Beertown: anatomy of an American town

Omaha may not be known as a Mecca of the arts, but for a mid-sized Midwestern US city, there is no shortage of good theater. No, it’s not Broadway – although we do get the occasional traveling Broadway show that comes through – but the endemic talent of local playwrights, directors and actors is quite phenomenal.

This week I had the good fortune to experience three local productions. The first was a high school play written by budding playwright and actor, Ben Adams; this was a clever and humorous satire written and directed by a high school senior that had the audience laughing at the witty dialog.

The second play was really a reading of Omaha playwright Noah Diaz’s “The Motherhood Almanac,” at Omaha’s unorthodox Shelterbelt Theater. The play (or rather, the reading) has been described as:

“A play about women; about daughters and mothers // a play about the tropics, death, birth, rain, adoption, white trucks, peaches, rabbis, weddings, Tuesdays, hair ties, eyelashes // about what’s spoken and unspoken and understood and everything in-between // about swimming pools, wine, lists, wrists, fists, poetry, divorce, and the parallel lives we were never meant to lead // about learning how to carry on and all the things we must leave behind …// a play about women and the women who raised them.”

Hefty topics for a male 22 year-old playwright, but successfully done with aplomb and style and carried out magnificently by Omaha’s top ‘amateur’ actors (note that there is one who carries the same last name as me…), and under the direction of Omaha’s premier director Susie Baer Collins.

Finally, last evening we attended the Omaha Playhouse’s production of “Beertown.” A very unusual production, “Beertown” represents small-town-America at its most democratic. The play begins invitingly with the town members (we the audience) bringing an array of desserts to the 20th quinquennial town meeting and time capsule ceremony. As we Beertonian’s filled our plates with calories, the Mayor of Beertown, State Representative and other townspeople chatted with us about the upcoming quinquennial program, while the Beertonian Bugle editor took photos and interviewed  some of the townspeople.

The distinctive idea was to introduce the permanent and ‘ephemeral’ artifacts that the town’s bylaws had included into the capsule, and to democratically decide what, if any, new artifacts should replace any of the nine ephemeral ones in the capsule – and if so, which artifacts would be replaced.

The play presents a window for the audience to view how attitudes and values have changed and are still evolving in small town America. The subtle or not-so-subtle conflict between youth and the older generation. Disagreements over the significance of sport vs. the arts. And so on.

The unique angle of the production is that it allows for significant input from the audience, allowing the actors and Mayor of Beertown to use their superb improvisation skills to navigate through interesting debates and lead the democratic decision making. In all, a very interesting experience and unique theatrical production. And did I mention that the playwright from “The Motherhood Almanac” makes a superb performance as State Representative Pickel-Cooper?

Well, none of it is Broadway – and for that, I’m very glad. One doesn’t need New York for first class drama.

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Gut feeling: colonoscopies are a marvel of modern medicine

About 10 years ago, suffering from some stomach troubles, my family doctor recommended that I do a colonoscopy. I was barely 40 years old, and just the thought


Not even ‘pixelated’ — my ‘gut feeling’ is that these images showing my healthy colon are pretty high resolution images.

of having someone explore my inner workings, by shoving a small camera affixed to a flexible rod — well, you get the picture — made me lose my appetite for a month. When I asked the doctor, whose overall bedside manner (not to mention qualifications for dealing with a mild hypochondriac) was brash at best, “what if the colonoscopy doesn’t find anything,” his answer was: “Then we’ll go in from the other direction and do an endoscopy.”

I ‘freaked out,’ and decided that this doctor was not a good fit for me. When a few months later I read an article in the local Jewish rag about this doctor being part of a team that visited archaeological sites in Israel that used medical endoscopic tools, I realized that I had been dealing with an endoscopy-obsessed physician, and lauded myself for running away from him. Let him use his tools on the archaeological digs — not on me!

Well, for the past ~10 years, I have been dreading the 50 y tune-up. Dreading, fearing, and wondering if I should pass. It’s easy to find pseudo-science to “support” not doing the procedure: Many claim that it’s invasive, and can do more harm than good. After all, some people end up bleeding from a punctured colon. I assume that many of these who oppose this test for screening purposes probably also deny the importance of vaccinations.

Over the years, I have followed the development of the “PillCam Colon,” a pill that carries a miniature camera that will traverse the digestive tract when swallowed and obtain photos of the colon before being excreted (and recovered). But most insurance plans do not yet cover this type of (expensive) procedure, and it is still deemed a weak alternative of the colonoscopy. An additional problem is that during many colonoscopies, small (or larger) polyps are discovered. These are considered to be potential precursors of tumors, and their removal (and pathology testing) is an essential part of the colonoscopy process.

So, I sucked it in and acquiesced to a regular colonoscopy.

Everyone I talked to told me that the procedure itself was ‘nothing,’ that one doesn’t feel a thing, and that it’s easy and no big deal. But it scared the hell out of me. On the other hand, my friends and colleagues all lamented on the horrible “prep” — the need to drink buckets of the laxative to cleanse the colon, and the cleansing itself. That, for some reason, did not scare me.

Well. I was wrong, and they were right. The prep was AWFUL. The same polyethylene glycol that I used years ago to make liposomes was the main laxative in the dense, disgusting-tasting prep. There was about a gallon of “Nu-Lytely” that had to be drunk, in two sittings: from 5-9 pm, and from 2-4 am before the morning of the procedure. Nauseating stuff. I wasn’t sure I could actually do it. But, I did not want to go through the fasting and be forced to eat green ‘Jello’ and clear broth on another day.

On the other hand, the procedure was a piece of cake. They hooked me up to an iv. Put a warm, heated blanket on me until the doctor was ready. They asked me to lie on my side, and the next thing I knew I was waking up after a nice nap. With a clean colon (see images above) and 10 years until the next one!

I did have a tiny 2 mm polyp removed, but the lab found it to be benign.

All in all, I think modern medicine can chalk up a victory (this coming from a hypochondriac), and I hope everyone who can will take advantage of this opportunity for screening.

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The Lady and the Trump

This week, my family and I convened to do something very unusual: to watch television. And not just any television program — no, it was to watch the Republican presidential candidate debate. While I fully expected the debate to be ‘entertaining,’ perhaps I underestimated the sheer level of ignorance that I would encounter. In retrospect, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

Chicago buildings

The Chicago skyline, with Mr. Trump’s building, as observed on a recent visit.

Having seen the spectacle of Donald Trump in the first debate, with his childish, bigoted and chauvinistic remarks, I guess nothing should really have surprised me. But nonetheless, I came away shaking my head in disbelief.

Toward the end of the debate, when the candidates had already vied for the title of who would “defund” Planned Parenthood” most rapidly and who told the most moving stories of  love for their hero, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump (mistakenly called “Tramp” by my spouse) let the vaccine out of the bag. According to Mr.–or should I say Dr.–Trump, childhood vaccines cause autism. And how does he know this? Someone he worked with had a beautiful baby, and took him for vaccines–and lo and behold, the baby turned into an autistic monster. Point proven.

The hell with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the decades of study by thousands of scientists and doctors–no, no. He, knows better. But no better was the follow up with comments by two physicians who are also in the running for the Republican nominee: Dr. Ben Carson and Dr. Rand Paul. First, neither doctor contradicted the comments of Mr. Trump. Dr. Carson made very ambiguous statements, claiming that (in agreement with Mr. Trump, who he jokingly called “an okay doctor”) vaccines are bunched too closely together and should be spread out over longer periods. I doubt if Mr. Trump could even name the diseases that these vaccinations prevent, but the important thing is that his careful scientific analysis demonstrated with perfect clarity that the vaccine schedule needs changing. Dr. Paul, the Libertarian, invoked freedom of the individual to choose, and carefully avoided contradicting Mr. Trump’s claims.

I find it incredible that in a country that has enough real and serious problems, we have to waste time and energy inventing non-existent ones. I realize that Google has made everyone an expert in everything, and that parents can now diagnose their children’s pediatric illnesses with the click of a mouse, but this is creating a false sense of comfort. One cannot become a trained scientist or physician by exclusively reading online. It just doesn’t work that way. And we should not be giving equal weight (or any weight for that matter) to politicians or uninformed doctors on issues that they do not understand — that is the province of the CDC or NIH — to establish rigorously researched protocols based on the best data available. Mr. Trump and his cronies may be good at paying for tall buildings in Chicago, they they should stay the hell away from putting in their ignorant  two-cents worth on subjects that should be left to professionals.

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Flushing out the culprit

Over the years in academia, I’ve learned a trick or two about good administration. And here I am, rising to the task: a serial leaver-of-paper on the men’s departmental toilet seat needed to be taken care of.

Administrative note

At first, I wrote the note without the bottom two lines — but then my administrative training kicked in: “Final warning — I know who you are.”

Frankly, I haven’t a clue. Well, maybe a suspicion or hunch. But in science, that’s not enough. In administration, though, it is apparently more than enough. Several days and counting, and toilet seats are still clean.

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Right on: the only museum dedicated entirely to human rights


Technology and hands-on exhibits make the Canadian Museum for Human Rights accessible for visitors of all ages

When I last visited family in the city of Winnipeg, Canada, I had the opportunity to do a tour of the outside of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), as it was not yet opened for the public. On this visit, 2 years later, this one-of-a-kind museum located at the Forks — the meeting place of the Assiniboine (east-west) and Red (north-south) Rivers is now hosting over 800 paid visitors per day.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights

The CMHR — not my photo

I found the idea to be unique — important and intriguing, although I was very skeptical before seeing the exhibits. My childhood in Canada had caused me to anticipate a very back-slapping and self-righteous museum, in which Canadians would denounce others and proudly announce their own commitments to human rights, without mentioning the many failures. I was wrong.


A display seen from one of the many alabaster bridges that work their way up the building.

The CMHR is not perfect — but no museum is. However, it makes a sincere attempt to reconcile Canada’s past with its many errors. These include, but are not limited to the assignment of First Nations’ children to Christian religious boarding schools over the past 100 years (indeed, until the 1990s) — what was conceived as an attempt to remove any traces of native Canadian First Nation culture. Also included was a serious discussion of Canada’s abysmal record of turning away immigrants (mostly Jews) who had managed to escape from Nazi Germany during the 2nd World War. Many of these immigrants ended up returning to the shores of Europe only to die in Hitler’s gas chambers.

In the history book “None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948” the authors address Frederick Blair — the head of Canadian immigration — who reportedly was asked how many Jews would be allowed into Canada as refugees after the war — and his answer was “None is too many.”

The museum is unique in that it is focused mostly on personal stories — victims and heroes — and typically shies away from too much emphasis on blame. More important is the attempt to understand how the violation of human rights led to atrocities, and how this could have been stopped.


An exhibit hall on the 3rd floor


Women’s rights. 50% of the population, and many countries

Women’s rights are an incredibly important part of the exhibits — and the problems presented are not limited to third-world countries. The museum does not shy away from showing western commercials and advertisements that present women in a demeaning manor — ads for shoes and clothes and fashion models. Seen as part of a gradient of sexism, this is very compelling.


Very few women in Saudi Arabia are permitted to drive


Interactive displays have movies and stories on a multitude of human rights issues


The Holocaust and at least 11 documented recent atrocities

Reading about the museum, I was informed that there were demonstrations by certain communities against the museum for its “unequal exhibits.” I read that some members of the Canadian Ukrainian community felt that the Holocaust received ‘too much’ attention as opposed to the Holodom0r, the man-made famine forced upon Ukrainians by the Soviets in the pre-WWII era, where anywhere between 2-7 million people perished.

The Holodomor was presented as part of a permanent exhibit that includes 11 horrific atrocities in the 20th century. The Holocaust received its own exhibit. Part of the complaints, as I have been informed, stem from the fact that a wealthy Jewish donor contributed a lot of money to the museum, and there is/was a perception that this may have influenced the museum’s content. While any human suffering is horrible, I do feel that the Holocaust deserves special treatment, as it was a very unique situation. Not land disputes or fighting between tribes — but rather an entirely scientific plan to murder millions of people — even at the expense of losing the war. Nothing like this has ever been perpetrated on humankind, and understanding how this could have occurred really does deserve special attention.


View of the city and into French-speaking St. Boniface from the CMHR tower

In summary — I strongly recommend to anyone who has an opportunity — if they end up in the middle of nowhere in central Canada — to visit the CMHR. Well worth a full day’s visit, and should be a must for every school child.

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Who the hell will tell me who my father really was?!

This angry question, uttered repeatedly by the protagonist of Bualem Sansal‘s courageous and thought-provoking novel, translated into English as “The German Mujahid,” has been permanently etched in my brain.

The story follows the day-to-day chaos in the life of Malrich, a young and poorly educated Algerian immigrant in a Parisian housing project. Malrich is reeling from the depression and suicide of his older brother–all the more shocking because his brother (Rachel) was a well-paid engineer for a multi-national corporation who had apparently integrated seamlessly into French society. The key to the tragedy lay in Rachel’s journal.

In the course of the novel, the reader is exposed to the deadly radical Islamic fundamentalism that has become rampant in the housing projects, along with the deadly massacres of the Algerian civil war–in which Malrich’s parents were murdered along with dozens of others in their small village. Simultaneously, Rachel’s diary brings to light an insufferable secret that neither Rachel not Malrich can bear–the father of German descent that they loved  (who had moved to Algeria after World War II) had been a chemical engineer at Auschwitz charged with enhancing the efficiency of gassing Jews to death.

Having read many books focused on the Holocaust, I am still recovering from the chilling  accounts of how mass murder could be coldly turned into an engineering problem–getting the maximum number of dead Jews for the minimum of Zyclon B gas–whether more efficient in cooler or warmer weather, and what height the roof of the gas chamber should be for maximum efficacy. This is an unforgettable novel, for anyone able to stomach the descriptions.

Infused with humanity (and despite his self-described simplicity), street-wise Malrich embodies Sansal’s courage, and is unwilling to bow to the Algerian authorities or the fundamentalists. At the same time, he is also unwilling to accept that his father participated in the largest scale and most organized genocide ever known to mankind–hence the repeated cries: “Who the hell will tell me who my father really was?!

Sansal is a rare author who stands out in his tremendous personal courage, drawing parallels between today’s Jihadists and yesterday’s Nazi’s. The symbolism is clear: the Nazi engineer murdered by the wake of fundamental Islamicists represents the turning tide and new world order. This novel by Sansal, an Algerian native, has been described as the first attempt by an Arab author to address the horrors of the Holocaust, but this is not mere lip service; it is one of the most impacting books I have read. Given Sansal’s moral compass, I will be on the lookout for anything he writes.

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Being an expert in (membrane) recycling has perks!

This morning I awoke to the following email (and yes, “OMICS” does it again):

Dear Dr. Steve Caplan,

Greetings of the day. Hope you are doing well.

The purpose of this letter is to invite you to be an eminent speaker at  the World Congress and Expo on Recycling during July 20-22, 2015 at Barcelona, Spain.  The main theme of the conference is “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle for a better tomorrow” which covers a broad array of vitally key sessions.

We came across your contribution entitled  Novel Functions for the Endocytic Regulatory Proteins MICAL-L1 and EHD1 in Mitosis published in the Traffic and thought your expertise would be an excellent fit for Recycling Expo-2015 Conference.

For more details please visit:

We welcome you to be a part of this exciting Recycling Expo-2015 Conference as a Speaker (Oral & Poster)

Kindly contact us for any sort of further assistance.

Have a Great Day Doctor!!

With Regards,
David Culver
Recycling Expo-2015
Environmental  Conferences
5716 Corsa Ave, Suite110
Westlake, Los Angeles
CA-91362-7354, USA
Tel: +1-888-843-8169
Mail :

I have to admit, this is a new level of sophistication: to “come across” my paper on endocytic regulatory proteins and mitosis, and connect this with environmental recycling. Painstaking research on the part of the organizing committee.

While it sure would be nice to be invited (as an eminent speaker) to Barcelona, I fear that the eminent environmental recycling speakers might be bored to tears hearing about endocytic recycling. So alas, I must decline my emminency…


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Paying for peer review? No thanks, I’m outta here…

I spent Friday traveling west of Omaha to the University of Nebraska at Kearney, in of course, Kearney, Nebraska–about 3 hours west of Omaha. The University of Nebraska has 4 major campuses: 1) The University of Nebraska Medical Center (where I work, here in Omaha), 2) The University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO, mostly undergraduate and also in Omaha), 3) The University of Nebraska at Lincoln (UNL–this is the major undergraduate campus and center of the university), and 4) The University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK).

I had been to Kearney several times before, most notably to see the sandhill crane migration (note you can see a photo of them at the top of this blog!), but this was my first time at UNK, and I enjoyed meeting colleagues, delivering a seminar and talking about art and science over beer at the science cafe. As the beer was good, and the hour late, I stayed overnight before striking out on my way back to Omaha this morning. Before leaving, I noticed an email that arrived in my inbox from a fellow scientist who also serves on the editorial board of “Scientific Reports,” an online open access journal from the Nature publishing group.

Reading the email, I learned of a very strange situation brought about by the journal: they are planning to open a new review track in which authors would pay to have their manuscripts reviewed within 3 weeks. I found that the publishing company likens this to paying for “expedited mail.” This, however, is a poor analogy, to say the least.

The journal intends to use a third-party-provider called “Rubriq” which seems to be a business that “pre-reviews” manuscripts that scientists intend to submit to actual journals, to help authors prepare for submission. Truthfully, I don’t know anyone in my field who would ever pay for such a service. However, it turns out that they are now expanding to provide reviews for Scientific Reports–at least for those authors who pay for the expedited service.

There are many ethical problems with this proposition. First, having a third-party group circumvent the regular editorial board is already wrong. It sets up two separate review entities–one for those who pay, and one for those who don’t. Second, there is no transparency for this Rubriq company. Unlike the general editorial board, they do not list reviewers who have expertise in specific fields, and this is entirely contrary to scientific ethics. Then, there is the issue of pay-for-review. To speed up peer review, the reviewers (chosen by the third-party) will be compensated. But if these reviewers are compensated, then why would any of the current editors and reviewers agree to continue volunteering their valuable time and effort to review without compensation? None of this makes any sense.

Needless to say, I signed the letter sent to me by email, but went one step further. I tendered my resignation from the editorial board and marked a large “X” by this journal. There may be many positive changes that lie ahead in the science publishing business, but this proposed change leads nowhere that I want to go.

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Sweet Serendipitous Science

One of the best arguments for supporting basic science is that serendipitous discoveries — those not necessarily outlined in a grant proposal — have always been key to scientific progress. Many of us who lobby for basic science like to use the wonderful example of penicillin, whose discovery was attributed to Alexander Fleming, who noticed that a substance from the mold Penecillium rubens inhibited the growth of staphylococcus bacteria. The ‘serendipity’ derives from the fact that for Fleming the mold growth was an unintended contamination of his bacterial plates — but of course this turned out to be far more important than the original experimental goals –whatever they were.

However, the era of serendipitous scientific discovery has not disappeared — although the continued dismal state of funding for basic science may eventually cause this to occur. But rather than dwell on these stark thoughts, I’d rather celebrate another recent serenditious discovery with high potential that has come to my attention.

As I opened my copy of “Newsweek” this weekend, I found myself reading an interesting article by Andrew P. Han (@HanAndrewP). This article discusses the serendipitous discovery of a relatively rare sugar known as allulose or d-Psicose — or more accurately, the finding by Japanese researcher Ken Izumori of an enzyme that can rearrange atoms to convert fructose into allulose. Almost every organic molecule has a mirror image molecule (known as “handedness” or chirality), and while their chemical composition is identical, and they have similar levels of ‘sweetness,’ allulose has one tenth of the calories of fructose and is largely excreted in our urine. While rare in nature, it exists in at least one plant, and during baking of foods with fructose small amounts of allulose are made.

The bottom line is that allulose shows tremendous potential for being a “sugar substitute” (substitute for glucose and fructose), which could replace these common sugars and perhaps do a lot less damage to western populations that have rampant levels of obesity and diabetes.

This is great news. Wonderful, in fact. But it’s necessary to point out that Dr. Ken Izumori, who spent decades studying rare sugars, explicitly notes in the article that he did so out of pure interest and curiosity in understanding the basic science of sugars. His goal was not to revolutionize the sugar industry or cure obesity-related diseases and diabetes, but rather to better understand the world in which we live. So, for those who aren’t getting it, it’s time to take note. Again and again. Major advances are likely to come by serendipitous findings by clever researchers who are driven by curiosity and the achievement of first-rate basic science. These advances will continue to come, until the well dries up. Then we will be left with all the scientists who can ‘translate’ these advances, but without anything to translate, science will sour.

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Cheating in science — and life

Not too long ago, one of my teenagers brought up an age-old ethical issue that recurs and festers, and at least theoretically, provides an opportunity for open discussion on “what do we want out of life?”

The issue at stake, is of course, cheating at school, university and life. And how do honest kids and adults deal with it, knowing that cheaters so often seemingly benefit from their actions, and rarely get caught or punished.

The issue was brought up regarding math and formula memorization, and reminded me of a very similar situation in undergraduate physics. At the time, our professor insisted that the students should be responsible for memorizing an entire page-worth of formulae. As a professor now myself, I abhor this practice of forced memorization — yes there are always a select number of concepts and terms that must be understood — but memorization of formulae is, to my thinking, a complete waste of time. Time that could and should better be spent learning to solve problems.

Of the ~250 students in my undergraduate physics class, I know that many simply made formula lists — so did I, in order to waste my time memorizing them. But others put those lists in their pockets, and in the course of a 3 h exam, excused themselves to the restroom to peek at the formulae when the need came up. To the best of my knowledge, no one ever was caught. What would the university do, escort the students into the bathroom stalls? Strip the students down to their underclothing and beyond to ensure they don’t hide cheat notes on their bodies, like a prison search? Unthinkable.

Despite warnings about the dire consequences of being caught, it seems that cheating is rampant in high school and university. And I don’t mean just the run-of-the-mill type of “Dear Student: should your granny die before the midterm exam” cheating described by Stacey Patton in The Chronicle of Higher Education.” I mean real, bona fide cheating during an exam.

I witnessed this not just in undergraduate physics with the silly memorization of formulae; one time, in a chemistry exam, I sat next to the class brainiac. The student who always got the highest grade on every exam, in every course. I was in awe of this student who always ended up at the very top of ~250 students, and it didn’t matter what field: organic chemistry, calculus, physical chemistry, computer programming. It was a remarkable feat. And then one day, I sat near him during an exam. After the first 15-20 minutes, he turned to me and whispered “What did you get on numbers 6, 9 and 10?” I was in shock. Why was he asking me? I had always been a very good student, but this guy was #1! Why would he even trust my answers, even if it had been ethical to ask?

I realized that it wasn’t just me that he asked, but that he did a nice sampling of people around — most of whom were in his study group. So unlike what most people envision, the cheating that goes on does not make a poor student get an “A” on an exam; it makes an “A-” get an “A” or an “A” student get the highest “A” or “A+.” The rich get richer through cheating.

Such cheating is not limited to high school or undergraduate education. I’ve witnessed cases of students who have written a graduate exam in pencil, and later erased their wrong answers and filled in a correct answer, followed by an appeal. Years ago, there was a case where a student was caught doing this, because the original exam had been scanned on a copier machine, so there was proof of alteration. But such cases are admittedly rare.

I’ve heard that medical schools frequently break up their exams into ‘bite-size portions’ to prevent the restroom issues. In other words, a 3 h exam might be broken into four 45 min. segments, with a short bathroom break after each segment, but the students are not able to go back to previous segments (even if they finish another segment before their 45 min. is done). To me, this seems like a reasonable approach.

But none of these trips down memory lane help me to answer my child’s question and address how  a responsible adult responds to a youth who raises such an issue. What do I say?

Life, I say, isn’t fair. From where we are born, with what parents we are given, gene endowments, socio-economic situation, etc. And cheating is another aspect that isn’t fair, and we see it in day to day life, at all levels. There will always be the cheaters who will get ahead — perhaps even benefit from a scholarship and praise that they do not deserve — but you, as an honest person, will go farther in the long run. And most importantly, you will do so based on integrity and merit, and with a 100% clear conscience. But remember also, that if you choose to go into the sciences — and it seems that there is a good chance for that — once the academics and exams are done, your career will be based on integrity, and how rigorous and repeatable your work is. Your name will ultimately be made by doing honest science.

And that’s the best I could do — although I wish I could do more…

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