Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Regulatory affairs and waiting room times in medicine

I read an article last weekend in the Wall Street Journal called Long Medical Waits Prove Hard to Cure. I didn't think much about it until today when it popped into my mind as support for what has become a theme of this blog and of the situation of much of the United States: regulations pervade our lives.

The article discusses how the methods to measure doctor's office waiting times can be manipulated for reporting purposes. For example, patients not seen within 48 hours might have to wait a really, really long time to see a doctor while other patients who called later are accommodated within 48 hours. The hospital knows that once these patients are cleared from the log their waiting time numbers will worsen.

"Any waiting-time measure can be thwarted or misrepresented," says Michael Davies, an internist and acting director of high reliability systems and consultation at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

This problem represents a larger issue in regulatory affairs; misconstruing data to match whatever regulation has been put in place.While I wouldn't go as far as to say I support the practice, I certainly am very sympathetic to businesses who have a bottom line to attend to. How can we expect them to pay the price of revamping their business practices for a regulation that may be revoked next year? This is very, very costly. And with the number of silly, nonsensical regulations out there, often this type of dishonest practice is the only option available to these businesses. Often they are just buying time to figure out if the regulation is actually a long-term one or if it is just the whim of an official who may be voted out of office next year.

Regulatory affairs is a tricky business, one I'm afraid we need more training for as a nation. Already we have certificate programs and masters programs available for people interested in studying it. I'm predicting it will become a staple career of the future like being a doctor or a lawyer. You might say something like, "I passed my RAC" in the future and people will recognize that name the way they recognize passing the bar in law or the boards in medicine.

We need some very educated, insightful people to take care of these overarching issues or a lot of time and money will go to waste. We're already seeing that with a regulation on hospital waiting rooms that just seems to cost labor, time and effort to implement- and the data is misconstrued. What a waste of everybody's time.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Book recommendation for science educators....

A few years ago I did a blog entry about a book review I found in the Wall Street Journal about a book called The Wave Watcher's Companion. That book has been sitting on my shelf since then! With all that has happened in the last two years I never took the time to follow up and actually read this wonderful book.

In the last week or so I've mustered up my ambitious spirit and started to read the book. Why now? you might ask. Well, I'm going back to work in the fall! Yes, I've been confirmed to teach at Irvine Valley College starting Aug 19. I am so excited to return to work and yet I'm also nervous. Nervous thinking perhaps my knowledge of introductory chemistry has grown rusty in my time away....

So I made it my goal to digest this book for the next week, month, or however long it takes to really take it in.  In the first thirty-one pages I already have enough anecdotal stories to fill a new class about introductory physical science. Here is my favorite part of it so far. (He is using an analogy to describe the way waves travel)

"The crests appear in the calmer water at the back of the group, travel through it and disappear again in the calmer water at the front- rather like ghosts running through the train carriages. Isn't it nice when things are so straightforward?"  (obviously sarcastic remark here)

Why does this even matter? You might ask. Waves and energy are a critical part of introductory science in general. An understanding that spans deeper than just a textbook definition is important  early  in comprehension.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Graphene shows its colors (The Economist)

This week's Economist has two science articles that seem particularly interesting. I wrote about the element 119 article the other day. Today I'd like to focus on the article about graphene and the hopes that it will propel technology to yet another new height of sophistication.

Most people might peruse through this article and not realize its connection with the digital revolution, quantum mechanics and all the ingenious technological devices we all carry around in our pockets. This is a concept that earned Albert Einstein a Nobel Prize. He articulated and illustrated the concept that had been part of experimentation, literature and science for a period of time before he really tinkered with it.  Ironic, I think, that the man famous for saying, "God does not play dice" received the majority of the credit for a discovery that largely supports the tenets of quantum mechanics.

In a nutshell, photoelectronics uses the wave/particle nature of light to transform photons of light into electricity. A photodetector is needed for this process. This article nicely explains photodetectors and their current limitations. Most are made of silicon material that isn't flexible, sensitive or cheap enough to really run electricity through anything large.

It is thought that graphene might replace silicon as the material of choice for these photodetectors. Perhaps in the future we'll see photodetectors used in high gain transistors, like those of the telecon industry. The future of electronics is now in limbo again....

Monday, May 14, 2012

Element 119 - Turning a Line (The Economist)

I flipped to the Science and Technology section of The Economist this week to find an article about the periodic table. What fun! Turning a line can be found here.

The title is appropriate because the article discusses the pending discovery of a new element on the periodic table. Unlike any other new element made in the laboratory, this element actually adds a new row to the bottom of the table. This has never happened before because there are elements in all existing rows that can be found in nature. It was not until 1940 that transuranic elements began to be added to the seventh row of the periodic table. At the time they were discovered, these elements existed only momentarily in a laboratory and would quickly radioactively decompose.

This is a pleasant article discussing the introduction of something entirely new in chemistry- another shell of electrons surrounding the nucleus at a distance never before realized. I wonder what the shape of that shell might be visually?

One comment near the end made me laugh. "That will be a feather in GSI's cap in its friendly competition with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California..."  Friendly competition? Doesn't this author remember the 2001 fiasco with Victor Ninov and element 118? That situation illustrated that the rivalry between labs is anything BUT friendly. Victor Ninov was hired because he successfully worked at GSI and discovered 110, 111, and 112. Berkeley hired him to show up their rivals (GSI) that they were smarter, quicker and had not lost their edge. They were sheepish and ashamed they had missed out on discovery of the most recent three transuranic elements.  So they hired their rival who then forged data in an attempt to beat GSI to the discovery of element 118.

There is a book that describes the fiasco quite well. It is called The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean. The book was just okay overall but the chapter about Victor Ninov and element 118 made it worth reading. Fascinating story. And- something the author of this article in The Economist should really check out to be a bit more accurate next time.

A friendly competition? Anything but.....

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Celebration to End the Year.....

Today was the final potluck of the year for my music group. It was fun as always. But I missed the familiar faces that greeted me 5-10 years ago before I became really involved in the organization as a leader and performer. Catherine, my accompanist and music enthusiast was most sorely missed as she would often accompany us for the group singing at the end. She also performed much of the ritual. However, life marches on and the younger girls (they call themselves 80s babies) have taken over much of the leadership and ritual functions. I am older myself- I'm the absent mom on maternity leave right now (in some sense of thinking about it).

This type of occasion gives me the opportunity to put into practice my resolutions formed as a result of reading The Happiness Project (by Gretchen Rubin). I remembered my friend's daughter was graduating from high school this year so I brought her a small gift. I think she appreciated it. As part of enhancing happiness overall I want to remember and recognize more occasions like graduations, baptisms, and birthdays. It is a small token of friendship but builds over time. Last Christmas we made our usual picture calendar for my 100-year-old grandma and I added all of my family birthdays to the calendar. My aunt ordered a copy for everybody this year.  This helps me remember all my extended relatives birthdays because I can see them every day on my calendar!

One of my music sister's started crying during one of the songs we sang at the end of the potluck. At first I thought it was silly (I'm not very sentimental) but soon I started to tear up as well. The song was about how friendships become nearer and dearer as time goes by. It really is true- even though we only see each other once a month (approximately) these women have become nearer and dearer to me as time flies by.

My friend with the daughter graduating from high school was about my age when I moved to San Diego. Her daughter was six or seven when I first met them. Now she's eighteen and I consider her mother a very dear friend of mine in town. We're over a decade apart in age but somehow we just connect. I'm not sure how I found this friendship except that I opened myself up to a group of women interested in the same topic as me- music. And this is how it has unfolded......

Happy Mother's Day!

This year I'm amazingly blessed to have both a mother and a grandmother to celebrate on mother's day. My grandmother is 100 years old and living with skilled nursing care. We are awaiting the fateful phone call any day now that she has passed into a better place. But, for now that phone call is still in the future and we want to celebrate every day of her life that we can cherish.
I found a book at a local card store that really made me think about the meaning of mother's day. It had the words "Grandma" on the cover and when you flip through it you find journal pages. Each journal page has a leading question for the entry. Leading quotations/questions included the following: What was your favorite memory of a time with your own mother? Describe your first transportation to school as a child. What kind of Saturday afternoon schedule did you have as a child/teenager?
The book made me want to buy one for all of my relatives as a future gift for their children. How I wish I had such a thing from my own 100-year-old grandma. She is so full of stories and wisdom. One time she told us about how she rode a horse to school when they lived out in the country because they didn't have a car to drive to school. She is not able to write anymore so I couldn't send it to her. Instead, I sent it to my own mother who is now "grandma" in her own right.
The book also made me think about how I would want to be remembered as a mother myself. If my own daughter were to write in such a book for her children what would her favorite memory of a time with me be? What would I want her to remember about her childhood?

This gets me thinking about what is important as a parent. I think the single most important thing I'd like my children to take from their childhood/adolescence is the importance of relationships. There is no greater gift in life than supportive family and friends. And to have these it takes some work. I'd like them to see me value these relationships in my own life and model that their own lives.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Buy Some Happiness..... (Gretchen Rubin)

I still haven't finished The Happiness Project. As typically happens with me, I'm reading three books all at once. Usually I'm lucky if I finish one out of the three I'm currently reading.

Anyway- I find myself putting down my other books to refocus on Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project. In the section I'm currently reading, she spends an entire chapter on how money can contribute to happiness. Of course there are many wealthy people who are very unhappy. But, generally, people who have a certain amount of wealth report a greater level of happiness than those that do not. She goes into detail about the research she did on this subject- on a macro-level mostly- comparing wealthy countries to poorer ones. And then she  looked at it on a small scale. For example, who would report a greater level of happiness: the wealthiest person in a small town in Nebraska or someone on the lower end of an affluent New York suburb? Obviously the New Yorker is probably exponentially wealthier than the Nebraskan, however, studies show that comparative wealth actually is a better predictor of happiness than absolute wealth. Gretchen outlines all sorts of examples like this to illustrate her point. Her overall point is that money brings security and security allows for more freedom. This brings happiness.

So how can I maximize on my own situation and BUY some happiness? I'm not wealthy by any means, at least not compared to the average person in southern California. But I have enough money that I'm not on a strict budget (relatively speaking) and I can afford to stay home part time, at least for now. So, how do I BUY some happiness?

So if I were to buy any one object or group of objects to increase my happiness what would it be? This is a question I don't think about much because I am a penny pincher by nature. I am always thinking about ways to save, ways to cut spending, ways to pinch pennies for a rainy day.

If I think about enabling myself to experience happiness by purchasing an object that might guide me toward that end I remember board games. Board games? You might ask. Yes, it is a family tradition on holidays and vacations to get out guesstures (board game version of charades), balderdash, rummikub, and boggle, for example. I can remember many Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday parties with these games as the center of the entertainment. These memories bring me happiness.

Therefore, to this end, I would invest in a set of board games for our house. We have a few lying around the house but not enough to provide choices for a group of friends or family at our house on a holiday. I think I'll buy myself some happiness and invest in a set of board games for the future.

I only have three chapters left of the book to go.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Book Review for Technical Communication

Unfortunately, this review is shorter than I'd like due to space limitations. I have a 500 word limit to stick with. I'm still editing it. Please make comments if you see fit!

Writing Chemistry Patents and Intellectual Property: A Practice Guide
Francis J. Waller. 2011. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. [ISBN 978-0-470-49740-1. 238 pages, including index. US$79.95.]

When I graduated with a master’s degree in chemistry ten years ago, I knew nothing about intellectual property or anything else about the legal side of science. After joining the local Association for Women in Science (AWIS) chapter, I began to understand the large role that intellectual property and law plays in the vast world of scientific research. I also discovered a wealth of opportunity for women in the development and approval of patents in science. Much of this opportunity remains hidden at the academic level because of the omission of the field from formal tracks of education in the sciences.
This is one of the main reasons that Francis J Waller wrote and published this book, Writing Chemistry Patents and Intellectual Property. He makes it clear in his narrative that access to information about intellectual property is not readily available. For this reason, The American Chemical Society has had Waller teach a class every year since 2006 on this subject at their national meeting. Because scientists leave their graduate programs without any formal training or knowledge of the subject, Waller attempts to fill this knowledge gap with his all-encompassing, dense, one-stop shop approach in describing his 35-plus years of real-life experience.
Waller’s knowledge and the sheer amount of information necessary to convey in a short book make organization a challenge. Overall, the book is logical in its design: a broad overview of intellectual property followed by vocabulary definitions and a discussion of patent versus trade secrets lead into the meat of the book about patents. The chapters become more focused on the individual aspects of a patent—writing it, formatting it, and filing it—the further into the book that you get. Waller has written some of the book strictly for PhD-level chemists who are looking for answers to questions about real patents. There are, however, some helpful chapters written for anyone who has concerns over general intellectual property questions. An example is his discussion of copyright and trademarks in chapter 11, where he discusses the concept of fair use—a topic that is becoming more relevant to all disciplines, especially on the Internet. One improvement Waller could make is to provide a brief mention of critical definitions in the overview chapter. I found myself flipping ahead to the vocabulary section so I could better understand the general overview.
Chapter 7 is most specific to chemists working on actual patents. In his discussion of specific patents, he cites examples that are included in a special appendix. This is where he really dissects each patent of its components and the issues surrounding these components.
Waller presents a dense topic in a clear manner in only 238 pages. Perhaps he should devote a longer book to the subject for people who could glean from his expertise. For now, this one-stop shop approach will suffice.

Julie Kinyoun
Julie Kinyoun teaches chemistry at local community colleges in southern California. As a freelance writer, she writes about biological, physical and chemical sciences for local and national publications. Julie holds an MA in chemistry from San Diego State University.