News and updates!

Since I’ve been quiet on here for a while, here’s an update on things I’ve done/written, and then we’ve got all the self-promotion out of the way for a while. But first, something I’m going to do this week!

Story Collider
I’ll be telling a story spanning a few years of high school and undergrad at this week’s Story Collider in London (Wednesday night at The Book Club). Story Collider is an amazing show and podcast where people tell personal stories about science. The speakers come from all walks of life, but all stories are somehow related to science. To attend the London event, you can buy a ticket for only £5. If you can’t go to this event but still want to give them money, no problem: Here’s their Patreon page, and here is a list of shows elsewhere in the world.

octopusThe Finch and Pea
I’ve written many posts since the Yellowstone post I last linked from here. Some of these even contain info about trips I recently went on: the Duke Lemur Center and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I also wrote about Gallifrey and about the dark side of the moon – that last one was probably my favourite post I’ve done this year. In general, if you want to know about my travels – real or imaginary or on the wish list – you should read The Finch and Pea.

Work
I spoke about open science publishing at the Cambridge Science Festival and at an event for Spanish researchers in the UK last month, and I co-hosted a meetup in Cambridge. Phew! I was also sick with mono (glandular fever) for all of these, and they took up all my energy, but were well worth it. Great people at all three events!

Science Online
I was at Science Online for the first time since 2009. Caught up with some people I hadn’t seen since then, and with some I only met online, and with new people, and people I see quite regularly but still never enough. Launched MySciCareer. Talked about science careers and about publishing and listened to lots of interesting people talk about lots of interesting other things. I dressed as a Tardis for the Intergalactic dinner and won dinosaur cookie cutters in the costume contest. Nevertheless, it was a bit weird. I have many thoughts about many things related to the community and conference, and this is not the place/time to hash them all out.

Happy Easter(nblot)!

What better day to resurrect a blog than Easter, especially if that blog is called easternblot.

Of course nobody is going to read anything posted on Easter, so for now please enjoy my latest obsession. Videos of raccoons stealing things!

Raccoon stealing cat food:

Raccoon stealing door mat:

Another raccoon stealing another door mat:

Raccoon stealing shoes:

MySciCareer launch! Personal stories about science careers.

myscicareer_greyscale_232x130px_transp_bgTomorrow I’m moderating the #ScioAlt discussion at Science Online, about “alternate” careers in science. I don’t really like the word “alternate”/“alternative” when it comes to science careers. I started my PhD knowing that I didn’t want to run my own lab, but wanted to learn more about scientific research than the few months I had done so far.

The career I wanted was one that involved science, and where I got to write and give talks. That is exactly what I’m doing right now. It’s not an “alternative”; it’s what I planned to do.

But that’s my story. Everyone else will have a different path. Some graduates eventually become professors, some move to industry, some switch careers at a later stage, some end up on a particular career track by accident. Every science graduate has their own story to tell. And for the past few months, Lou Woodley and I have been working hard to get these sorts of stories in one place.

Today we launched MySciCareer – a website that showcases first-person stories about science careers. Our launch content contains a mix of people in a variety of different jobs. They previously talked or wrote about those jobs, and the interviews or blog posts were already online, but you had to know where to look. MySciCareer is a one-stop shop for any first-person stories about science careers.

I showed a small sneak peak of the site when I spoke at the Naturejobs Career Expo in September (see slide 34), but we’ve made a lot of progress since then! We’ll regularly be adding more content, and there is already a lot to see on the site. Lou describes how the site works on her blog, but you can probably figure it out by clicking around.

The MySciCareer logo is designed by Ricardo Vidal, and the quote layout and colours were designed by Lou and me. The launch content on the site contains 17 quotes from a range of different sources, who have kindly given us permission to use the extracts you find on the site. Do make sure to visit the original pages to read the full content of each article or interview.

If you would like your own career path featured on MySciCareer, drop us a line! There’s a contact form on the site, and we’re on Twitter and Facebook.

If you post content elsewhere that you’d like to be part of the science careers conversations, please add the #myscicareer hashtag - this will work on all major social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Storify, Instagram and Flickr.

So, please take a look at the site, send us your feedback, spread the word and let us know which stories we’re missing. We’re intending this to be a growing collection of resources so if you’d like to contribute we’d love to hear from you.

We talk a lot about talking about science

It’s 6AM and I’m wide awake, because my bank did not realise that I’m at a conference in California to talk to scientists about peer review and thought 4:45 would be a great time to call me. Thanks to them, I was already awake when my iPad started pinging at me for every mention I got in a Twitter thread about a possible tweetup for science communication types in London that I unwittingly got included in. And now that I was properly awake, I might as well catch up on reading.

While tweeting about the biophysics conference to a following of mainly scientists, I’d seen several people get riled up about a column in the New York Times, so I decided to figure out what the fuss was about. From the tweets I saw, people seemed offended about an accusation that academics don’t do more outreach to the public. Since I’m seeing most of them at the Science Online conference next week, I thought I’d better get up to speed on the source of the outrage.

In his NYT column, Nick Kristof writes about professors, who are not part of greater discussions outside of academia. I put some consideration into that second comma in the previous sentence, but the difference between all professors and those professors who are not part of greater discussions outside of academia is so small that it only made a subtle difference. That’s the point of the column: very few professors are engaged with the non-academic world. Kristof points out that this inherent to the reward system. There is usually no reward to spend time doing outreach, and only penalization when an academic spends less time on their work.

I carefully wrote “professors” and “academia” above, because there are huge differences between different academic disciplines. This is also addressed in Kristof’s column: for example, he points out that economists are more likely to step out and interact with the world outside the ivory tower. He also mentions “some sciences” as an exception to the rule.

But I’d say that even in the sciences most academics don’t engage much with the public. Next week will be my third visit to the Science Online conference. I haven’t been in five years, but I know many of the other attendees. They’re the usual suspects. Science communication is almost a discipline of its own, where those people active in it have formed their own community and attends their own conferences to talk about it. Yes, there is also a large emphasis on science outreach at several other large conferences, such as the AAAS Meeting and the SfN Meeting, but those large conferences are not usually the conferences that are most important to an academic’s tenure progress. The conferences that are the most crucial to an academic making progress in their career are the smaller ones, where speakers dare to present their newest findings, knowing that the small audience are collaborators, not communicators. This is where they get feedback on their work, and plan their next joint grant applications. The big ones are social events, and, increasingly, places to discuss science communication.

The science communication community is great, and the academics within that community are doing an amazing job of combining a career in academic with public outreach, but Kristof is right: this is the exception. It’s not true for most scientists, especially not those beyond postdoc-level, and it’s not true for most other fields of academia.

I ended up in the science communication community because I did lots of outreach when I was still in the lab. I blogged, I visited schools, I had a side gig writing about the science in a TV show. I didn’t have much interest in doing research, so I left the lab, but I stayed connected to academia. I now work for a scientific journal, so I mainly talk to researchers. I tell them about our novel method of doing peer review, about the importance of data sharing, and, for those that do it, I let them know that they can even publish their science communication papers with us. I write emails, visit institutes, and attend conferences. That, talking to academics, is my job as Outreach Director. I’m very aware that that is “outreach” only to a very specific audience.

One day when I was coming home, my neighbour, taking a tea break outside his corner store, asked me what my job is. I couldn’t explain. He doesn’t know that academics need to publish papers to progress in their career. He has never heard of peer review, let alone about post-publication peer review. He probably never attended any sort of conference, let alone a scientific one. For all my work doing outreach about science, I wasn’t able to explain the culture of scientific academia and how it was intrinsically linked to my job. The whole system was unrelated to any of his daily experiences, and I struggled to find a summary or analogy that made sense.

“I work for a magazine for scientists”, I offered, thinking it was the most satisfactory explanation I could offer in the time I was opening my front door. “Can I read it?” Technically, yes. It’s open access. But I wouldn’t recommend it as casual reading for non-scientists. “I don’t think you would like it very much. It’s written for other scientists.”

And that’s probably true of most of what I’ve ever done in any form of outreach. Even when I was doing outreach about science (rather than about scientific publishing), it was mainly seen by people who sought it out – and I’m sure they were often other scientists, or high school students interested in science.

Really engaging with “the public(s)” is hard, and takes time, and there are reasons why very few academics take on the responsibility. It’s part of the culture of academia, and I think that Kristof’s column is addressing that culture, and not blaming individual professors for not trying hard enough. Before patting ourselves on the back for getting it right, I think we need to be aware that when we’re at Science Online next week, most of our colleagues don’t understand what we’re doing there. We talk a lot about talking about science, but when it comes down to it, we seem to be the only ones.

Yellowstone

I’ve started my second year of blogging for The Finch and Pea, and this year I’ll be focusing my science travel posts on places I have NOT been. The first one I wrote is about Yellowstone National Park, and the history of the discovery of Thermus aquaticus.

Brock took samples from springs at different temperatures, and found many more microbes than he originally thought possible. Some of them even lived at temperatures higher than 73°C, which was at the time thought to be the upper limit for life. One of the sites he studied was a spring in the Lower Geyser Basin, called Mushroom Spring. In October 1966, Brock isolated culture YT-1 of a new micro organism, from a sample he had collected in Mushroom Spring at a temperature of 73°C on September 5th. He initially called his new discovery Caldobacter trichogenes, but by the time the first article about the discovery was published, the name had already changed to Thermus aquaticus.

FandP

Read the rest at The Finch and Pea.

I’m one of eight bloggers on The Finch and Pea, and we cover all the fun sides of science. Travel, music, art, cooking… even LOLcats!

Follow the blog on Twitter or Facebook to keep up with everyone.

Owl’s lament

owlwatchAt 11 PM my iPhone buzzed with Bedtimebot’s first tweet of the night. It’s a Twitter bot created by a friend after I mused that there should be a bot that sends me to bed on time. Bedtimebot tweets at me every fifteen minutes between 11 PM and 1 AM, reminding me that the day has ended, but often I’m still awake well past the last reminder.

I’m an owl. I don’t properly wake up until after lunch, and my most creative ideas and bursts of energy come after dinner.

There is a genetic basis for owlish behaviour, which translates to some people being owls, like me. We can stay up late, but not get up early – even if we’ve gone to bed on time. Larks, on the other hand, get tired early at night, but are up with the sun all cheerful and ready to start the day. (Or so I gather. I have never been awake myself to observe it.) There are many different ways to identify whether you’re a lark or an owl.

Screen Shot 2014-01-13 at 00.09.03This owl was raised in a family of larks. When I was at university, I would often still spend the weekend at home. I’d wake up at about 9AM on Saturday morning in my parents house, and I’d hear nothing. The house would be entirely quiet, until suddenly the front door would open and my parents would walk in, talking loudly, dragging shopping bags to the kitchen, walking back and forth, calling me until I would come downstairs, and as I quietly sat at the breakfast table, still unable to converse in anything but hoarse grunts, my sister would come back from several hours of swimming practice. They had a whole life that I wasn’t part of: this crazy early Saturday morning swim-team-training and grocery-shopping life that happened entirely while I slept.

Missing out on mornings may not seem that important, but there are many other factors associated with the difference between owls and larks. Owls don’t wake up hungry, but are more likely to snack at night, which could cause health problems, and some negative character traits have also been correlated to owls. The most annoying problem for late-sleepers, though, is that the entire world seems to be run by people who have absolutely no trouble at all getting out of bed. No sensible owl would propose a 9-5 economy. 11-7 sounds much more reasonable.

I set my alarm to 7:15 every weekday. That sounds early enough to be at the office by 9:30, but in reality I often don’t get there until 9:45, because I don’t actually get out of bed when I should. It’s okay, I work more than enough hours, but it bothers me that I can’t just get up when the alarm goes off. I don’t think I ever get up before 8. I need a full 45 minutes to activate myself to a state where i can get out of bed.

Still, imagine all the things i could get done if i was out of bed by 6. I’d have a full three hours before I had to leave for work. I could write and clean and answer emails and read. It sounds so perfect. It’s so frustrating that some people can do this every day, without fail, and I can’t muster any activity past hugging cats and blankets and mumbling monosyllabic grunts before 8 or 9 in the morning.

I’ve optimistically set an extra alarm for 6 AM tomorrow, but I know I’ll just turn it off and fall back asleep.

Five Years Later

Today’s blog post by SciCurious, about being failed by the academic system, reminded me that it’s been five years since I left the lab! I defended my PhD in December 2008, and I haven’t missed the bench once. I, too, am one of the 80% of PhD graduates who won’t get a tenure track career – but in my case this was planned and deliberate. The system didn’t help, but I never really felt failed by it. In fact, I now optimistically believe that I may have helped change it a tiny bit.

I knew from the start of my PhD that I wouldn’t be doing research for the rest of my life, and had my mind set on different kinds of jobs. For a while I wanted to be a non-research university lecturer: someone who teaches undergraduates, but doesn’t have to deal with the stress and minute details of the lab. These jobs exist, but they’re sparse, and they only go to candidates with teaching experience, which I didn’t have enough of. They’re also badly paid. In Canada, around the time I finished my PhD, a sessional lecturer earned less than a graduate student. Still, I thought I could do that. I would just supplement my income with other jobs, like science writing. Anything but research.

My strange idea of what my perfect job would be like started to form in high school, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I really wanted to become an environmental scientist, and save the planet. In my imagination, though, I never did any research. I pictured myself giving talks and presentations about the research that I had done at some previous point in my fantasy future, but that period of doing research was never part of my imagination. I only pictured the aftermath: the writing, the talks, the teaching.

Once I was in university, I quickly realised that I didn’t like the labs that were associated with environmental science, but I enjoyed biochemistry lab work, with its yeast smells and agar plates. Even so, labs were never my favourite part of my degree. I loved lectures. I loved learning new things and trying to keep up with my professors’ fast-paced talks, and writing exams. I would love to teach like that. To make lesson plans and decide what students should know about a field of science, and to craft clever, difficult – yet solvable – exam questions. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that our professors also did other things besides lecturing us two or four hours a week, but I never gave that much thought. In my ever-faulty imagination, undergraduate lectures were the purpose of a professor’s life. After all, those were the only times I saw them.

My understanding of what academic researchers did was much more clear once I finished my MSc degree, but I still wanted to do a PhD. I thought I could change the system from within: I would simply become a professor who doesn’t do research. Someone who just teaches and reads and writes. And if that wasn’t possible, I would get another job that would let me teach or read or write about science, like a lecturer at a non-research institute, or editor, or writer. I started my PhD with my mind firmly set on what everyone else likes to call “alternative” careers.

By the time I finished my PhD, I knew that I was different, and that I was supposed to want to get a postdoc, and aim towards an academic research career. I just didn’t want that. I’m not good at research. (Trust me, I have references). I am good at all the other stuff: the jobs that researchers are supposed to do on the side, but don’t want to do. I want to do all of that. Let me teach your courses and write your papers and grants! I love going to conferences and sitting in seminars and hearing what everyone else is working on and how they ingeniously solved difficult problems. I will gladly stay up late making powerpoint slides. But I do not want to have to worry about finicky experiments, broken equipment and flaky results. In other words, a postdoc was the last thing I wanted.

I spent the first six months post-PhD working a contract job for the Human Biology department at UofT. Among other things, I taught myself Drupal and built their website. They’re still using it today. Then I interviewed for some science communication jobs and did some freelance work. Pro-tip: don’t try to live off freelancing when the global economy has just spectacularly collapsed, especially not if your key specialty is writing about science and culture. Strangely, in times of economic crisis people have little interest in paying for insightful columns about science television or reviews about biology-themed theatre.

While I was living off what I could scrape together, I still didn’t consider a postdoc. That was my last resort.  Eventually, after a few more job applications and interviews, I found a job as Community Manager for a publishing company. I set up and managed the Node for three years, and learned a lot about academic publishing along the way. For the past ten months I’ve been Outreach Director for F1000Research, and as part of my job I read papers, I regularly give talks at universities, and I go to conferences. I meet with academics in all career stages, and I stay up to date on what’s relevant to scientists. The only thing I would like to do more of is writing, but I do that in my spare time. It’s all the things I love about science, without having to do research!

When I was still in grad school, my fellow students and I were extensively prepped for a career as an academic researcher. In the mean time, however, the department introduced a mandatory course for all graduate students that prepares them for a range of careers – not just research. It was covered in Science Careers a few months ago, and I couldn’t be prouder of them! The reason they introduced this was obvious: Not all of their graduates were going to be academics. Seeing me and many of their other graduates succeed in non-research careers inspired them to prepare their current students for a realistic job market, rather than only showing one possible future job.

I realise this is not a trend that is yet being followed by other departments and institutes. Many graduate students are still being made to believe that there is One True Job, even though only a minority of them will get such a job.

One of the other things I’ve been doing since I graduated is being an advocate for ALL careers, and reminding graduate students and postdocs that their supervisor’s job is not the only possible career path, and not necessarily the one to fixate on. I gave the keynote talk “You’re All Different: Creating Your Own Career” at the Naturejobs Career Expo in September, and next month, I’m moderating the “alternative” careers session at Science Online (quotation marks mine). I expect a lively discussion there and I already know that an hour will not be long enough, so let’s make a head start: The hashtag is #scioAlt and you can start using that now to share your thoughts on Twitter. Let’s see what we can do together to make sure that incoming graduate students can make positive career choices early on, and not have to wait until they feel that they’re being failed by the existing system.

Earworms

I’ve preloaded the MusiSci blog with a bunch of posts for the coming week. They’re mostly reblogs from elsewhere on Tumblr: I’m getting a lot of mileage out of Tumblr’s new feature where you can search for TWO tags at once to find the science/music overlap.

I also wrote an original post, about earworms, inspired by a song that has been in my head for over a week now. What makes songs sticky, and what are the situations that promote getting earworms? Read my post here. (Also in the sidebar at the moment, but it will be pushed down soon).

Finally, the MusiSci Twitter account modestly passed 200 followers a while ago. I use it fairly regularly for science/music tweets and retweets, and to notify when a new post goes on the Tumblr, so please follow it if you don’t already do so.

Month in Media – December 2013

DONE. I was going to keep track of my media consumption for a year. It didn’t turn out quite like I planned. I intended to note every single YouTube video I watched and blog post I read, but that turned out to be impossible. Even so, I know I’ve spent hours passively watching things and not spending that time creating, and I’m going to try to change that.

Here’s the last month:

Books:

Science Tales – Comics about debunking various misconceptions about science. Nothing I didn’t already know, although I picked up some new arguments.


The Geek Manifesto: Why science matters – I’ve had this book for a while and hadn’t yet read it cover to cover because I assumed it was more political than it actually was. Sorry. It was actually much more about science in society in a very broad sense. Some good discussion about how weird it is that in the UK (at least most of it) students only do 3 A-levels, which means that those that don’t intend for a career in science drop it at a very early age. Other countries require more different subjects in the final year so there are more people who studied biology or chemistry or math(s) until they were at least 18.

Both books above were personalised autographed copies that I had lying around the house and never got around to until now. I’m the worst.

I also read De Troost van een Warm Visje – a collection of Dutch columns by Sylvia Witteman. It made me laugh in public in the bus, so I’m glad I finished it while still in Holland, so my fellow passengers could see (and understand) what was so funny.

On that note, I think I’m getting myself a Kindle for my upcoming birthday in a few weeks. Despite the lack of tangible book, it would make it easier to read standing up on the tube. I often have a book in my bag that is just to cumbersome to read when I’m squashed between the door and someone’s armpit, but I’ve seen other commuters maneuver Kindles that way with little problem. Should I get regular or Paperwhite?

YouTube:
I spent less time here than usual, I think, but I did play the DWFO video about a million times. I’m in there 3 times, at 2:58, 3:13, and 7:26.

Also, Molly Lewis is back on YouTube! She’s the girl who sang that hilarious song about Stephen Fry a few years ago. You can now also sign up on Patreon to support her songs.

TV (TV and elsewhere)
I watched a lot of Parks and Recreation, and am now all caught up with that. Here’s a new classic scene about The Cones of Dunshire (not embeddable).

I also watched TV in Holland. There’s a thing that’s done in Dutch lessons in school, where a text is read out loud and you have to write it down. It didn’t happen in the few years I spent at an American school and I’ve never seen it referenced in pop culture and Wikipedia says it’s country-specific, so this is probably hard to understand. Anyway, each year there’s a national version on Dutch TV, and you can play along at home. I forgot lots of spelling rules, but I did great at the grammar part, which was new this year, and ended up with more than the average number of mistakes among the preselected group of great spellers, but fewer mistakes than the group of famous people they got to play along.

Then my parents have been watching a daily quiz show that I’ve been successfuly playing along with at home. It includes a puzzle segment that’s sort of similar to the wall in Only Connect.

Films (in cinema and elsewhere)
The Hunger Games – Catching Fire was my favourite book of the series, and the film did not disappoint! The arena looked exactly like I imagined, and the casting of the new characters was great. The previews didn’t really show/spoil the arena, so I had been nervous about this one, but it was perfect.

While baking Christmas cookies, I watched Becoming Santa, a documentary about a man who decides to become a mall santa for a year. There were some striking similarities with Brett’s mall santa story (which is required holiday reading), and also with David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries.

I also watched Love, Actually while wrapping presents. It’s an annual tradition, and frankly amazing that my presents never end up looking like this.

Epic Doctor Who Fan Orchestra video

The latest Doctor Who fan orchestra video is up, with video and audio segments recorded by individual musicians around the world, and it’s even more epic than usual.

If you want, you can try to spot me (playing violin in front of a “Victory” poster), but here are lots of other things in the video that are much more interesting. Can you find them all?

  • The interior of the actual Tardis set
  • A Dalek playing flute
  • Two violinists handing each other sheet music across different scenes
  • Ben Foster playing synth
  • A clarinettist playing “Westminster Bridge” on Westminster Bridge
  • A man dressed as Amy Pond
  • A large number of Tardis props and Doctor Who posters (how many?)
  • The Fourth Doctor snacking on what I assume are Jelly Babies
  • One of the soloists singing from the Proms programme booklet
  • A theremin
  • A church organ
  • The Empty Child
  • Several people wearing 3D-glasses (from the Army of Ghosts episode)
  • Fezes, including a fez that is a also a Dalek
  • Footage from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

What else did you spot?

All of the arrangements for the Doctor Who Fan Orchestra and the audio/video editing were done by Stephen Willis.