Monday, September 14, 2015

Mentoring and Parallels

I am on a committee at the University level that is looking at issues of faculty mentoring.  It is interesting to me that most faculty think of mentoring only as research mentoring.  I think of mentoring as "life mentoring."  If a person can help me improve my research, great.  But when I think of a mentor, I am really looking for someone who can help me think through decisions.  These could include decisions about:
  • My career
  • How to figure out how life and career fit together
  • How to focus my activities or have them remain diffuse
  • How to think about research, teaching, and service
  • How to think about leadership

This is clearly a lot more than just research.  Does it mean that everyone should seek mentoring in all these things?  Of course not.  But it does suggest what I try to do when I mentor.

Am I good at all of these?  I like to think that I am at least decent at each of these.  But I am not necessarily great at all of them.

Today, I had the opportunity to meet with someone with whom I'd exchanged mentoring emails for a year and a half.  She was a Penn State Schreyer Honors College graduate just like I was.  (Although I graduated 23 years before she did.)  And we chatted.  What types of opportunities she has taken.  What she is looking for.  Whom I know in the DC area doing similar things.  My experiences in parts of the world she is going to travel to.  How I'd made a major transition in my career almost three years ago.  And how I'd been successful without being laser-focused.  All of this helped to answer a variety of questions she had.  Does she still have most of them?  Probably.  My story is just one example.

But sharing that example shows that it is possible to succeed and lead a full and happy life while doing a whole bunch of different things and getting to know a whole bunch of people.  I emphasized on multiple occasions how a lot of what makes me happy is imagining how exciting things can be, figuring out how to connect the dots for myself or others, and then sharing the experience afterwards.
This is what my career is about.  Not a particular line of research.  (Although I do like eye care.)  Not a particular class to teach.  (Although I do like teaching microeconomics.)  But all of the things that come along with research and teaching and developing new programs and implementing existing ones, and figuring out just how it all fits together for the benefit of those who are helping to make it happen and for the benefit of the faculty and students who make up the educational enterprise.

In an economic sense, I like to think that it is a matter of putting things together that might not be obvious to others so that efficiency can be gained.  Seeing new ways to produce more and better outcomes.  To get the best out of a situation.  

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Risks We Are Willing to Take

There was just an article in the Wall Street Journal ( that provided a list of poor hygiene practices for contact lens wearers, talked about the proportion of contact lens wearers that take these risky behaviors, and discussed the possible impacts of these poor hygiene practices.

The numbers are notable.  According to the article there are over 40 million contact lens wearers in the United States.  And, according to a CDC survey, ninety-nine percent of contact lens wearers reported at least one questionable practice. 

For disclosure, I am a contact lens wearer and I will occasionally shower with my contact lenses in.  Why?  Because I started wearing contacts mostly due to the fact that running in glasses is not fun.  I run in the morning.  I then take my shower and get on with my day.  Since I use daily disposables, I don’t face any of the risks that are associated with wearing lenses that need to be stored.  And since I actually dispose of my lenses each day, I don’t expose myself to any of the risks of sleeping in contacts and using them too long.  I had actually not realized that just showering in contacts was a bad thing.  But I’d literally get just an hour to three hours (depending on how long I’m running) use out of my contacts if I didn’t shower with them in.  Still, there are risks associated with organisms that are in tap water that I expose my contacts to when I shower.  Seems like a pretty low risk. 

But then again, the risks described in the article also seemed pretty low to the people who experienced infections that leave them at risk of permanent damage.

And why are people willing to accept the risks?  Because, as with many behaviors, it is about saving time (not having to take the contacts in and out and deal with cleaning) and money (replacing them less often than they should be). 

So, for future contact lens development, anyone who can find a way to reduce the risk could make a lot of money.

And, it makes the discussion of a tradeoff between wearing contact lenses and undergoing laser surgery to correct refractive error and even more interesting discussion.

Finally, it gives eye health educators something to consider in how they talk with individuals who need contacts to help them grasp what the risks are and the importance of avoiding the risks where possible.

Do I expect everyone to avoid every risk?  No, that is not human nature.

What I hope is that reading articles like the one in the Wall Street Journal or hearing from health educators will give contact lens wearers a better understanding of the risks so that they can make well reasoned decisions about the tradeoffs between different types of contact lenses and different behaviors with the contact lenses in. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

Soda and Cities

The ongoing issue of how public health officials should be trying to minimize overweight and obesity in the United States brings us once again to the issue of sugar-sweetened sodas.

A piece in the Wall Street Journal shows how things are playing out in San Antonio and several other places around the country.

The soda industry claims it is being singled out.  The soda industry counters that it has made large donations to programs in cities that encourage exercise and seek to improve public health.

The key question is whether this is a good business decision and whether it is a good business decision that can overcome regulatory pressures.

Of course, anything that can be done to try to limit public employers taking away soda as an option in vending machines or taxing soda is going to help the soda industry maintain demand for its product at current levels or even higher levels.  So, as long as the choice to make a donation and get positive press leads to sufficient positive publicity to maintain or increase demand this is essentially part of the marketing budget.

The key question is whether public officials should then decide to treat soda any differently, particularly regulating or taxing it less than they would otherwise.  Whether this happens or not is truly an interesting story of regulatory capture and political lobbying.

If local jurisdictions can keep the money received and good will for the companies generated by private, for-profit companies partnering in public health efforts truly separate from any consideration of whether those same companies can be taxed then perhaps the public officials can have their cake and eat it too.  (Perhaps the old cliche should be changed to have their healthy snack and eat it too?) But if not, it may be another case of regulatory capture in which a substance that clearly contains a very large amount of sugar and clearly is associated with a large amount of sugar and calories is allowed to remain on the market and not be questioned in public health promotion efforts.

It is interesting to ponder how I would want to act if I were a member of a company that could be regulated very strictly by the federal government.  And it is interesting to consider whether cities should just turn money down to minimize even the potential for seeing this as a conflict of interest for the regulator.