Let me tell you about my favourite molecule. It is completely useless, but awesome nevertheless. Its name is penguinone, simply named that way because its molecular structure looks like a penguin.
The full scientific chemistry-nerd name for penguinone is 3,4,4,5-tetramethylcyclohexa-2,5-dienone, but why would we bother with such a mouthfull?
So far, there hasn’t been a use for penguinone, but in the last few years, my friends and I have started a bit of a running joke around penguins, including putting penguin easter eggs in our presentations and reports, using penguinone to explain certain phenomena (specifically Raman spectroscopy), and spreading random origami penguins in random places.
And then, a very talented friend of mine made a crochet penguinone and all hell broke loose. Well, not really, it just prompted a twitter account which Pengiunone now uses to post narcissistic travel pics and random penguin pictures. Because: #PenguinsAreAwesome.
This included episodes like when Penguinone was looking for a new place to live:
I had just submitted my PhD thesis for review (*mini-applause for myself*) and decided that the two months I had before my PhD viva (or PhD defence) would probably drive me half-insane and maybe I needed an extended break somewhere very far away.
So I went very far away: I booked a trip to Australia. However, still being me (as in: a science communication addict?) and considering my previous experience as an edutourist, I emailed a few universities to let them know I would be around and willing to volunteer at any scicomm event they might have. One university replied. I also signed up to an Australian mailing list and answered a call for volunteers.
So, in between my actual travels, I ended up doing some public outreach slash science communication down under. And boy, it was fun.
The university that replied to my spontaneous volunteering was LaTrobe University in Melbourne, where I had the opportunity to talk to a year 9 class (which are, I’m guessing, 14-year-olds?) about my research and my experience as a PhD student. I slightly changed a previous talk of mine (mostly left out the singing; oh yes, I went to a conference and brought my ukulele once, it was marvellous) and spoke to a class of maybe 30 students about the Physics of Cancer in general, and how my research sort of fits into that field. The students seemed very interested and asked some questions about what it’s like to do a PhD and if all that travelling isn’t very tiring. As thanks, I received a gift card which was super useful because I used it to buy a raincoat. Apparently, it does rain in Australia.
The other event I attended was the Science and Engineering Challenge, which is a national competition organised by the University of Newcastle that challenges teams of high school students (I’m guessing 14-year-olds?) to do a range of different tasks related to engineering and science, such as building a water turbine, a suspension bridge, a catapult, creating an encrypted code or building an earthquake-proof structure. I helped out at the Sydney event for two days.
Apart from the fact that I wasn’t allowed to take part myself – I would have loved to build a water turbine and catapult – it was absolutely amazing. My role was to facilitate the aforementioned activities (one for each day I was there), and it was really interesting to see the creativity and competitiveness of the students. Sometimes, the more unexpected design was more efficient, sometimes the group with the most extensive and thought-out plan ran out of time and couldn’t finish their idea. It was up to me to encourage the students to think both logically and out of the box without actually really helping (or so I tried).
As with many science outreach activities, the event relied on volunteers from universities. But more unusually, there were also volunteers from the Rotary and from companies (on Thursday I was there, a bank). This made for an interesting range of ages and backgrounds, which in my opinion was a wonderful extra touch and helped bring home the message that a) one of the most important skills for STEM* is creativity, b) with a STEM degree, you don’t necessarily have to stay in STEM, you can go into a whole range of careers, and c) STEM is really awesome, considering all these people – not all them working in or studying a STEM subject – that give up their time to come help at the event.
Anyway, I went on holiday for 5 weeks all on my lonesome and having a few days of scicomming in between was really fun.
Thank you Jess from LaTrobe University for the opportunity to speak to the y9 class and the tour of the university, and Terry from Newcastle University for signing me up for the Science and Engineering Challenge.
* Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics
Water bears. Moss piglets. Those are just two examples of “cutesy” names for tardigrades (literally “slow stepper”; because they look like they do everything in slow motion), some of the most amazing animals in existence (IMO). These little animals, averaging 0.5 mm when fully grown, are almost cute with their short, plump little bodies, eight legs and looking a bit like a tiny Michelin guy.
Water bears and water-dwelling tiny animals that mostly live in mosses and liches (top tip – get yourself a pet tardigrade by soaking some moss in water), but basically can be found anywhere (#GlobalCitizen).
And I mean everywhere. Some tardigrades live on the highest mountaintops. Others in the deepest trenches in the sea. They have been found in rainforests as well as in Antarctic regions. This is because tardigrades are so awesome. While they are not exactly extremophiles (organisms adapted to survive extreme conditions such as extreme temperature and pressure), they are able to survive extreme conditions for a certain length of time. Expose them for too long, and they will die, unfortunately. But expose them to extreme conditions, including very high or low temperatures, incredibly high or low pressure, air deprivation, dehydration or starvation for (depending on the system) a lot longer than what humans would survive, and they will bounce back! Some tardigrades have gone without water for more than 30 years, just to rehydrate and get back to living.
I mean, tardigrades can survive space! Tardigrades have been exposed to open space and solar radiation combined for 10 days and have lived to tell the tale. This makes them the first known animal to survive in space.
Just to give you a few more examples of the extreme conditions tardigrades have survived in:
Tardigrades have survived extreme temperatures, such as a few minutes at 420 K (151 °C) or 1 K (-272 °C) at the other extreme. Put one in -20 °C and it could survive for 30 years.
As well as surviving the extremely low pressure of a vacuum, they can withstand very high pressures such as 1200 times the atmospheric pressure (or even 6000 times for some species).
The longest that living tardigrades have been shown to survive in a dry state is nearly 10 years.
Tardigrades can survive 1000 times more radiation than other animals.
Basically, they could survive global extinctions. In fact, they are one of the few groups that have survived Earth’s five mass extinctions.
So after the end of the world, whether human-inflicted or natural, we can at least count on these amazing little creatures to survive the apocalypse. Maybe they will even evolve to giant, sentient, space-travelling (no spaceship required) giant water-bears.
Actually, giant water bears would be terrifying. Let’s not think about that.
Most (read: all) of this was found on wikipedia, the ultimate internet information hub that we all love to hate. I found the images at some point while browsing imgur, they’ve been on my phone waiting to be used for ages. I can’t find their original source.
Sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong era.
Usually, this feeling is music-related. Now that I have renewed access to my dad’s old record collection (and a record player, #Hipster), I can’t help but feel that rock music from the ’70s and ’80s surpasses anything being made now. Comparing music from the “olden days” to music now is of course not entirely fair; what still remains has already withstood the test of time, current music hasn’t had to (yet).
Music aside, my wrong-time-feeling also applies to how I feel about science and research. Nowadays, scientific discoveries seem to always be the result of hard work of an entire team of scientists for countless years. There is so much knowledge and information out there, it seems imperative to find one’s own little niche and specialise, specialise, specialise. It is impossible to be a master of all.
However, I long for the golden old days of the polymaths and the homines universalis when academics were interested in all fields. They were allowed, or even required, to branch out, study all sciences, not to mention humanities, linguistics and arts. I’m speaking of people like Galileo Galilei and Leonardo Da Vinci. My favourite person, D’Arcy Thompson, would also be considered a polymath.
A polymath is defined as someone with “knowledge of various matters, drawn from all kinds of studies ranging freely through all the fields of the disciplines, as far as the human mind, with unwearied industry, is able to pursue them” (1). I noticed while perusing the wikipedeia page, that the examples given of RenaissanceMen are indeed all men. Even if I was born in the right era to be an homo universalis, I would still have been born the wrong gender.
However, there are at least a few examples of female polymaths, and I wanted to introduce you to one of them:Dorothy Wrinch. Just in case you wanted a more nuanced example.
Dorothy Wrinch was a mathematician by training but also showed interest in physics, biochemistry and philosophy. She is someone who – even though I’ve only recently heard of her – is an excellent example of the homo universalis I wish I could be. She was also a friend of D’Arcy Thompson, though if I remember correctly, they mostly upheld a written correspondence.
In any case, Dorothy is known for her mathematical approaches to explaining biological structures, such as DNA and proteins. Most notably, she proposed a mathematical model for protein structure that – albeit later disproved – set the stage for biomathematical approaches to structural biology, and mathematical interpretations of X-ray crystallography.
She was a founding member of the Theoretical Biology Club, a group of scientists who believed that an interdisciplinary approach of philosophy, mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, could lead to the understanding and investigation of living organisms.
She is described as “a brilliant and controversial figure who played a part in the beginnings of much of present research in molecular biology. (…) I like to think of her as she was when I first knew her, gay, enthusiastic and adventurous, courageous in face of much misfortune and very kind.” (2)
Actually, come to think of it, maybe Dorothy was born in the wrong era. Nowadays, using mathematical approaches to protein structure is practically commonplace. Though I’m not quite sure how well philosophy would fit in.
Anyway, I still feel that interdisciplinary research, and having broad interests, is not the easiest path to go down. But as long as we have inspirational people to look up to, past and present, we know it is worth a try.
(Wow, went way overboard with the #Inspirational stuff towards the end there.)
Now a scientist/engineer hybrid, I used to be one of those kids that really liked playing with LEGO. Surprisingly – or maybe not really – I have been able to incorporate LEGO into both my work and my favourite extracurricular activity (public engagement):
LEGO-moulded well that I use in some of my science stuff
Few letters of the LEGO-moulded well as seen through a microscopes, with some cells growing.
LEGO-microscope that I have used for many public engagement activity.
As it turns out, I’m not the only one who loves LEGO and science. Who knew?
1. A truly Lego®-like modular microfluidics platform
Inspired by LEGO, researchers have created a modular system that can be used to build microfluidic channels. In microfluidics, the goal is to control fluids in small channels (micro-sized, usually). It has been used in the development of inkjet printers and is now an interdisciplinary field that will allow things such as high-throughput screening and lab-on-a-chip technology. The major advantage is that low volumes can be used.
The LEGO-microfluidics try to solve one of the problems in the field: microfluidic systems aren’t really versatile, and 3D microfluidic systems are quite difficult to make. By creating LEGO-type PDMS blocks with microfluidic channels, blocks can be stacked easily in 3D networks, but also easily changed around to create a whole range of different configurations.
While I’m not entirely convinced yet that the production of these blocks is simple, and I have doubts about the alignment of the different channels as well as sealing the interfaces between the different blocks (you don’t want everything to leak out), I always love creative solutions and especially if they are inspired by my favourite block toy! While it might not be super-useful in a research context, it can be used as a public engagement tool to show off some nanotechnology. How can we use microfluidic channels for mixing small amounts of liquid, or separating them out? What are the different types of flow, for example, laminar?
All of this and more, soon near you (perhaps).
2. Liquid-handling Lego robots and experiments for STEM education and research
Another example is a liquid handling tool that has been built using LEGO pieces. LEGO does have quite some educational kits that teach about robots, mechatronics and programming, that allow easy conversion to the development of STEM education tools when in the hands of creative minds. In this case, a pipetting robot was developed that can be used in biology, biochemistry or chemistry demonstrations or workshops.
Using this tool can allow for a very educational and interdisciplinary (+1 for the buzzword) workshop that combines engineering (building and programming the robot) and science (experiments such as performing delusions, measuring pH using a pH indicator or anything).
All of this and more, soon near you (maybe).
These were just two examples of geeky scientists and engineers proving that you are never too old to play with LEGO. Even if the box says ages 4-99.
LEGO education runs various different events and competitions, including the FIRST LEGO LEAGUE, that challenges teams of 9-to-14-year-olds to build and programme robots to complete specific tasks. I helped out at a tournament last year and it was awesome. And not just because my badge said: “Robot Practice Table Supervisor”.
Last weekend, I attended the Centenary conference commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the publication of On Growth And Form by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. You might have heard me mentionthis book and its centenary at some point?
It was not just your usual conference. While most conferences centre around a certain field or topic, this one explored the influence of D’Arcy and his book on many different fields It was the most interesting mix of people and topics at any meeting I’ve been at, it succeeded in bringing scientists, mathematicians, computer scientists, historians, artists, architects, musicians and knitters in the same room.
Also, the sessions were not organised topically, but pretty much random, which meant that even if you were just interested in a few talks (on paper), you ended up hearing the wide variety of topics that have something to do with D’Arcy. Personally, I thought this was a very clever choice of the organisers (kudos to them), and I enjoyed hearing about art, architecture, history, and yes, knitting, instead of boring ol’ science for a change.
I also feel like I made some type of personal achievement. I was accepted to give a talk on the Physics of Cancer, which you might remember as the topic of my two FameLab contributions. For each of these, I had written a little song. So, in a crazy phase of over-confidence, I decided to incorporate these songs into my talk. And, why not, I also incorporated Star Wars references, weird cartoon cell drawings and pretty dodgy doodles I had drawn myself.
The response was amazing. I’ve given talks at conferences before but never have I received such positive feedback. Not only because they found the songs entertaining (I can assure you no-one fell asleep during my presentation) but I was also complimented on the clarity and accessibility of my talk (the very mixed audience, remember) and my optimistic approach to a “heavy” topic. If possible, I will from now on take this approach for every talk.
Finally, I have a new favourite D’Arcy quote (it’s quite convenient to have three days full of inspirational quotes to muse about):
“(…) things are interesting only in so far as they relate to themselves to other things; only then you can put two and two together and tell stories about them.”
Closely followed by this one, actually:
“Facts are pointless unless they illustrate greater principles.”
(The comics snippets and the second quote are from the graphic novel “Transformations“.)
Last week, I suddenly found myself in a situation where I had 12k followers on twitter.
Before you think I had some sudden explosion of followers – okay, that would be awesome, but who are we kidding, I’m currently followed by 179 wonderful people* of which hopefully a minimal number is a bot, – I should be clearer. For a week, I was tweeting for the rocur** @iamscicomm.
Well, let’s just say I was slightly overwhelmed. Suddenly, I had a potential readership of really a lot. I actually made it to over 30 responses and likes on some of my tweets, and yes, I am totally bragging but I was quite proud of myself!
The week started with me photoshopping the scientiacristina (in charge of curating the twitter account) beaker into my profile picture.
Then I had to come up with a plan… What should I tweet about? The goal of @iamscicomm is to talk about the interesting things involved in #scicomm and initiate discussions around communicating science. As in whatever I do (blogging, personal tweeting, etc), I just went for whatever I find interesting. My very elaborate plan (written on the back of a research paper I was reading on the train) was as following: scoping out my temporary audience (what are their reasons for being involved in #scicomm?), sneaking in some D’Arcy Thompson, talking about humour in #scicomm***, finding a niche/audience and how to combine it with a day job.
The most interesting discussions were on humour and the day-job-combo questions. I wanted to wrap up the week, exactly a week later, by briefly summarising my thoughts on these topics, that might or might not have changed after the public twitter discussion.
Topic #1 **** : humour in science communication
Pretty much everybody went with “Yay,” with a few people who had some nuances.
So in my opinion (and somewhat backed up by the #scicomm community), the reasons to add some humour to science communication is that it helps grabs people’s attention, makes the scientist more relatable and more memorable, and it helps dispel the idea that “science is boring” (even though, let’s be honest, sometimes it is).
On the other hand, some people might be of opinion that science is a serious matter, and adding some humour might be a distraction. It can lead to misinformation if the message is oversimplified or changed too much. It can increase the problem of elitism if too many inside jokes are used. Finally, it can make the speaker seem unprofessional.
Anyway, the end conclusion seemed to be that you should not try to be funny just for the sake of being funny. Or to show off. If you would like to add some jokes, make sure they are appropriate for the situation and audience. And the speaker, for that matter. If you’re unfunny, better not start making jokes. It will not end well.
Topic #2: combining #scicomm with a research job, how do people do it and do they get acknowledged for it?
Basically, I was wondering about recognition of doing things like science communication and public engagement. It’s quite common for people, especially people early in their career, to do most of this in their “own” time, as an aside to their – already probably quite demanding – research job. Practically everybody I’ve asked about this in person has said the same: lab first, #scicomm on the side. There are many stories about people either dropping #scicomm because they had no time, or leaving research to focus on #scicomm permanently.
But, in my opinion, #scicomm is not some kind of weird hobby! It is an integral part of science and research. I don’t think everybody should be going out to schools or participating in demonstrations on open days, but I don’t think you should be punished for doing so either.
There are many reasons for doing #scicomm. For one, most researchers are publicly funded so it is only correct for them to communicate their research to those that are paying for it. Indeed, for some funding agencies, science communication and public engagement are becoming a requirement. It is also a way to ensure that people that have to make important policy decisions have the best information available. It could be because you want to inspire the next generation of scientists.
In my opinion, it can hardly be a bad thing. It raises the profile of everyone and everything involved: your university, your research topic, science in general, and yourself. So for the people that enjoy spending some of their time on communicating science and engaging people, I feel that it should be properly recognised.
There are some ways this is happening. Both my school as my university have a prize for public engagement *****, which acknowledges peoples efforts and comes with some prize money to fund future endeavours. But this is after the time has been put in. Can there be a way to recognise that it’s not time lost?
After bringing this up in the twittersphere, the solutions are simple: we either need longer days, a time turner, the ability to clone ourselves or to build robot helpers to do some of the work. All very realistic solutions, obviously.
So those were my conclusions after a – frankly quite crazy – week. I’d like to thank @iamscicomm for the amazing opportunity. Now, back to work!
Now, back to work!
* Oooh, it’s 186 now!
** Rotation Curation, also #RotationCuration or #rocur because hashtags are #thabomb, is the concept of rotating the spokesperson on a broad-scoped social media account.
*** Yes, I am #hashtagging every #scicomm mention. Deal with it.
**** Felt like fitting a more original (read: hipster) use of the hash in there…
***** which is how I got my name mentioned by Stephen Fry and this was such a life-determining event that I take absolutely every chance I can to bring it up again.