Tag Archives: science

Are You Ready for Some Outreach?

OK, yea, I agree. Regardless of how catchy the tune might be to you and me, I think it is unlikely that Hank Williams Jr and “all his rowdy friends” will be belting out “Are you ready for some science outreach?” any time soon. But the thing is, I like fall sports the best of any of them, and I really like science – and I can see a connection between the two. You may think it’s a stretch, but give me a chance to explain…

Just like football fans preparing for tail gating, or choosing their fantasy team, science fans need to prepare their game plan to talk science to the general public. Unless you are just a natural-born conversant – and one or two of the scientists that I have met aren’t, including yours truly -  science doesn’t stream from your lips in a way that is interesting and compelling to “Joe the plumber”. Or even your mom, or mother-in-law, or any number of other interested-but-not-entrenched-in-science persons. On any given day you may hear a statement that would be a perfect segue into a science outreach chat, if only you had the perfect entrance story or anecdote to share with them. As the saying goes – one anecdote really can be so much more engaging to the public than a plethora of data points.

One example of game-planning outreach is what we do here at OpenHelix everyday – we’ve got years of training experience & we’ve done NHGRI-funded research on effective training mechanisms. We know where to make a tutorial script conversational, and where to keep it tight in order to maintain our audiences’ attention. When we develop a tutorial on a bioscience resource, we learn that resource and then carefully plan out how to show things and explain things in a way that eases our users over the “concept speed bumps” that really slowed our understanding of the tool.

So what’s there to plan for science outreach? Considered properly, there are a million science subjects that come up in everyday discussions – future jobs, the economy of going green, climate change & evolution, astrobiology, homeopathy, etc. And if you plan ahead you can collect compelling stories associated with each that show the value of science. The thing that got me thinking about all this was reading a letter in Science shortly after having a conversation with someone who could not get a certain blood pressure prescription filled due to limited national drug supplies. The letter is entitled “Manufacturing Decline Yields Drug Shortages“, which  was written in response to the Science News & Analysis article “Shortages of Cancer Drugs Put Patients, Trials at Risk” by Jocelyn Kaiser.  For full disclosure the letter was written by two people at Vertex Pharmaceuticals, so they may not be 100% unbiased, but what they said made sense to me. They suggest that one of the causes for drug shortages is the neglect of high-tech manufacturing capabilities within the United States. They feel that the business model of domestic innovation and foreign production is a flawed approach, because it not only encourages innovation to follow production going forwards, it also renders US citizens at risk of drug shortages today.

Almost everyday I hear about the importance of high-tech manufacturing in America because of my husband’s work, and read all sorts of articles on drug developments, etc. When I did a blog post on pedigree drawing software a while back I got to learn all about “drug pedigrees“, which are production tracking data that documents who has handled a drug at every moment of every step of its existence from initial production until it reaches a consumer hands. This is to reduce the chance of consumers getting dangerous counterfeit pharmaceuticals. In spite of this,  I hadn’t made the connection between drug shortages and the government’s support of high-tech manufacturing in the USA. I’m not sure  many people in the general public make the connection either.

OK, so now I might be ready for that discussion, but I’ve still got a lot of other subjects to plan out. How about you? Are YOU ready for some science outreach?

PS, I’ve posted links below to a few outreach efforts that I think are cool. Feel free to add your favorites through the comments!

Rock Stars of Science – http://www.rockstarsofscience.org/

Science Cheerleader – http://www.sciencecheerleader.com

NHGRI on You Tube (some of this is for the public, other is ‘geeks only’ stuff) – http://www.youtube.com/genometv

FoldIt, protein folding game – http://fold.it/portal/

EDIT: I have bumped this to the top in celebration of the return of MNF :)

iPad app for moving molecules

Found this from Wired on Friday, iPad Lets Scientists Drag, Pinch and Swipe Real Molecules . It’s an app that allows scientists to manipulate molecules with an optical tweezer using the iPad as an interface. Quite a fascinating app and the video is interesting.

Got me to thinking, how is and could a tablet computer be used in biological science (bench or otherwise)? I wrote about iPhone apps before.

I have an iPad, and I use it a lot for reading news, reading books, catching up on email, watching movies. I find it’s potential though much more intriguing than what I’m using it for.

There are some great biology research-related apps I use. I use Papers (opens iTunes) to read and annotate research papers, and I have the Nature and PLoS reader apps, but it feels to me that developers have only mined the surface of what one could do with a handheld touch-screen tablet (be it iPad or Slate or…). Or at least what it seems you should able to do based on Star Trek movies :D.

I can see an app for keeping a lab book (there are notebook apps, but I want something geared towards lab notes. I can see an app for manipulating multiple sequence alignments (kind of like JalView) or even a game like Fold It on the iPad for multiple sequence aligns. In fact, why not Fold it on the iPad or tablet. Thought he UCSC Genome Browser can be viewed using the browser on the iPad, I can see a suped up GenomePad for the tablet. How about a personal genomics app?

Have any ideas or apps that you use for research or would like to see?

Women in Science, ctd.

Mary wrote about this recently, and it rightly remains a topic of conversation: Women in Science.

PNAS recently had an article entitled, “Understanding the current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science.” suggests that today’s reasons for the underrepresentation of women in (math intensive) sciences is less due to active discrimination and more due, as they write,

…primarily to factors surrounding family formation and childrearing, gendered expectations, lifestyle choices, and career preferences—some originating before or during adolescence

and that to alleviate the  differential, we must look to that cause.

Wired science has a good synopsis of this article and Mike the Mad Scientist has an hypothesis, though as he admits it’s purely anecdotal,

women scientists are often loaded with jobs that best could be described as “cleaning up the mess.” Things like god awful committee work and other ‘service’ commitments. Even as post-docs and graduate students, women, in my experience, disproportionately shoulder ‘teamwork’ burdens in labs that men do not.

I’m not sure I see this in my own anecdotal experiences, but it would definitely make a fascinating study if one could design some objective measure of ‘cleaning up the mess.’  Perhaps take ‘teamwork’ measures (committee membership, outside service commitments) and compare genders in the same workstages (grad students, post docs, pre-tenured, etc).

In our own anecdotal experience, we conduct genomics training workshops across the country and internationally (Singapore, Morocco, Iceland, NYC, Kansas City MO, LA, DC, Huntsville Alabama, San Francisco, Boston and the list goes one) in many different types of institutions (universities, government research and private institutions, etc) and a broad range of scientists (students, postdocs, early and late career researchers). I could say (with data :), that the slim majority of our workshop attendees are women in total and in nearly every single location (including Morocco and Huntsville :D).

This is not to say that women are not underrepresented in biological sciences. The data suggest they are. It could be that women or more likely to seek educational opportunities and thus sign up for workshops at higher rates, or that there is equal representation of women in biological sciences at the early states (grad students, postdocs) and that representation dwindles in later stages of career. My purely anecdotal observation of our workshops suggests it might be the latter (most, but surely not all of our attendees are ‘early-stage’), and that would definitely square with the data. Perhaps we should add to our survey some questions about gender and career stage, just for interest sake?

Women and minorities in Biology

We give a lot of workshops and presentations. Several years ago, a scientific colleague expressed to us his skepticism that there was a large percentage of the participants that were women. Of course, it we knew that something like 50% of Ph.D. candidates were women, but the percentage of those who a) went on to post-grad research and b) were interested in bioinformatics and genomics was in questions perhaps.

So we’ve been counting ever since to put numbers to our contention :). The percentage of participants at our genomics resources workshops and presentations who were female has consistently been around or over 50%. There are several ways to explain that, but the simplest? 50% of new post-grad scientists are women.

A new report released (warning: pdf file) by the Council of Graduate Schools today says that 50.9% of doctorates awarded in the biological and agricultural sciences in 2008-9 were to women (interestingly, 60% of masters went to women in the same year). In engineering, it’s still male-dominated at 78.4% male, but that number is falling also.

There is some other interesting data in the report. The number of doctorates (all disciplines) awarded has risen every year, but the annual rise has been greater for women (5.5%) than men (2.1%). Additionally, the total graduate enrollment of racial/ethnic minorities has risen at a much faster pace than the racial majority (in biological sciences: a 7.4-8.4% annual increase from 1999-2009 for Asian, Latino, African-American, American Indian students, compared to a 1.7% annual increase for white students). I couldn’t find the total percentage for biological sciences (it’s a big report), but the total percentage of graduate students in all disciplines is 13.6% for African Americans (All these reported are for US citizens and permanent residents).

Why is this a good thing?

Other than diversity for diversity’s sake (and I believe there is definitely a strength in diverse backgrounds, perceptions and opinions tackling a problem), it’s also a matter of the efficient use of resources, to put it very coldly.

Say you need 100 excellent minds to work on a problem. You have a population of 1000 to choose from, but you limit that choice to 50% by some random criteria that has nothing to do excellence of mind :). You will find 100 excellent minds, but not the 100 most excellent minds. If you open it to the entire population, that top 100 excellent minds will be the best possible.

So, the increasing percentages of women and minorities in graduate work and post-graduate research only bodes well for the quality of the nation’s science. We are beginning to pull from the entire pool, not just less than half of it.

I would like to see what those percentages are in genomics and bioinformatics, but alas, those numbers are not in this report.

hattip: GenomeWeb Daily Scan

Moroccan Science

Al Akhawayn University, Ifrane Morocco

Last week I attended and taught a workshop for the Moroccan American Society for Life Sciences (Biomatec-US) at their 2nd International Workshop and 9th Annual Meeting, in Ifrane Morocco.

I was thoroughly impressed. Impressed with Morocco, Moroccan Scientists and Moroccan students. I had the opportunity to interact with all three. First this students. I taught three workshops, including a tour of genomic resources and two how-to’s for the UCSC Genome Browser and Table Browser. All were enthusiastically received. But more than that I was impressed by the enthusiasm these students showed for genomics and bioinformatic research. After each talk and later in the day, I was barraged with questions and requests (which I love). Their enthusiasm for science matches or surpasses any other group of science students I’ve met in my 20+ year career in biology. In addition to that, I met several students who I was able to discuss their research with a bit.

Also, I was able to discuss research in Morocco with several Moroccan scientists informally and attend a roundtable discussion about advancing Moroccan science, specifically biological and bioinformatics research. Moroccan scientists, both within and outside of Morocco, are doing worldclass research, including my host of course. The research done within Morocco and by the Moroccan ‘diaspora’ of scientists (there were Moroccan scientists from the US, Europe and the Middle East there), seems to be a ripe network that, together with the enthusiasm of the students, is a great resource for that nation.

If the level of research and enthusiasm of the researchers and students are any indication, Moroccan science will be making great strides in the years to come. Of course, this isn’t anything new I’m sure, just new to me :D.

I learned (relearned) two things on this trip. The world is very small, and very big. I met several people who with whom I had crossed paths with before or who we had mutual friends. There was the Moroccan scientist who I briefly met in Germany while doing a postdoc there and the Moroccan student who knew someone I knew from Qatar. I was asked to talk briefly and the roundtable discussion and I mentioned a virtual African conference I had given a workshop at, and that I thought there was a Moroccan hub at that conference. Sure enough, one of the scientists at the discussion had attended my workshop (and had good words for it :D). Ok, you might say, that’s the ‘world’ of science. Well, it got down to even the woman I met in the hotel who was a Fulbright scholar doing research on Berber and Arabic music… and the man who gave me a ride from the conference the last evening, who just happened to be her Moroccan supervisor.

And it’s a huge world with a lot to discover and awe my sometimes jaded self (rarely, but I can be there). I never had heard of Argan oil before,

Street & shops in the medina of Fes, Morocco

traditionally produced from seeds collected from the feces of goats (today it’s more likely collected and processed by more modern methods :), or even considered touring the magical medina of Fes (to which I MUST return). I had no inkling of the existence of Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, a small liberal arts school in the cool (it snows) mountains of Morocco in Ifrane (why do I want to keep writing that as iFrane :D? ). Beautiful campus.

The other thing that came to mind while attending this conference and speaking with Moroccan scientists is the potential (and unnoticed reality) of the research possibilities outside of the US-European-Japanese triangle. Of course India and China are producing great research more and more over the years, but there are another 100 or so countries out there with another few billion people with huge potentials. Of course these smaller countries have always produced great scientists, but I was beginning to think that genomics and bioinformatics is beginning to assist smaller countries ‘leapfrog’ biological research much as cell phone technology allowed some developing countries to ‘leapfrog’ from traditional telephone lines (expensive, hard to do) to wireless (less expensive). Biological research has traditionally be resource intensive: labs, larger universities, equipment. Bioinformatics and genomics research, though still requiring infrastructure, has a lower barrier of entry I believe. I made a comment in my talk, “There is no lack of data,” and it’s true. The amount of data available for analysis is staggering. The number of publicly available tools and databases is overwhelming. One doesn’t have to do “big science” in genomics (though there sure is that) to do world-class research. Thar’s research gold in them thar data hills (sorry for the reference to the California gold rush, I _do_ live in what was the center of it all). Gold that can be mined by any individual, lab or nation with a bit of education and enthusiasm.

I hope to return next year to Morocco and next years conference. I have a lot more to learn :D. And maybe I can teach a bit too.

Librarians and Science, discuss

A discussion well worth having. Dorothea Salo at “The Book of Trogool’s” recent post on Science Online 2010 (which one of us attended) mentions an interesting exchange she (a librarian) had:

Interlocutor: “So what do you do?
Me: “I’m a librarian.”
Interlocutor: *lengthy pause* So… what are you doing here exactly?

Er, what? A conference about science communication? How on earth can that not be imagined to intrigue a librarian?

This, ladies and gentlemen. THIS. Right here. This disconnect is the number-one threat to science librarianship today—perhaps to all academic librarianship. How can science libraries persist when scientists haven’t the least notion that libraries or librarians are relevant to their work?

I noticed a similar discussion going at STELLA (manifested in topics on embedding, the library of the future and science 2.0). My basic take on this is that researchers are are going to need physical libraries less and less (do they really need them now?) and librarians more and more (but they don’t seem to realize that). I commented as such on the post above.

Deepak Singh has asked a similar question today, and started a discussion.

Learn.Genetics (TM)

There are some great sites out there to learn the basics. Most of our readers might not need to learn those themselves, but they might need to teach them or at least give out resources to people who need (or should learn) them. The University of Utah has a great site: Learn.Genetics (TM).

And the “Cell Cize and Scale” interactive flash is cool.

And while I’m at it there is a good intro to Essentials of Genetics at Scitable (and we’ve had a tip of the week on Scitable Classrooms before you might to check out so you can create a class on Genetics if you so desire).

Science & Media, was it better 'then'?

A while back, we attended the North Carolina Science Blogging Conference (now named  ScienceOnline) and I had a stream of thoughts about almost every thing I attended. It was a great conference, and we hope to attend next year. I wrote this post soon after, but never actually posted, so here it is because after rereading it, I still agree with myself (hey, that’s actually a less frequent occurrence than you’d expect). This was in response to a panel on Framing Science (I can not find the old site, which seems defunct now, with links to the forums, etc. If anyone has that archive, please let me know)

Let me say, I agree with the basic premise that citizens in society, media and the political realm need, unequivocally require, a better understanding of science. If there ever was an age that needs it, it’s now: climate change, personalized genomics, health care, stem-cell research, evolution in classrooms and so much more. I also agree with the basic premise behind the article in Science by Nisbet and Mooney (the latter of which was one of the panel members): Framing Science, it would be helpful to find scientists focusing more on how to make complex topics relevant to the public.

One of the premises of the first speaker of the panel mentioned above, Jennifer Jacquet of Shifting Baselines, seemed to be that as a society we were more scientifically literate, or at least aware, and that the media then was better reporting science in the era of Sputnik. I’m not so sure this is the case.:

“Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson: You find the present tense and the past perfect”

Continue reading

science blogging conference

We are here at the science blogging conference this morning. It starts in 30 minutes. I’m looking forward to attending several sessions. First one im attending is on “open science” or how the Internet has changed science. I just wrote a post about that :). The next session I’m going to will be on teaching science online. Then there is the making your blog more interactive. Last are the general sessions. I’ll report on them all later. Right now I’m testing out my iPhone blog posting interface :)

EDIT by Mary: I’m watching this conference remotely on UStream.tv from this link: http://ustream.tv/channel/waynesuttontv