The saddest cake story


CakeDNARemember when I made a DNA cake that spelled “CAKE”? Shortly after that did the rounds on the internet, people spotted mistakes. The helix was turned in the wrong direction, and I had failed to stay on the same strand in the twist so the colours were wrong in every other segment.

Did it make the cake less fun or delicious? Not really, but I still felt dumb for introducing those errors. I really should know better. I have a PhD in baking — I mean, biochemistry.

So, when I recently had an opportunity to bake a cake for scientists again, I thought this would be a good moment to redo it, and fix the errors.

At work we drew names of the contestants of Great British Bake Off, and the week after “your” contestant left, you’d bring in something you baked. The name I had drawn was Rav, who was known for liking vegan baking, so I thought that’d be a great excuse to also use my favourite vegan cake recipe.

When Rav left the show a few weeks ago, it was my turn to bake, so I set aside several hours of my weekend to prepare everything. I finished the final icing details on Sunday morning, and, as planned, made a correct DNA helix this time. The twelve base pairs encode the four amino acids with the one letter codes “C-A-K-E”, the helix turns the correct way, and I followed the strands in the twists. Everything was perfect!



Except, a few hours after I finished, I wasn’t feeling very well. I started getting a stomach ache that only got worse and worse. At midnight I ended up going to the hospital to find out what was wrong, and around 2AM I was told I had gastroenteritis. I had to stay home from work until I was all better, and, worst of all, I was not allowed to prepare food for other people!

My beautiful cake! Not only could I not go to work myself, but I wouldn’t be allowed to serve the cake to ANYONE! I had to throw it out.

I actually left it in the fridge for a full week until I could bear to part with it (and until I could deal with the concept of “food” and “cake” in general.)

Goodbye, beautiful DNA cake.

Science books about people


For the second episode of this season of SciBookChat I mused a bit on a particular type of science books. I showed three books that in my opinion are more about people than they are about science – Geek Nation, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and How the Hippies Saved Physics.

I like all of these books, but, as I mention in the video, I haven’t really learned any science from them. And that’s okay, because the main story in all of these books is a more personal story. Geek Nation is about scientists in India, and the role that science plays in the country. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about the Lacks family, outdated medical practices, race relations, and the surprising presence of Henrietta Lacks in many modern cell biology labs. How the Hippies Saved Physics is about the influence of 1970s counterculture on the field of (quantum) physics. In all three books, the main subject is people. That they happen to have something to do with science is what makes the books science books, but the science is only secondary.

Watch the video for the full discussion – and to find out what I  think about physicists!

What kind of book is a science book? – SciBookChat


What is a science book? Is it a textbook? A popular science book? Are kids books about science more kids books or science books? What do you expect to find in the science section of a bookstore?

SciBookChat S2E1

The first episode of the second season of SciBookChat went online this morning, and it’s about exactly these questions. In the video, we go on a little tour of Foyles bookstore in London, to compare the arts, travel, music, food and science sections of the store. Of course, nothing can quite compare with the music section, but you have to watch the video to find out why THAT is so special.

As this video shows, there are lots of different types of science books. But perhaps not all of them are what you picture when you think of “science books”. Because SciBookChat is a series about all the ways that science occurs in books,  I interpret “science books” in a very, very broad sense.

Next episode

The next episode of SciBookChat goes up on October 20, and will be about books about scientists (rather than books about science). You can subscribe directly on YouTube if you want to make sure you catch that.

Busy, but organised


scotlandI haven’t done a general update in forever! I’ve been busy (but organised) lately, so this is as good a time as ever for a catch-up blog post. Here’s what I’ve been up to.

TGMI website

One of the main things I’ve been busy with at work is the Transforming Genetic Medicine Initiative (TGMI). This is a Wellcome Trust-funded project involving a group of clinicians and scientists who want to make sure that genetics becomes a streamlined part of medicine. We launched a website earlier this year, and since June we’ve been posting weekly blog posts about topics related to genetic medicine. We also have a mailing list and a Twitter account, so if you’re at all interested in genetic medicine, and want to help us think about it, you now know where to go.


My YouTube channel can be a bit chaotic, with random vaguely science-themed videos mixed with travel videos, but I’m doing something structured with it now. I’ll post a new video every two weeks from next week until the end of the year, in which I discuss science in books. I did a few of these videos last year, and the style is pretty much the same, but this year I have a title screen and a jingle made just for me (by Sam) and a regular schedule, so it’s all a lot more organised. Subscribe, as they say on YouTube.


The latest Doctor Who Fan Orchestra video dropped a few weeks ago. This time, we tackled the theme music from the episodes with Donna Noble as companion, so it goes from upbeat jazzy to emotional “saving the world” pieces. As with all DWFO videos, everyone recorded their own parts at home but the final compilation is a proper symphony.

My regular orchestras, where people rehearse all in the same moment in time and space (how quaint), start again next month, so violin-playing will move in high gear, with concerts in November and December. If you’re in London, make sure to follow me on Twitter to find out when they are, because I’ll likely not mention them on the blog again.

There should also be a new issue of the MusiSci newsletter out in November. Some of the archives are now online, so you can have a look at old issues. If you like getting quarterly updates about the overlapping worlds of scientists and musicians, you can sign up now and get the November one when it comes out.


Lou moved to the USA, but we managed to arrange a virtual MySciCareer meeting. In the past few weeks, we posted two new career stories on the site every week. Follow us on Twitter or check out the site to explore careers for people with science degrees.


In between all these other things I’ve also been writing. I’m working on a few projects I don’t want to talk about yet because they might not all materialise, but I had an article about Pokemon Go and wildlife education on BOLD Blog recently, and I have a different science/pop culture piece coming out elsewhere before the end of the year.

It might not sound like it, because I don’t talk about it much, but writing has actually been taking up most of my spare time. A bit more than music and much more than my online side projects. It just isn’t as visible.

Staying organised

Despite all these things, I’m managing to keep on top of everything and not go crazy – yet. I would love to be able to tell you that I have all these apps and tools that keep me on top of everything, but to be honest those things just add to the stress for me.

I’ve always functioned best with physical to do lists on paper. Crossing off what I’ve done makes me feel much more accomplished than tapping a screen. I usually try apps for a bit and then lose interest and motivation. They don’t capture my attention in the way I need a to-do list to connect with me.

The thing that has stuck with me is bullet journal, which is basically a structured way of keeping to-do lists on paper. I’ve been using this method since July, and it’s perfect for me. My time management and activities are unstructured by nature, and don’t fit nicely into boxes, so a method where I can just make lists as long or short as I need them to be (and can doodle and take random notes and make spreads for all my side projects) is ideal.

I’m also trying to be super effective with my time, because my schedule is so full. I wrote this post on the train to and from work yesterday, and edited/uploaded it in a pub while waiting for other people. When it was done, I could tick off a few items in my bullet journal and feel good about myself.


So I’m busy, but organised. The busy-ness will last until the end of the year at least. I can only hope my newly found organisation skills keep up.


Photo: One of my favourite photos I took this summer.

SciBookChat season 2: science in books


SciBookChatLet’s chat about books and science again!

Last year I made a few videos about science in books. They weren’t book reviews, but they were just me chatting about things that were vaguely related to both science and books. I did one about fake and parody science books (like Giraffes? Giraffes!), one about science in zines, and one about the role that some books have played in our perception of science and scientists.

There were only those three videos to start with, but I now filmed a whole second season, of six more videos (seven, including the intro video).

In the video above I talk about what SciBookChat is, and what kind of other stuff is on my YouTube channel. If you can stand the gesturing and eye-rolling and the sound of my voice, you can subscribe to the YouTube channel directly by clicking this link.

What is it about?

Topics in Season 2 of SciBookChat will include:

  • What exactly is a “science book”? Are they all books that explain science, or is the category broader than that?
  • Using literature references to explain scientific concepts
  • Books about scientists, rather than about science itself
  • …and more!


When? Where? How?

Season 2 will be a lot like season 1, but I’m going to put some more effort into making sure people know what the videos are, and how to find them.

For you, the readers, I’ll write a blog post to go with each video. They will have the video embedded, and written summary of what’s discussed in there. If it sounds interesting, you can then decide to watch the video. The videos are all short, and can mostly be consumed with audio only if that’s what you prefer. So all of you podcast fans who don’t like looking at things can just have the video open in another tab and listen. They’re each only a few minutes long.

For the YouTube audience, I’m using the #booktube tag on social media, and encouraging people to subscribe to the channel. I’ll be using a regular upload schedule, with a new video going up every other Thursday starting on October 6.

I’ll also have my own theme music, composed by Sam Jenkins just for SciBookChat, so the videos will be worth watching just for the tunes!


Subscribe directly on YouTube

How to find images for your science blog – Part 2

How to find images for your science blog

How to find images for your science blogAs I mentioned last week, there are four ways to get images for your science blog.

  1. Look for public domain images or creative commons-licensed images
  2. Make your own
  3. Ask for permission
  4. Buy images


1. Look for public domain or creative commons images

In part 1, I showed how and where to look for public domain images or creative commons-licensed images. This post will go into the other three methods.


2. Make your own images

If you can’t easily find an image you have permission to use, you can always make one yourself. You can take a photo, draw a picture, or use software to design something simple. The possibilities are endless, but I narrowed it down to a few:


Use a photo you took yourself

This is probably the simplest of these suggestions, because you don’t need anything besides a phone with a camera. Still, there are a few things you’ll need to look out for:

  • Permission of human subjects – Do the people in the photo know that their image is being used to illustrate a blog post? You could get in trouble if you don’t let people know what the photo is for, so consider the possibility of someone asking you to take down the image. If it’s a picture of people taken at a conference and your blog post is about that conference, you’re probably okay, as long as the conference itself didn’t have any restrictions in place. Oh, about that…
  • Permission of location/event – Sometimes pictures taken at specific events or locations are for “personal use only”. This will be made clear in the media policy of the event (think: conference, festival) or location (think: museum, zoo). Often that means you can take pictures, and even share them in a photo album, but you’re not always allowed to use those pictures on your blog. It depends on the kind of blog. Sometimes the restrictions will only apply to commercial sites, which is again one of those fuzzy areas I mentioned in the context of creative commons. What exactly is commercial? Sometime there’s an exception for educational outlets, which is equally fuzzy. (Is an educational blog that receives ad income a commercial or an educational outlet?)


Draw something yourself

Okay, maybe taking a photo is not the easiest after all. Maybe drawing something yourself is even easier. Can’t draw? Stick figures are illustrative, too!

Draw on paper and scan it in

See early XKCD comics

Draw with a mouse in the free program that comes with your computer

Hyperbole and a Half got popular with trackpad drawings and Paintbrush (a simple program), so you don’t need fancy graphics programs.

Draw on an iPad

Paper by 53 and a cheap stylus is all you need to get some decent-looking pictures. I’ve used this myself in the Elgar comic.

Draw on a tablet

Turtle2If you don’t have an iPad, a Wacom tablet is actually easier to use, and the cheapest ones are much, much, much cheaper than an iPad. I drew the animals in the “beach bodies” post on a simple Wacom with free graphics software.

Get some graphics software (or even just powerpoint)

For any/all of the above suggestions I recommend having some sort of graphics software to edit images or to draw in directly. Gimp is open source and free and can do everything that photoshop can, but it has a high learning curve. For really basic editing (resizing, cropping, adding basic shapes or combining two images into one) you can even use Powerpoint/Keynote or any other slide presentation program. All the MySciCareer quotes images are done in Keynote, so we just rotate the five colours and quotes and it’s super fast and easy to make an image for each entry.


Online tools to make pretty pictures

This is the section that reveals many bloggers’ secret weapons. There are online tools that you can use to drag and drop images and backgrounds to create some fancy looking things. (Or less fancy things, like the image at the top of this post…). The two I use most are Canva and Piktochart, but there are others like it.



Canva is free to use, but a lot of their preset images cost $1 to use. With a bit of searching you can easily avoid those, though, and just use free elements. More on the paid option below.

Canva has a lot of default sizes and designs for different media platforms, so you can get the right size for a Twitter header image (and it will show you where your profile picture sits) or for an instagram post, but it also has templates for CVs, postcards, and other useful things. I used Canva to make gift cards for friends, menus for Christmas, the header of my quarterly mailing list, and images on some of my posts.



Piktochart specializes in infographics, so it includes a lot of little illustrations (including very diverse ones for people) and nice-looking text banners. There are some free templates for infographic charts. A paid account gets you more templates, and the option to remove the Piktochart logo from your final infographic. I used Piktochart to make the image for this post about genetic testing on the TGMI site.


3. Ask for permission to use images

If you can’t be bothered to create your own image, and you can’t find a suitable image in the public domain or with a creative commons license, you have two options left. One is to ask the creator of an image for permission to use that image.

If you offer to link back to them and to use the image under the terms they provide, this is a very reasonable request for blog posts. People know that you probably don’t have a budget for images. Keep in mind that artist might still say no, or that it can be difficult to track down the right person to ask for permissions.

I have used this route for a few work blog posts in the past. Recently I asked Baylor College of Medicine for permission to use an image. I found out that they were the ones to ask because I’d seen the image I wanted used on a few other sites that mentioned that it came from BCM and was used with permission.

I’ve also asked PhD comics for permission to use images in a post about the film.

“But everyone always uses science comics/illustrations online”, I hear you say.

That’s right, and they either asked the artist for explicit permission, or they’re following their guidelines (which could ask for a link back, or a limit on the size, or a watermark), OR they’re stealing.

Yes, it’s stealing to take someone else’s creation and put it on your own site without any form of permission. If an illustrator’s work is getting you extra traffic and shares, and that doesn’t trickle through to them in anyway, you’re getting your site clicks on the back of their talent. That’s why at the very minimum an artist will ask for a link back or an image tag on Twitter.

To make it easy, some artists have put explicit statements on their site that tell you how you can use their images. You might have to search for it. The aforementioned PHD comics has an email address in their FAQ section. Hyperbole and a Half has information about re-posting images in the FAQ as well. Photographer Alex Wild has an elaborate section on his website about image use.

If you can’t find info on their site, just contact them to ask them whether you can use the image.

Glendon Mellow, one of the bloggers at Symbiartic, uses some standard text to approach people whose artwork he wants to feature on the blog. The text includes information about how the image will be displayed, and how the artist will be credited. Here’s part of that text:

I typically make a thumbnail image that appears on our site’s main page, and sometimes follows the work when people share on Facebook and Twitter etc. We’re pretty careful about attribution on Symbiartic: what links would you like me to add to the post? Twitter, blog, Instagram, Snapchat, portfolio, online shop,…I’ll put links to any and all that you like.


4. Buy images

Your final option is to purchase an image. I left this for the end because it’s BY FAR the most annoying. You thought you could just hand over money and use the image? Oh, no, it can be way more complicated than that. I’ll show a few different examples just to give an idea.



6This is the most user friendly. I mentioned Canva above, as a way to create your own designs. Some image elements (photos or illustrations) cost money, and Canva gives you two options to pay: Either get a subscription, or pay $1 for the right to use that image for the next 24 hours. Within 24 hours you can use that image in as many designs as you want, and once you’ve downloaded the design you’re all set. So for something simple that you can finalise in 24 hours, this is easy and only costs $1. I paid for the image of the book in this design (which doubles as a sneak preview for a thing I’m launching soon. Subscribe on YouTube!)


Stock image sites

iStockphoto prices their images using “credits”. You can prepay for a number of credits, or pay per image. Once paid, you can use the image for whatever you want, for as long as you want. It can’t get any easier. It can get more difficult, though…

Shutterstock offers two kinds of licenses: Standard and Enhanced. For a blog post, the standard license is enough, so don’t worry about the other one.  To use the standard license, you can prepay for a few images, or get a subscription, or a subscription for a whole team. You have to estimate in advance how many images you’re going to need to decide what would be best, but again, for a blog the most basic plan is probably best.

You can purchase stock images through a few other sites as well, but these are the best-known ones.


Rights-managed images

I’ve left this until the very last because this is the most difficult. The two stock image sites above sell you unlimited access to “royalty-free” images. They’re royalty-free because the owner of the image gets a one-time payment from you, and doesn’t get royalties based on how often the image was used. You can also pay to use a “rights-managed” image. Here, the owner of the image is paid proportional to the use of the image: If the image is used in high resolution and get lots of views, they get more than if a tiny image is only seen by a few people.

That means that if you want to pay to use one of those images, you need to consider the size of your audience, and how long you’re using the image for. If you’re including the image in a print magazine, the questions are easy to answer: you know how many copies of that issue are printed, and each issue is printed only once. If you’re putting the image on a blog, this becomes more complicated. How many visitors do you think that post will get? How long is the image staying online?

I looked up the price for a science-themed image in Getty Images, and the cheapest option was £39 for a three-month digital license, or £150 for full editorial use of a small image (for fifteen years). Custom options required filling in a complex form, and the costs get even higher.

And remember, rights-managed images are often images that appeared in the news, or on company websites. You can’t afford those on your blog, so just don’t even think about it and search for a different (free) image first.

Getty realises this, and has a special section on their site, Getty Embed, which allows you to search a subset of their images that are made available for use on non-commercial blogs. Not everything in their catalog is in there, and the image stays hosted on their site, but you can display it on yours. I’ve checked the terms of use and I think I’m allowed to use it in this blog in this context, so here’s a raccoon:



That’s it!

That concludes my two-part crazy long guide to using images on your blog. I know I didn’t mention everything (like more examples of embeddable images from third party sites, or image libraries available to bloggers on larger networks) but those all fall under “permissions” somehow.

Another thing that I didn’t touch on is the concept of “fair use”. It’s a sort of loophole in the (American) legal system that seems to say that you can use an image as long as you talk about that image, but it’s not meant to be used to justify image use, only to use in defence against a copyright claim. It’s super complicated, only really defensible when you explicitly talk about the work (definitely not when you just use an image to illustrate a vaguely related blog post), and you’re best off just not using images that you don’t have rights or permissions for.

How to find images for your science blog – Part 1

Science Blog

Science BlogThis is the first part of a two-part blog post on where and how to find images for (science) blogs. A lot of these tips are easily adaptable for other types of blog posts, or for other purposes (like YouTube videos), but some are a bit science-specific.


There are four ways to get images for your science blog.

Four legal ways, anyway.

  1. Look for public domain images or creative commons-licensed images
  2. Make your own
  3. Ask for permission
  4. Buy images


I’ll go into a bit more detail on each of them, but I’ll have to split it over more than one post. This post covers only the first method. Part 2 will include method 2, 3 and 4.

Method 1 – Look for public domain images or creative commons-licensed images

If you go to Google and do an image search, or if you come across an image somewhere else online, you cannot simply take that image and repost it on your own site. You have to first make sure that the image has the right permissions.


Check the permissions

For an image to be fair game for reposting on your blog, one of the following needs to be the case:


1. The image is in the public domain.

Being in the public domain either means it is so old that any copyright has expired, or that someone has deliberately made the image available to the public domain. Sometimes public domain images have a “CC0” (CC zero) Creative commons license, but other times it will just say “this image is in the public domain” or “no known restrictions” or something along those lines.


2. The image is licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons license.

Which license you are allowed to use depends on your blog and how you use the image:

  • CC-BY – You can use this image as long as you credit the original creator
  • CC-BY-NA – You can use this image as long as you credit the original creator AND you do not alter the image in any way.
  • CC-BY-NC – You can use this image as long as you credit the original creator AND your site is not a commercial site. What “non-commercial” means exactly is not entirely clear, because the person who licensed the image may have meant various things. Basically, if you make money from your blog with ads, or if the blog is a company blog, or if you got paid to write the blog post – proceed with a LOT of caution, even if you believe you’re not directly making money from the image itself. (I personally try to avoid this license because it’s so unclear.)
  • CC-BY-SA – You can use this image as long as you credit the original creator AND you share any adaptations of the image under the same CC-BY-SA license. (Again, I try to avoid this license because it makes things extra complicated: is a blog post with an image an adaptation of that image?)

Combinations of these licenses are also possible.


Finding images

All right, now you know which images you can freely use without asking for additional permission, but where do you find images with the proper license?

There are a number of places you could start looking – it depends a bit on what you’re after. I have a few favourite sources of images. I’m going to do the same search (“raccoon”)  in all four so that you can see the differences and similarities in the types of results and enjoy a plethora of raccoon pictures at the same time.


Filtered Google Image search

When you do a Google image search, you can restrict your search results to only show you pictures that you are allowed to use without permission.


Click “search tools” and then the drop-down menu “usage rights”. I selected “labeled for reuse” here, and found this raccoon. The big downside of Google’s image search is that it doesn’t always explain why the image is “labeled for resuse”. Is it in the public domain? Is it on a blog that someone put a CC-BY license on? I try to find out from the source, and often stick to search results that are very clear about permissions, like Flickr, Pixabay,  or Wikimedia Commons (all discussed below). Most of the raccoon images in my search result came from those sites, but this one is from another page, a free stock photo site which also lists the origin. It’s an image from a US government agency, which had made it available in the public domain, so no credit needed here.




Filtered Flickr search

Like on Google, you can search Flickr images for specific licenses. I’m searching for “all creative commons” here




Flickr shows me my own photos first, but that’s a topic for a future post, so I’m not looking at those. Here’s someone else’s cute raccoon. I can embed images directly from Flickr, but I don’t want to rely on Flickr to show my pictures, so I reuploaded it. I usually credit Flickr photos by name of the author, and a link to the photo on their Flickr page (linked both in text and through the image itself).


Credit: Andy Langager on Flickr.


Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons images are uploaded by volunteers, and they should include information about how to cite the source of each image. Here’s what it looks like for the raccoon below:


It’s public domain, so no credit needed.



There were a LOT of other great raccoon images on Wikimedia Commons, but many had an SA license, and as I described above, I try to avoid those because my blog itself doesn’t have an SA license.

In general,Wikimedia Commons is the best source for animal pictures, because they tend to bring up the correct animal, link to more information, and sort the images by habitat.



Pixabay has images from various other sources, both images that are free, as well as images you can buy from sponsor sites. This raccoon was a CC0 image so doesn’t need any credit:




Wellcome Images

Wellcome is a great source of images related to the biomedical sciences. Not all of their images are free to use. You can use all of the historic ones and the ones that are labeled a CC-BY. For their collection of rights-managed images, you have to pay a license fee on hi-res images (more on that in part 2 of this series of posts) or you can use the low-resolution version under a CC-BY-NC-ND license. Since I have ads on this blog, I’m not sure if I qualify for the CC-BY-NC-ND images, so I’ll look through the search results for the public domain or CC-BY images only. There were only three “raccoon” images, all for “raccoon dogs” and only one that was CC-BY. It’s a weird little netsuke figurine from Japan.  Because it was CC-BY, I used the credit as described on their page.


L0064881 Ivory netsuke, Japan, 1701-1900

Credit: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images

When I saved this image, a lot of meta information was carried along with it, and (free) Wellcome Images always come with that little bar at the bottom.

Wellcome Images is not very user friendly compared to the other sites, and a very specialised source. It’s not great for raccoon images, obviously, but it has lots of medical and biomedical images, including many historical ones.



Figshare has two sources of images: those uploaded directly by researchers, or those that appeared in journals that are affiliated with Flickr. Despite their name, there are lots of different file types here, not just “figures”, so you have to restrict your search result to “images”, like this:




Most of the image results will be graphs, because they’re figures from papers, but here’s an interesting raccoon picture. The image information suggests that it’s associated with an article in PLOS Biology, and that it’s CC-BY, so I’m going to need to credit the source (in this case, the article.) I can click “cite” on the Figshare page to get a citation, but because I couldn’t figure out who the authors were, I clicked through to the article. The whole article appears to be an editorial or a highlight, without any author names, so I just took the credit they provided. It looks like the image was perhaps made in-house by PLOS, so there are no authors to cite. (This shows how confusing it can get when you need to credit an image!)


Image source: (2005) Forecasting the Path of a Raccoon Rabies Epidemic. PLoS Biol 3(3): e115. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030115



NASA images should also pop up in Google image searches or Flickr searches, but I wanted to highlight them separately because they’re a huge source of space images that are mostly free to use on science blogs. The full multimedia guidelines for NASA are on their website, with links to their various galleries. Not a great place for raccoon images, but such a vast source of information that I still found one!

A search for “raccoon” in the NASA media galleries turned up an image of Amelia Earhart wearing a raccoon fur coat. It’s also in their Flickr albums, and there it’s easy to find the restrictions: “no known restrictions” means you can use it anywhere with no explicit credit (because it’s a historic image).



That’s it for part 1! Part 2 will include a few ways to make your own images, and some tips on asking for permission or buying images.

Back to school

Back to school

Back to school


[Scroll to bottom for book giveaway! – NOW CLOSED]


Even though it’s been a long time since I was in any form of full-time school, September still feels like “back to school” season to me. Everyone is back from holiday and ready for a few months of hard work until the end of the year.


Online courses

September is  also the time of year where a lot of free online courses or MOOCs are starting up again, so I had a look to see what’s available.

I’m already signed up for this Whole Genome Sequencing course, because I’m currently doing communication for the TGMI. I hope the course will help me get a bit more insight into some of the things people are doing in related areas, as well as observe how the course is managed and how  the complexities of WGS are presented. It starts September 19. Join me if you want!

Here are some other MOOCs I found that I thought looked interesting, but won’t have time for (or have already done).

Introduction to Communication Science – starts September 5. I’ve taken this, and I enjoyed it!

Get started with online learning – starts October 3rd.

Medicine and the arts: Humanizing healthcare – Just started, you can catch up

Digital storytelling: filmmaking for the web – just started, you can catch up

Design and make infographics – just started, you can catch up


myscicareer_greyscale_232x130px_transp_bgIf you’re currently in a science undergraduate or graduate program and are starting to think about the scary future beyond school, have a look at all the stories shared on the MySciCareer site by people with a science background. Lots of different jobs there already, and we will soon be adding even more! Lou and I have been busy sourcing new content, which should be added over the next few weeks.

(Lecturers and career advsiors: If you’re involved in talking to science students and grad students about careers and have used the MySciCareer site as a resource, please let me know!)


CareerOpBioSci_fBook giveaway! [NOW CLOSED!]

Finally, nothing says “new school year” like books.

A while ago I reviewed the book “Career Options for Biomedical Scientists”. It’s a useful book for current PhD students in the life sciences, but I already have a career. The book is still in very good condition, so I’m happy to pass it on to a current PhD student!

To get a chance of receiving the book, leave a comment on this post before September 9. Any comment will do, but if you want something to write about you can use your comment to share some of your plans for the next “school year”. I’ll draw a name from the comments after that to determine the winner of the book. Make sure to enter your email address with your comment so that I can reach you if you win. (Email addresses are not shown on the site, but I can see them and contact you if needed).

Serious squishy cow chat


Sometimes I forget that not everyone who sees my tweets has had access to my entire back catalog of online ramblings. I did a poll a while ago and discovered that many of my Twitter followers don’t know Squishy Cow, or haven’t seen my Lego videos. Both are some of my favourite science things I’ve done online, and (not coincidentally) both contain a heavy dose of silliness.

So, even though my current pinned tweet is a link to an equally silly piece of scicomm, I shouldn’t be surprised when people who see my tweets in their timeline, don’t immediately place them in the context of “me”.

When I reacted to the Guardian piece that’s doing the rounds, I considered it a given that everyone would know that I obviously love non-serious pursuits and scicomm and I think that everyone else who loves it should also do it. It didn’t always get understood that way. People thought I was saying that scientists shouldn’t do scicomm.


2016-08-07 10.35.54Squishy Cow: “Hahahaha!”

Eva: “What?”

Squishy Cow: “Why would they think YOU of all people don’t think scientists should do comms?”

Eva: “Because they don’t know who I am. Worse, Squishy, they don’t even know YOU.”


Eva: “Your hat came free with a smoothie bottle. I never even took the label off.”

Squishy Cow: “I am offended and wish to retreat from the rest of this post.”

Eva: “Fine, I’ll continue without you.”


So, yeah, please do comms! All I’m saying is that this anonymous academic is not alone, and that there are other people like them who just want to focus on research. They should be able to do that if they want to, just like how I was able to decide not to do research anymore and instead focus only on scicomm.

It’s a pretty measured opinion, I think, and it’s very much in line with how I usually talk about science and science communication. The entire MySciCareer site is based on the philosophy that everyone is different.

I have worked with enough scientists in the past years to know that some love putting all their spare time into side projects or education and others just want to do one job and that job is research. Haven’t we all had at least one professor in undergrad who clearly didn’t want to teach but “had to”? That’s those people. They do great research – but nothing else. It’s fine. Part of science communication is to recognise that and to work with them. Show interest in their work. Think about their work. Communicate it for them where needed, but leave them work if they don’t want to get involved themselves. Don’t force them. These are never going to be the people who do cool demos at science fairs and they’re not the people who chat on Twitter.

Instead, people who do chat on Twitter are obviously biased about that article. Just because you (and I) don’t want to be… let’s just say it for what we think it is, boring, doesn’t mean that others don’t want to live a very uniform work life (or keep work and fun completely separate). No amount of #seriousacademic tweets is going to convince them otherwise. If anything, it’s alienating.

People do occasionally change their minds. I met a Cambridge professor a few years ago who was very skeptical about the idea of using blogs to talk about science. He believed that being online during work hours would distract his students from research. A few years later he now has his own blog and is active on Twitter. Nobody pressured him. He was just shown the possibilities and realized the potential on his own.

Many others don’t change their minds. Or they try Twitter because they see people use it, and then realize it’s not for them after all. If you don’t like it, don’t use it. The only important thing is to make sure people are aware of all the tools that are available to them, and that they know what their colleagues are using. Then it’s their choice to join or not.

Sure, don’t make fun of people who do want to use Twitter and other social media tools, but likewise, don’t make fun of people who DON’T.


Squishy Cow: “Are you done?”

Eva: “Yes.”

Squishy Cow: “Can you post some of my pictures on Twitter now? It would be very on brand.”

Eva: “You know what? I think I might…”

Book Review: The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who

2016-07-09 16.31.48

2016-07-09 16.31.48The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who
Simon Guerrier and Dr. Marek Kukula
BBC Books, Paperback (2016)


I didn’t start watching Doctor Who until the rebooted series in 2005. I missed the original episodes because I wasn’t born until well into the era of the Fourth Doctor, and because I spent the rest of the initial series in a country that didn’t care about this strange Time Lord in his blue box.

I still haven’t seen the older episodes, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying or understanding The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who. To understand the book, you don’t need to know every episode, as long as you are aware of the general concept of the show, in which an Earth-loving alien Doctor travels with companions through time and space.

The book is divided into three section that address the three different story aspects you encounter in the TV show: Space, time, and humanity. Each section has five chapters that touch on scientific ideas related to concepts in Doctor Who, and each of these chapters is preceded by an original Doctor Who story, covering all incarnations of the Doctor and many of his companions. The fictional stories are written by fifteen guest authors, and are loosely related to the topics in the non-fiction chapters written by Doctor Who novelist Simon Guerrier and astronomer Dr. Marek Kukula.

The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who does not try to impose scientific explanations for the unlikely events shown on screen. Instead, it uses the framework of the world of Doctor Who to discuss related scientific topics. That’s not just limited to referring things from within the show (e.g. what does time travel have to do with worm holes?) but it also highlights the progress of scientific discovery in the context of the history of Doctor Who. New scientific discoveries and world events inspired the writers directly, but also indirectly, as our collective knowledge of the world has changed a lot in the time that Doctor Who has been on TV. The Doctor was already at the end of his second incarnation when we put people on the moon in 1969!

The Doctor was already at the end of his second incarnation when we put people on the moon in 1969

That, for me, was the best part of the book: Being made to consider that this show was on the air before the moon landing, before the first Earth Day celebration, before the Voyager probes, before the end of the Cold War, before large scale DNA sequencing, and before CD players, tablets and smartphones. We’ve been fantasizing about unknown worlds for so long, it can be easy to forget how much we are actually learning about our own.

As a very broad overview of scientific concepts ranging from multiverses to regeneration, the book only briefly touches on certain topics, but The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who is not a book to learn in-depth science from. It’s a book for people who really like Doctor Who, and who want some real-world context for the show. For me, it also highlighted some episodes of the older series that I want to check out, and yes, I’m fully aware that I now have access to on-demand TV-watching technology that didn’t yet exist when those episodes aired.