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Tag: college

A Cure for Diabetes

(Bear with me a bit, I promise I do get to the title eventually) One of the most formative classes I took in college was a class taught by Professor Doug Melton on stem cells. While truth be told, I’ve forgotten most of what I used to know about the growth factors and specifics of how stem cells work, the class left me with two powerful ideas.

The first is that true understanding requires you to overcome your own intellectual laziness. Its not enough to just take what a so-called expert says at face value — you should question her assumptions, her evidence, her interpretation, her controls (or lack thereof), and only after questioning these things can you properly make up your own mind. While I can’t say I’ve lived up to that challenge to the fullest extent, its been a helpful guide in my coursework and in my career as a consultant, then investor, and now entrepreneur.

The second was about the importance of personal passion as a motivating force. Professor Melton’s research and expertise into stem cells was driven in no small part by the desire to find a cure for diabetes, a condition which one of his kids suffers from. It was something which made him (and his lab) work harder at finding a way to take on the daunting task of taking stem cells and turning them into the beta islet cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. It made him advocate for the creation of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and to strongly vocalize his opinions on legitimizing stem cell research (something which I had the pleasure of interviewing him on when I worked with Nextgen).

And, its paid off! Very recently, Melton’s lab published a paper in the journal Cell which claims to have devised a way to take stem cells and turn them into functioning beta islet cells capable of secreting insulin into the bloodstreams of diabetic mice that they’re transplanted in and reduce the high blood sugar levels that are a hallmark of the disease! While I have yet to read the paper (something I’ll try to get around to eventually) and this is still a ways off from a human therapy, its amazing to see the lab achieve this goal which seemed so challenging back when I was in college (not to mention, years earlier, when Melton first wanted to tackle the problem!)

Having met various members of the Melton lab (as well as the man himself), I can’t say how happy I am for the team and how great it is that we’ve made such a breakthrough in the fight against diabetes.

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Bad Defense of the English Major in New York Times

This past Sunday, the New York Times posted an editorial by a writing teacher lamenting the decline of the English major in today’s universities:

The teaching of the humanities has fallen on hard times… Undergraduates will tell you that they’re under pressure — from their parents, from the burden of debt they incur, from society at large — to choose majors they believe will lead as directly as possible to good jobs. Too often, that means skipping the humanities…

In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science.

The writer believes that one result of this decline is that students (and hence graduates) are now less effective at writing clearly and are losing the “rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you” which accompanies an appreciation of and familiarity with great literature.

While the title of this post may suggest otherwise, I don’t disagree with the writer on the value of writing and literature. On a personal level, it was only after I left college that I began to appreciate the perspective on life that the (sadly) limited literature I am familiar with afforded me. On a more practical level, I’ve also witnessed firsthand otherwise intelligent individuals struggle in achieving their professional goals as a result of poor writing and communication skills.

However, what jumped out to me about the editorial was less the message on the intrinsic value of English or the writer’s thoughtful criticisms of how humanities courses are taught today, but more how the writer effectively brushed aside the underlying financial reasons pushing students away from declaring English (or another humanity) as a major. Its easy for the writer to argue that “a rich sense of the possibilities of language, literary and otherwise” as an answer to the question of “what is an English major good for?” But that sort of sense, while personally valuable, doesn’t pay off student loans. Its easy to criticize the “new and narrowing vocational emphasis in the way students and their parents think about what to study in college”, but it doesn’t account for the little choice that parents and students have in the matter when trying to make their checkbooks balance.

And therein lies the weakness of most impassioned pleas for students to pursue English majors and humanities instead of “more practical” majors: we don’t live in the world of the below For Lack of a Better Comic:

Comic #35

We live in a world where, sadly, students need to find jobs that can cover their debts. And the pragmatic reaction for the humanities educator is to either find a way to make their majors better suited to helping students find and compete for jobs that can cover their financial burdens or find new ways to enrich students who have chosen to pursue the “narrow vocational emphasis” they have been forced to.

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Advice for Entering College Freshmen

As it’s currently high school graduation season, I’ve been asked by a few friends (who have younger siblings about to graduate) about the advice I’d give to new high school graduates about to become college freshman. While I defer to (older :-D) folks like Guy Kawasaki and Charles Wheelan for some of the deeper insights about how to live one’s life, there is one distinct line of thought that I left with my friends’ siblings and that I wanted to share with all new high school grads/entering college freshmen:

Like with most truths about life, this will seem contradictory. First, take classes seriously. I know its not the sexiest bit of advice, but hear me out: college is one of the last places where you will be surrounded by scholars (both faculty and students) and where your one job in life is to learn how to think. Take advantage of that while it lasts, and make every effort to push your mental horizons. Second, and here’s the contradictory part: don’t take your classes TOO seriously. While I don’t mean its a good thing to fail, I’d encourage new students to never be afraid of skipping a class or a homework assignment if it means finding time for a friend or making time for a great opportunity. College is more about the friends you make and the things you learn outside of the classroom than the time you spend in/on it — and that’s why at the end, I wish I had both taken my classes more seriously and less seriously — in different ways.

I hope this is helpful and congratulations to the class of 2012!

PS: I’d be remiss if I also didn’t mention the post I did a few months ago on general career advice for students 🙂

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American Politics’ Obsession with College

A few months ago, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum attacked Barack Obama’s stated desire to have more Americans pursue higher education. Santorum’s reasons for doing this were fundamentally political: he wanted to portray Obama as a snobby liberal against the image he was hoping to convey of himself as a down-to-earth practical guy who doesn’t want to see money wasted on liberal indoctrination (or whatever it is Santorum thinks happens in colleges…)

While I’m no fan of Santorum’s hypocritical intentions there (anyone else notice how he neglected to mention his own college degree – let alone his MBA and JD?), I do think its worth considering the skeptical view towards American politics’ fixation (dare I say obsession?) with driving up college attendance.

shutterstock_50212558300x450This skeptical view is basically encapsulated in a single question: if the goal is to  get more Americans to go to college, why don’t we just make high school last eight years rather than four?

If we were to somehow able to achieve 100% (or even something like 60-70%) college admissions, an extended high school education (where the last four years might be more advanced and based on applications to different institutions) is basically what you would be creating.

If we think of getting the majority of kids into college in that sense, it begs the question: What would a world like that look like? I’d hazard the following two guesses:

  • First, the costs would be enormous. Even today, with many colleges being independent of the government and with many students bearing the brunt of the cost of college directly, there is huge government involvement with financing. An “eight year high school system”, even if we assumed miraculous levels of efficiency and public-private partnership never before seen in the education system and government, would likely require a huge amount of dollars spent by the taxpayer and by students – if only to provide the financial support lower-income families would need to attend higher education.
  • Second, I believe you would see the number of people going into advanced degrees (Masters, PhD’s, MBA’s, JD’s, MD’s, MPH’s, etc) would skyrocket. The reason for that is simple: if everyone goes to college – then its the same as if nobody went to college: the mark of attending college ceases to have any value in setting yourself apart from other people in the eyes of an employer. The funny thing is – one of the reasons I chose the “eight year high school” analogy is precisely because of the analogy that results: that college grads would became the equivalent of today’s high school grads: in the same trouble in terms of competing in the workforce and finding themselves needing to go to “college” (in this case getting an advanced degree).

One might even argue that a much more educated workforce is worth the cost but what this little thought experiment shows is that just extending high school by four years (the logical equivalent of getting much higher rates of college admissions) is not the obvious universal good that most politicians seem to suggest it is. The fact that students need to go to college at all to participate effectively in the workforce, in my opinion, says more about the lack of effectiveness of our K-12 system than about the value of college.

I think a more meaningful (and hopefully time-and-cost-effective) solution to our education system’s woes would actually be to address the real problems: (1) how students seem to not get enough out of K-12 to contribute to the workforce and (2) how students are forced to pursue expensive degrees just to compete.

  1. Bring K-12 quality up to what is needed for people to succeed in today’s workforce. I think this means investing in early education – study after study shows that some of the most effective education investments are those made in pre-kindergarten Head Start programs – embracing new technology-enabled approaches like Sal Khan’s brilliant Khan Academy, changing how we train and compensate teachers, and doubling down on training employable skills (like some of the ones I mentioned here). None of these are that controversial (although the devil is in the details) – what matters is being committed to the notion of increasing the value of K-12 rather than the just the years kids spend in school.
  2. Build an actually meaningful system of educational accreditation. Today, one of the most important ways to signal to employers that you can be a decent worker is a piece of paper that costs some $100,000+ called a college diploma. That piece of paper is not only extremely expensive, it also does a terrible job of elaborating what a person is good at (forcing many people to pursue further degrees). This system of accreditation really only serves colleges and the companies/people who make money off of them (i.e., admissions counselors/prep services, etc). An accreditation system which actually meaningfully communicated what people’s talents were (i.e. this person is extremely good at math, even though he did not major in math at a top 50 college; or this person is really good at machinework, even though she spent most of her last job planning events, etc) would be beneficial for both employers — who now have a better sense of who they are hiring — and workers — who can now be more discriminating about the value of their education and not needlessly participate in the rat race of tallying up schools/programs which only serve as a rubber stamp on your ability to pay expensive tuition.
These are not quick-and-easy fixes: they are after all major changes to how people/politicians view the world and require not only resources but some very slow-moving institutions to change how they think and operate, but it makes a lot more sense to me than continuing a dogma about how education should work, rather than taking a hard look at some of underlying issues.

(Image credit – SFGate/The Mommy Files)

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Some Career Advice for Students

Many students trying to pick classes/majors in college will end up consulting with their counselors/academic advisors who, in turn, will almost always reply with very generic advice along the lines of: “study what you love”.

But as my girlfriend once pointed out, the problem with asking academic advisors that question is that academic advisors tend to be academics – and in academia, you can make a career out of studying anything. Outside of academia, that is not so true. Look no further than the paradox of how we have record high unemployment for recent college graduates despite almost every startup I’ve spoken with expressing concerns about finding and retaining qualified employees?

Obviously, our education system is failing to meet the needs of our students and employers. But, other than hope that the system miraculously fixes itself, my advice to students is this: take classes that teach broadly employable skills. You don’t need to take a lot of them, and nobody’s asking you to major in a something that you don’t want to – college is, after all, about broadening your horizons and studying what interests you. But, in a competitive job market and a turbulent economy, the worker that is in the best position is the worker who can move between industries/jobs easily (getting out of bad jobs/industries and moving into better paid/more interesting ones) and who can quickly demonstrate value to their boss (so as to make them indispensable faster).

So what sort of skills am I referring to? Off the top of my head (I’m sure there are others), three come to mind:

  • Accounting – All organizations that deal with money need people with accounting chops. From my experience, the executives/employees who are the most versatile across industries are the CFOs — they can plug into almost any business or organization and can quickly help their employers out. You may not want to be an accountant, but in a pinch, having those skills can help you get hired or find work as you figure out your next move.
  • Programming – Programming as a skill is relatively generalizable. While I wouldn’t necessarily get an iPhone developer to write an operating system (or vice versa), folks with programming chops can quickly get up to speed on new projects at new companies, and, as a result, can quickly crank out functioning code to help with their employers.
  • Statistics – You don’t need to be a math genius to be hireable. But, as computers become faster and more important, more organizations are turning to number crunching as a way to stay competitive. Not only will “data scientists” and statisticians become more in demand, individuals who have familiarity with those tools will be in a better position at their companies and be able to quickly help out a new employer.

The skeptic will point out that a lot of this can be outsourced. And, that’s certainly true – but in my experience, there is not only a limit on what companies are willing to outsource, there is also just huge value for any employee to tack those skills onto what they are already doing. A salesperson who is also good at crunching statistics on who to sell to next is far more valuable than a “regular” salesperson. A marketing guy with programming chops probably has a better understanding of a product or a technology than a “regular” marketing guy. And, a operations guy who also understands the nitty gritty financial details is going to be able to do a better job than an operations guy who doesn’t. Not to mention: the skills are broadly applicable; so if one company doesn’t have a good spot, there’s always another organization somewhere that will.

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