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Honorary Associate Professor Larry Baum | Harvard, Research and Science

Having worked in a variety of educational institutional environments, Larry Baum is an Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Hong Kong. Having extensive experience in scientific research, Larry speaks to us about his time at Harvard, his profession as an educator and advice for students willing to apply for a science-related course at university. 

The Interview

1 | Describe what being an Honorary Associate Professor consists of.

It’s an honorary title which university departments often give to thank people for their service, such as research collaboration with department members or occasional teaching for the department. It’s not a paid job, and the actual work one does could vary tremendously. I arrived at the position by becoming an associate professor but then, after not gaining tenure, finding a job teaching general education courses at another university. The department at the other university gave me the Honorary Associate Professor title. How I actually spend my time is teaching, with occasional collaboration on research projects I had started earlier.

2 | What led your choices into becoming an Honorary Associate Professor and what grew your passion for Chemistry and Physics?

I studied physics because I wanted to learn something about how the universe works. I like getting at the root of things, and physics is the foundation of everything else. However, although I’d liked math, I had trouble understanding linear algebra freshman year at university, and since math is essential for physics, I decided I better switch fields. I eventually chose neuroscience to learn how we think. By then, I’d accumulated credits in physics courses, and a degree in Chemistry and Physics was the easiest way to graduate. (It wasn’t a double major: more like half and half.)

In graduate school, I studied neuroscience. I soon realized that it would take decades to figure out how the brain works, but I wanted quicker results. Thus I chose to study a brain disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, because it was common, severe, and becoming more common as life expectancy rose. I’ve been studying it and other brain diseases since then.

3 | How did you find the experience of studying at Harvard like? What can you tell us about the application process and what led to your decision of wanting to go to Harvard?

Harvard is famous, but I found the teaching quality mixed. Some teachers were great, some were OK: not too surprising since professors are chosen for their ability in research, not teaching, and someone good in research may or may not be a good teacher. I guess that teachers at any university could give you a good education. And if you’re very motivated and disciplined, you could educate yourself at a library or online.

The best thing about Harvard was the other students. They were smart and interesting and came from around the world. Getting to know them made my time at university special. I had a chance to graduate in three years because of Advanced Placement credits, but I chose to stay a fourth year because I enjoyed it so much.

Harvard remains a prestigious name around the globe | Source: Flickr Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

As far as I remember (it was decades ago), the application required a transcript of high school grades, standardized tests, a form, and an interview. I visited campuses of several universities and liked Harvard partly because it happened to be a beautiful Spring day, with students out in their shorts and t-shirts playing Frisbee on the lawn, and because the campus is in a semi-urban environment with interesting restaurants, shops, and buskers playing music on the sidewalks. Many universities offer equally-good educations, so I decided based on the environment. But when Winter came, I realized how cold snow could be! Winters were a little uncomfortable to me since I grew up in sunny Los Angeles.

4 | What advice would you give to students wanting to not only take a science-related course at university but also wishing to apply for American universities such as Harvard?

There’s much written about how science jobs are growing and that we need to train more scientists. But jobs in basic research are scarce. A study about a decade ago of neuroscience PhD graduates found that fewer than a quarter became professors, and many left science altogether. If you aim for a job in scientific research, you have better odds of achieving your goal than someone aiming to be a professional athlete or actor, but the odds are still against you.

Look at the job market before choosing a career. Ask people working in that field who are 10 or 20 years older than you to tell you their career path and to give you an overview of job prospects. If possible, also ask people who failed to keep working in that field, because if you only ask people who were able to stay, you’ll get a positively-skewed impression. And if you only rely on advice from leaders in the field (such as the people who tend to write articles saying we desperately need to train more scientists), you’ll tend to get an even more positively slanted view because their personal experiences were successful.

Volunteer to work in your chosen field for a short time to get a taste of the daily routine. Do you like working in a lab, reading papers, writing papers and grant applications, collaborating with colleagues, and troubleshooting experiments that keep failing? While there, take every opportunity to ask people about their careers.

If you want to apply to American universities, why not? Try. I don’t think the university you choose affects the quality of your education much. You can probably get a pretty good education at most universities. It depends more on what you do to learn than on what the school does to teach.

Vaccines can be said to be one of the major discoveries within the biological world, alongside DNA.

5 | What do you think is the greatest discovery within the field of science and why do you think so?

Vaccines. They’ve saved many millions of lives. They’ve eliminated a major killer, smallpox, and may soon eliminate polio. Now they’re starting to reduce the risk for cervical cancer and to be studied to treat cancer. There’s accumulating evidence that infections contribute to brain diseases, thus vaccines may someday prevent some of those.

6 | Do you have a reading list of books that you think would be helpful for Science students?

No, I can’t think of books I’ve read that would be particularly useful for science students, though I’m sure there are many. I wish I’d read more biographies, of both famous and ordinary people, to learn about their career ups and downs, as well as the ups and downs of their personal lives. When my experiments didn’t work, I felt like a failure compared to scientists and their ground-breaking experiments which I’d read in textbooks. It took a while to realize that most experiments either fail or produce results that aren’t exciting, but that textbooks of course only include the most important and successful results.

Reading the unedited experiences of scientists, including those who weren’t famous, should give a more balanced perspective. Reading biographies of people outside science may be useful, too, in learning what people experience and how they behave, which is important in life in general and in science in particular because science is not solitary. It requires extensive cooperation in administration, training, proposing projects, and performing experiments.

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