I needed. I walked out in the hall and saw a girl studying. I asked her if she had a copy of the periodic table on her, and she was like, you mean like the one on your shirt? I was like, um, I just wanted to see if you were paying attention, and ducked back into my lab.

Copyright Alexplorer.

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